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Patty Chase Was The Secret Heart Of My So-Called Life

Angela was the protagonist of the cult teen drama, but you can't truly get this show without understanding her relationship to her mom.
  • Family Matters: Claire Danes and Bess Armstrong in My So-Called Life (ABC)
    Family Matters: Claire Danes and Bess Armstrong in My So-Called Life (ABC)

    25 years ago this week, ABC premiered the teen drama My So-Called Life. Critically acclaimed for its sensitive and insightful portrayals of teenage characters — all stammering dialogue and deeply felt emotions — and top-notch acting by star Claire Danes, but without the easy hooks of cops, criminals, or doctors, the network didn't seem to know what to do with this show, and after a year of struggling to attract a bigger audience, it was canceled. Ever since, it's been at the top of nearly every discussion of gone-too-soon TV shows and '90s nostalgia. To commemorate the show's 25th anniversary, we're going straight for the heart, where Angela Chase's teenage angst always found her most formidable opponent: her mother, Patty (Bess Armstrong).

    While it may seem counterintuitive that the secret heart of a teen-angst show — probably the teen angst show of its era — would be the mom, a look at three crucial episodes from the show's lone season offer some perspective:

    • "So-Called Angels": The Christmas episode where Patty finds Rickie (Wilson Cruz) living on the streets after getting kicked out of his home for being gay and later encounters a mysterious teen girl who ends up being an angel.
    • "Weekend": Patty and Graham (Tom Irwin) go out of town for the weekend, amid Graham's increasingly dangerous professional and personal relationship with Hallie Lowenthal.
    • "Other People's Mothers": While having to put up with her own mother's party-planning encroachment, Patty experiences Angela's infatuation with Rayanne's cool (permissive) mom, and then has to bail the kids out when Rayanne ODs.

    Sarah D. Bunting: When I look back at how I felt about My So-Called Life when it was on — and I felt all of the things, a lot, so hard that I got a CompuServe account, joined a listserv, and drove my entire household nuts hogging the phone line to participate in it — I have to say, not a whole lot has changed. I still love (and don't love) the same episodes, I still think Sharon Cherski (Devon Odessa) is a criminally underrated character, and I still agree that Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) leans great. The only thing that's shifted for me is that, 25 years ago, I only occasionally related to Patty, and certainly not in Patty's disagreements with Angela (Claire Danes). Today, Patty is probably my favorite character. We can talk a little later about how Graham's star has fallen in relation to Patty's rising for me (spoiler: he's a trifler), but John, have you had the same experience with the show? Or did you always stan Patty?

    John Ramos: In the pre-DVR age, I only saw a few episodes of My So-Called Life as they aired. I can't remember how soon it was after the cancellation outcry that MTV re-aired the episodes, but one way or another I got hooked pretty soon after. I always loved Sharon as well — "I would REALLY like to know what I did" and "Duh squared" are still lines I can hear in my head, and her Christmas storyline with Rayanne (AJ Langer) always warms my heart — but as a twenty-something, I identified way more with Angela than with Patty. But now it's Patty all the way. And while I have my favorite lines of hers as well — "We don't hear much, we live in the back" and the positively withering "Was that on a tarot card?" come immediately to mind — there's something about how she's this sometimes uncomprehending, occasionally frustrating, but ultimately always nurturing and loving nexus for just about all the other characters on the show that both makes her my favorite and kiiind of sometimes makes me think Angela doesn't deserve her. ...I think I just stumbled into arguing that Patty's the stealth central character. Sarah, have I gone too far?

    SDB: Some of Angela's commentary early in the series could have come from a documentary about me and my own mom, so I also felt seen by Angela's voice-over back in the day. But that character sort of remains static for me: I get her teen-ness and I have compassion for it, but I don't find anything new in it. And I was already considering announcing that Patty is the true heart of the show to see how much pushback I would get from you, so you haven't gone too far with me... but I shrug that I "live in the back" on a daily basis and am also a hardcore "So-Called Angels" defender. Yes, the whole angel-as-played-by-Julianna Hatfield conceit is a soggy mess, and yes, we're being manipulated from the start of that final sequence at the church to the end. But I for one am manipulated successfully (to this day, just typing about this to you is making my arm hairs stand up!), and I don't think it's a coincidence that it's Patty who realizes what Julianna is, and asks how she died. Nor do I think it's necessarily a bad thing that Julianna can't match Bess Armstrong's intensity in the scene, because it's pitched high enough as it is. Certainly it's not a coincidence that it's Patty's embrace Rickie (Wilson Cruz) falls into, because it's what he and we need: warmth and nurturing, like you mentioned, but also staunch protection. ...Wow, it just got dusty in here. Anyway, I think Patty is all the more appealing because she's not perfect, but she's fiercely committed to her tribe and relatably snarky.

    JR: Yes — "So-Called Angels." It's messy and Very Special in a lot of places, but Patty's journey throughout it is worth the ride. Her "SPIT IT OUT!" after her panic-into-action is blocked by Brian (Devon Gummersall) on the porch is another evergreen moment for me. And I agree with you: Hatfield is actually a weirdly functional choice, stunt casting though she is, because the focus of the scene is Patty's desperate epiphany, so putting her opposite a particularly tuneful ice-cream cone only serves to make her performance even more impressive.

    To pivot to another example of her flawed relatability, let's talk about another much-maligned episode, "Weekend." Pleasure contrivances aside, it's tough to see Patty not be more direct with Graham about how cavalierly he treats her time and sensitivities. But then again, should she have to? As someone who's generally dependable and not always the best at advocating for myself, I can understand her resentment at feeling like Graham isn't attentive to her, even leaving the Hallie-ness of the whole thing out of it. It's frustrating, and something I've worked on changing in myself, but I feel her, hard. But she also has so many great moments: ten full minutes of "Is this bullshit for real" faces regarding Graham, Cheryl (Laura Innes), and Neil (Danton Stone), her delighted Lucille-Bluth-seeing-Gene-Parmesan squeals upon viewing the handcuffs, and the closet talk with Camille (Mary Kay Place) — and not for nothing, but anyone who's landed Camille as a best friend has to have a lot to recommend her, right?

    SDB: Not least because Camille, "in my humble opinion," sees Graham as the trifler he is, although she would never say it in so many words, and "Weekend" does point that out, in just the ways you note — that he's the one who "gets to" go into town and get stoned while Patty is eating the B&B's supply of display chocolates, and trying to win the proprietor's approval with wrapper origami (her "I made a swan!" contains such sad multitudes). That he's still the good cop to Patty's bad, despite Angela suspecting he's not everything a girl hopes about her daddy, because he's the fun parent who won't put a foot down. (Another Patty line I cite on the reg is her admonishment to her husband to grow up and "pick a side.") And I saw myself in Patty even back then, the compulsive schedule-maker and rule-follower whose letting herself off the hook for holding everything together with Dr. Allen's Ginger-Flavored Brandy seemed all too familiar.

    I know other super-fans of the show view "Weekend" as a silly waste of time that fails to move the ball vis-a-vis Angela and Jordan/Brian, but I don't think that's entirely true in the first place, and in the second place, My So-Called Life was one of the few shows back then that successfully held storylines aloft for both teen protagonists and the adults in their lives. Sure, I was dying to know who Angela had chosen in that interim when we thought it might still get renewed (although in my heart I already knew, because I had been 15 not that long before), but I was also dying to know how it shook out with Patty and Graham. Although in my heart I know that, too, I think. What's your take on how that marriage looked in a second season?

    JR: I'd love to think that Patty would have dumped Graham if he kept up his trifling ways, I really would, but I don't think she would have gotten there without a lot more narrative real estate to work with. And that's not because she couldn't survive on her own or that she couldn't do better, it's just that she's a caretaker, and again — I'm identifying with her way more than I even realized — such people tend to put their own needs last. Add to that her abandonment issues from being adopted, and I don't think she's rushing to divorce even if an affair with "that Hallie Lowenthal person" (Lisa Waltz) actually happens.

    And yes, bringing up her adoption is my not-so-subtle way of bringing things around to what you know is my favorite episode, "Other People's Mothers." There's an awful lot to discuss here, and I'm tempted to kick off by asking for your high-level thoughts, but one thing I will note right up top is how the episode's structure really captures that initial feeling of meeting your friend's cool parent, that one with whom there are no expectations and no disappointments — until there are.

    SDB: I agree with you that Patty and Graham's marriage limps along a while longer, if only because Patty was boxing herself in with the Cool Girl concept before we even had a phrase for that — especially in comparison to Rayanne's mother, Amber, who is flawlessly written (and rendered by Patti D'Arbanville) to appeal to Angela, and us, with her friend-mom permissiveness and enthusiasm for Angela just as she is. What creator Winnie Holzman et al. are so smart about in "Other People's Mothers" is letting Angela (and us, again) come on her own to the idea that neither half of the friend-mom is quite what's needed. We've seen Angela returning to Patty's literal and metaphorical bosom when she's destabilized by the outside world, starting in the pilot — that scene's in the credits for a reason — and in "Other People's Mothers," we also see the instinctive taking of the helm reflecting up three generations. Rickie's freaking out, saying he doesn't know what to do. Angela does, and immediately calls Patty, and Patty does too, and nods to her mother, Vivian (Barbara Bain), to take over at Turkey Curry-chella.

    And that alone would have a heft, but then to find out during that conversation in the car that Patty had, and lost, her own Rayanne, a loss she lets Angela benefit from knowing about but doesn't burden her with seeing the tears that follow...this is a woman forged in the same real fires as the rest of us.

    JR: First, as an aside, have you checked out Patti D'Arbanville's Wikipedia page? It is wild (using that word pointedly).

    That moment you mention where Patty gets off the phone and starts to explain what's happening, and Vivian just tells her to go, with a depth of understanding we haven't seen from her before, always gets me, it cuts through their heretofore oil-and-water relationship to reveal a consciousness of kind that's especially appealing given the adoption revelation, and is illustrative of how complex mother-daughter relationships can be. And the "except...she died" is brilliantly underplayed, even at this moment Patty is putting her own feelings on hold to make Angela the priority, and the result is this delayed shock for us sniffling away at home. (It IS getting dusty in here! Gonna have to think about the bracing delivery of "And I bet the karma at Amber's house is through the damn roof!" to clear things up.)

    Beyond the Patty character development, I think another triumph of this episode is the way it points Angela's voice-overs at Patty and allows Angela, as you suggested, to go on a journey of discovery about her mother. While she still sees her as flawed — her comment about Patty's outward projection of happiness is uncomfortably correct — she's already revising her opinion of Amber's parenting before the shit with Rayanne really hits the fan, and because of that you sense that Angela's view of Patty is going to be changed beyond the confines of this episode. Would you agree that this is one of the better Angela episodes as well?

    SDB: I would, because it lets Angela be the imperfect, in-process person she is, but also have a win of sorts, if that makes sense. So much of My So-Called Life and Angela's journey is about disappointments and tough lessons learned, about her parents' limitations, about the lifespan of friendships, about how shitty the world is at valuing girls correctly, and this isn't a complaint, because that's why it resonates — but here, Angela gets to come to an understanding, help save the day, and not have to sit with someone else letting her down. Her relationship with Patty turns a corner here as well, there's still friction, but it's not as fraught. There's a mutual understanding there...that they're alike in a lot of ways, and that that's something Angela should embrace instead of rejecting. I wish we'd gotten to see how each of their orbits affected the other's as Angela became sexually active, started to think about college, et cetera and so on. Alas, we only have these episodes — and in the ones we have, I'm not sure if the real relationship arc isn't Angela's and Patty's. At least, that's what I've taken from this discussion.

    That, and always keep an extra brick of cheddar around, in case.

    JR: Don’t forget the oregano. You can’t go wrong with oregano.

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    TOPICS: My So-Called Life, ABC, Bess Armstrong, Claire Danes