by Katharine Elizabeth Monahan Huntley
|Forget academics. When it comes to high school, the rule is to be cool. For main characters Angela in the My So Called Life episode “Self-Esteem” written by Winnie Holzman and directed by Michael Engler, and Xander, in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Zeppo” written by Dan Vebber and directed by James Whitmore Jr., image is of utmost concern.|
Both episodes of the critically acclaimed television dramas are Dramatica grand argument stories. Each emphasizes the thematic conflict of worth vs. value. In My So-Called Life, feelings of self-worth are explored in the overall story domain of fixed attitudes (mind)-and are directly related to the problem of expectations-high and low. For example, Renee Lerner, the high school math teacher calls out in the hallway:
Angela Chase! Why weren’t you in geometry review?
Angela, you need this. . . . How do you expect (overall story problem) to pass your midterm? [To other teacher] It breaks my heart, some of these girls. They are just so smart and yet . . .
It’s called low self-esteem.
The thematic issue of worth is carried on when Rayanne and Sharon express disapproval of Angela and Jordan’s (impact character) relationship-one that is confined to kissing in the boiler room:
Why is he keeping you two a secret?
How do you know he’s keeping us a secret?
Rayanne told me.
Look . . . we care about you. When I was drinking and drugging, you wanted me to stop (main character growth), as my friend.
Wait. You’re comparing me making out with Jordan Catalano to you getting your stomach pumped?
You don’t see the connection?
The connection is self-respect. . . . You deserve, like, so much better.
Just because he’s not Kyle and he doesn’t parade with me down the halls holding hands.
In an effort to save face, Angela brazenly lies to her friends, telling them Jordan has asked her to meet him at a music club. Rayanne and Sharon force the issue by accompanying Angela to the Pike Street club. Angela is humiliated when Jordan blatantly ignores her-compelling Rayanne to confront the beautiful, brooding boyfriend:
You know you like her. Would it kill you to admit it? Maybe treat her halfway decent? Because, you know, she deserves it. And she’s not going to wait around for you forever (main vs. impact direction-unending).
Two objective character subplots offer thematic parallels. In one, Angela’s father, Graham, is undergoing a career crisis. Determined (overall story solution) to do what he loves and excels in, instead of what is expected (overall story problem), is behavior Graham’s father-in-law, Chuck Wood, finds indulgent:
Where’s Mr. Fixit tonight?
He’s taking a [cooking] class.
He ought to be pulling his weight. . . . [You should] get one of those . . . headhunter[s]. That’s what you need. Somebody to get him a job . . . [so he can] stop sponging off his wife.
Dad, this is between me and Graham. Okay, please? You don’t know all the particulars.
I’m your father. That’s the particulars. And you deserve better.
Graham’s renowned culinary teacher turns out to be drunken disappointment, prompting a classmate to comment: “We deserve better. I mean, don’t we?”
Much to his and Patty’s surprise (overall story problem-expectations), Graham later informs her: “They want me to teach the class.”
In another subplot, the new English teacher attempts to convince a student to sign up for the drama club:
Why are you doing this? This is not something I am gonna do. I’m not the sort of person who joins things, okay?
I’m really sorry, but no, that’s not okay. . . . Well, I mean, come on, I’m a teacher. How do you expect (overall story problem) me to react to a ridiculous statement like that-you don’t join things? Who are you, Groucho Marx-you’d never belong to any club that would have you as a member? . . . Look, what is holding you back here? That I’m not cool enough? Don’t let the fact that your English teacher is a dork stop you from fulfilling your potential. Just pretend-that I’m a track coach. I happen to notice that you can run fast. I need you on my team (overall story problem-expectation)! It’s as simple as that, Enrique.
Stop calling me that! Why are you calling me that?
I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I keep forgetting. It’s just, it’s just-gee whiz, it’s such a great name. When I was in high school, I hated my name. I hated it.
I don’t-hate my name, I-I just . . .
Oh, oh good. I’m really glad. No-nobody should hate who they are.
After “being made a fool of by the only person I’ll ever love” (main vs. impact thematic issue-fantasy), Angela surreptitiously meets Jordan one last time:
The truly frightening thing, is that even after everything that happened, Jordan Catalano left a note in my locker to meet him in the boiler room. The nauseating part is that I went.
She demands he admit: “That all of this happened (main vs. impact thematic counterpoint-fact). That you have emotions. That you can’t, like, treat me one way in front of your friends then the next minute leave me some note.”
Success (outcome) is illustrated when Jordan, in front of everyone, asks Angela “Can we, like, go somewhere?” (impact character resolve-change) and her immediate response (story goal-preconscious) is “Sure.” With all eyes upon them-they parade down the hall, holding hands (main character judgment-good).
For Xander in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the real horror show in high school is not necessarily Sunnydale’s proximity to the Hellmouth (overall story domain-universe) and the always impending end (overall story focus) of the world, but combating the role (main character concern-being) of the “boy who has no cool.”
It must be really hard when all your friends have, like, superpowers (impact character thematic conflict-experience vs. skill). Slayer, werewolf, witches, vampires, and you’re like this little nothing (main character thematic counterpoint-ability).
. . . I happen to be an integral part of that group (impact character). I happen to have a lot to offer (main vs. impact thematic conflict-worth vs. value).
. . . Oh, please.
Xander obsesses (main character domain-psychology) over his “lack (main character growth-start) of cool,” and sets out to discover what will make him unique (mc thematic issue-desire). In the midst of apocalyptic evil (overall story thematic counterpoint-fact), Xander is only allowed to run inconsequential errandsleaving idle time that allows for running with the wrong crowd-like becoming (main character journey 2) the wheel man for zombies.
At story’s end, Xander comes to realization (main character resolve-change) that cool is not about show and tell-but quiet grace (main character judgment-good) under unexpected (main vs. impact-solution) pressure.