My So-Called Life only lasted one season on ABC during the 1994-1995 season. But for a considerable number of folks in my peer group, the critical darling was a huge part of our adolescence, televisual fandom, and nascent feminism.
I never really identified with protagonist Angela Chase (Claire Danes), as she was prone to bouts of maudlin narcissism. I related more to type-A childhood friend Sharon Cherski (Devon Odessa), particularly her struggle to balance advanced course work with a myriad of extra-curricular activities. I also enjoyed Cherski’s developing friendship with Deadhead Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer), who Chase abandons Cherski for early in the series’ season-long run. Like Cherski, I wasn’t sure what to make of Graff the first few times I watched the show during its initial run on ABC and when MTV re-ran it a few years later. Graff’s self-destructive tendencies were frightening, but her creative potential always had me rooting for her.
During grad school, I also became aware of how Graff could be queered. A professor of mine made this assertion during a seminar and the more I thought about it, the more the idea resonated. Graff’s manner of dress is quite loud and colorful, suggesting an excess and cheapness often associated with camp and white trash aesthetics championed by queer icons like director John Waters. Her closest friendship is with gay teen Ricky Vasquez (poignantly rendered by the underused Wilson Cruz). She has something of a queer relationship with her mother Amber Vallone (Patti D’Arbanville), commenting on the firmness of her breasts and interacting in a manner less defined by the roles and generational boundaries that Angela has with her mother Patty (Bess Armstrong).
It’s also pretty clear that, like geeky Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall), Graff has feelings for Chase. Vallone states this verbatim to Patty after they meet at a parent-teacher conference during “Guns and Gossip.” Vasquez also informs Chase of this in the episode “Betrayal” after Graff has sex with her crush Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) after Chase claims to be over him. Vasquez reasons that the tryst was a way to be her friend, though I think a case could be made that Graff used Catalano to be with Chase. Graff also uses her admiration of Chase in her audition for the school production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. She gets the leading role of Emily Webb, but by the end of the series she hasn’t won back the girl.
I was always happy that Graff was cast in the play. Her antics usually obscured her artistic inclinations, so I liked that she found a creative outlet in drama toward the end of the show’s run. Importantly, she was also battling alcohol addiction and it seemed like theater could be a way to channel her energy into something positive.
This was something she tried to do in “On the Wagon.” In the episode, she briefly joins Catalano’s band Frozen Embryos, who lost their lead singer right before a gig at a local coffeehouse. This was her way of insinuating herself back into Chase’s life following a nasty case of alcohol poisoning on her birthday during the episode “Other People’s Mothers.” But being in a band seems like a natural fit for Graff. Apart from her ability to be the center of attention, Langer possesses a nice set of pipes. It’s made clear who she got them from in one scene when Vallone is helping Graff get ready for her first gig and mother and daughter sing The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.”
Unfortunately, Graff gets a debilitating case of stage fright and bails, leaving Catalano to step up and play the hero.
This is especially troubling as Frozen Embryos are comprised of a group of guys who clearly don’t know what to do with a girl in the band. What’s more, the episode ends with Graff, who had been sober for over a month, falling off the wagon.
Had the show continued, I’d like to think she would’ve gotten another chance to grab the mic.