Tuning In: Rayanne Graff, Frozen Embryos' lead singer

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.

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Comments

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I agree of the idea of the

I agree of the idea of the "queering" of Rayanne Graff. She was the first fierce female voice that I had a crush on. It was though her portyal that I understood that liking women is different from wanting to be like women.

swooooon

I was in middle school when the show aired and used to sit and watch it, while on the phone, with my then-best friend. We wouldn't speak while it was actually on but we stayed on the phone to gasp and shriek together—and probably because we'd decided it would take too long to call each other every time a commercial break came on.

I bought the MSCL DVDs the moment they came out and since got my partner hooked, who never saw the show on TV b/c he grew up in Europe. He was a bit skeptical but I guess since he's married to someone as sentimental as me, he was hooked pretty quickly. I'm still really taken with all of the great music the show used, and I always get really excited when anyone from the show is on TV now, like if Graham the dad has a cameo on a cop show. One love for My So-Called Life!!

Frozen Embryos were in

Frozen Embryos were in between names at the time Rayanne sang with them since former frontperson Tino had initially come up with the name. They later settled on Residue (as Catalano informs Chase in a pathetic attempt to get her to talk to him after the whole sleeping with Rayanne thing). Gosh, I love this show! Way to queer Graff!

Frozen Embryos were in

That's true, Corey (tip of the cap to the MSCL reference). That's even made clear in one of the clips I embedded (the host at the coffeehouse calls them "Between Names"). I identified them as their old name because it was easier to use and because Rayanne breaks the news to her friends that Frozen Embryos need a new lead singer.

Also, isn't Residue the perfect 90s alternative rock band name? Too bad the show didn't get a second season.

Alyx Vesey

I live in Denmark, always

I live in Denmark, always have, and the show was huge here! And I remember the UK also loving it, so at least some of Europe had the fortune of seeing MSCL back in the day.
It premiered in the fall of 95, I was 17 and for the first time ever, I could actually identify with someone from an American tv-show. I WAS Angela Chase. Or at least that's how I felt. And it was always clear to me, that Rayanne did or would do anything for Angela, and I think the 'queering' of Rayanne is very interesting. She may have had sex and made out with a lot of boys, but she saved her feelings for Angela.
Fantastic post, thank you! I still cannot believe they cancelled that show, 15 years later! Wouldn't a reunion be fabulous? This is the one case, where it would make so much sense to get everyone together again and continue the story. Here's hoping ...

Rayanne's assumed "promiscuity"

I suspect that Rayanne did not actually have sex with as many guys as people assumed. It doesn't take much, after all, to earn a "slut" reputation in high school, and I think Rayanne took the label and didn't discourage it because it gave her an identity in the eyes of her peers. During the year the show covers, I remember her kissing three guys and sleeping with one, and more may have happened, but perhaps not.

Great piece!

I also loved Sharon and Rayanne, and Wilson Cruz is always a treat. I especially appreciated the way in which Sharon was a classic academic overachiever, yet was also sexually active. Huzzah for stereotype-bustin' girls on TV! Brian Krakow was my only problem with the show, because everyone, including the writers, act like he's a saint since he's unpopular. Really, I found him to be kind of a douchebag and Nice Guy TM.
Good call with the queering of Rayanne and Angela; I absolutely agree. I have rarely seen platonic friends exchange so many kisses, and their relationship is arguably the driving force of the show.

Great piece!

Thanks for reading, TheBadassMuppet. You've commented a few times and I always enjoy reading what you have to say.

Also, I second your read on Sharon's sexual activity and how it busted stereotypes about teenage girl sexuality (i.e., smart girls want it too, smart girls don't have to be in love to want it).

As for Brian, I tend to agree that he's a Nice Guy TM. Although I do love "Life of Brian" because we get a clearer sense of how conflicted a character he is. Still would've loved a "Life of Ricky" episode though.

Alyx Vesey

Brian & Rayanne

Thanks for posting about Rayanne, a great character from a great show!
I think Brian was great character,more than just a typical "nice guy". Yes, he could be an asshole sometimes, but so could Angela,Rayanne,Jordan,etc. And "Life of Brian" was one of the best episodes. If was a total "douchebag", he would've ratted out Rickie instead of giving in to the Principal's intimidation(in 'Guns And Gossip').
We saw some growth from Brian too over the course of the season, maybe the writers wanted to show how getting to be friends with like Rickie Vasquez was opening him up to new types of people.
But back to Rayanne(topic of this post!):
I love the scenes featuring him & Rayanne(especially the Halloween episode). Krakow acts like he can't stand her, but the way he acts, you can tell he's fascinated by her personality,her looks and her "I don't give a shit what people think of me" attitude(at least that's how I read them).
Watch this scene here,I love the way Brian starts out embarrassed by Rayanne's teasing about the keys, but he ends up smiling by over it by the end of the scene.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RLZwnM54Dc
And this scene is great too,Rayanne shows some vulnerability in front of Brian, but then turns around and tries to make a joke about it:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZl64LQM4SQ&NR=1

Perhaps if the show had continued, we would have seen Brian and Rayanne become friends, the way Graff and Sharon became closer in the final episodes. Such great,complex characters, they only had 19 episodes and we're still analyzing them!

Brian & Rayanne

Yes, JasonM. Very glad you brought up Brian's friendship with Ricky and how he stuck up for him in "Guns and Gossip." I can sometimes be hard on Brian for perhaps the same reasons Angela is hard on him in the series (ugh, nerdy boyman, you can't say what's on your mind!). That said, I thought his integration into the show were very interesting and I love "Life of Brian." I also like that Ricky's and Brian's friendship largely resides in being outcasts, but also involves them trying to understand each other. They are two very different kinds of male outcasts, yet they can still be friends.

Brian's interactions with Rayanne were interesting, though some made me uncomfortable. Rayanne gives him a little pseudo-phone sex when he calls the hotline Rayanne works with Sharon on "So-Called Angels." And he tapes some of Rayanne's rendez-vous with Jordan in "Betrayal." But I love the characters' chemistry in the Halloween episode and think you're right in drawing comparisons between their friendship and Rayanne's friendship with Sharon.

Alyx Vesey

i love this post. yay 90s

i love this post. yay 90s renaissance!!

I've always loved this show,

I've always loved this show, and loved watching it again when NBC I think showed it a year or two ago. Awesome because of the adult story lines, which I didn't appreciate the first time. Very interesting to look at this show and the gender performances (in my relationship, I tend to act like Rayanne to my partner's Angela!) Did it really have only one season? Unbelievable how much they accomplished in such a short time!

I've always loved this show,

Very interesting about gender performance in relationships. Thanks for your comments, and continued success in playing Rayanne to your partner's Angela. ;)

The show did a good job with the adult characters, making them just as complex and flawed as the teens and connecting them across generations in some very surprising ways. And the older I get, the more I like Patty. I was 11 when the show first aired and found her very grating at the time. Now I see an adult woman who is trying to run a print shop, keep her marriage together, and raise her daughters in an unstable world.

Alyx Vesey

Oh, nostalgia...

The show was broadcast on German TV when I was 17, I think - Sundays, 5pm, and on Monday all the boys would roll their eyes because most of the girls were squeeing about the episode... and Jared Leto. *g*

It will never not bum me out that they didn't get a second season - I loved how three-dimensional all of the characters were, and it's so interesting to watch it again and see how one's perspective has changed/evolved. Actually, the DVD box was the first TV series I ever bought - had to order it from Canada, if I remember correctly. Right now it's with a friend, but I think I'll have to ask for it back. It's time for another re-watch! :)