DVD set shows consistent excellence of 'My So-Called Life'

by Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

18 July 2008


Ten reasons why “My So-Called Life” is one of the 10 best TV series ever:

1. No other show has so artfully and honestly captured the angst and innocence of adolescence.

2. At age 15, Claire Danes gave a Golden Globe-winning performance that puts most adult actors to shame. As Every Girl Angela Chase she played two or three emotions simultaneously, often without dialogue. And IT NEVER SEEMS LIKE ACTING.

3. The supporting cast was perfect: Wilson Cruz as Angela’s gay pal Rickie, A.J. Langer as smart-mouthed party animal Rayanne, Devon Gummersall as the dweeb next door (who worships Angela but can never say so). And then there’s Jared Leto as the brooding, inarticulate, drop-dead gorgeous Jordan Catalano, whom Angela would love to love if only he didn’t behave like a teenage boy.

4. In Angela’s parents the series had one of the most believable depictions of marriage ever. It’s so uncompromising that you wince and wonder if Graham and Patty (Tom Irwin, Bess Armstrong) will remain a couple.

5. “Life” was way ahead of its time in depicting homosexuality on prime-time TV. Not only was Rickie in every episode, but late in the series the homeless teen was taken in by a gay teacher and his lover. This was four years before “Will & Grace.”

6. Despite being about teens, the series was virtually cheese-free and so realistic it makes “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Dawson’s Creek” look like science fiction.

7. The show was canceled after just one 19-episode season in 1994-95. Thus it never suffered a sophomore slump or mutated into “My So-Called Life: The College Years.” Like James Dean, the show is forever young and beautiful.

8. Its influence far outweighs its single season on the air. Ask any 30-year-old woman to discuss her Jordan Catalano. Then try to get her to stop talking.

9. Though it’s nearly 15 years old, the series hasn’t aged. The kids use pay phones instead of cell phones, but that’s about it.

10. At least twice in every episode, “My So-Called Life” breaks your heart.

There are other reasons, but these came immediately to mind after devoting the better part of a week to watching the “My So-Called Life” boxed set (suggested retail price: $69.99) that had been sitting next to my TV for several months. Good thing we didn’t start watching until I was on vacation ... this show can take over your life.

I’d watched the series when it played on ABC in the mid-‘90s, and I recalled it being good. But I wasn’t prepared for the consistent level of excellence in the writing, directing and acting. And I’d forgotten just how incredibly dark and unsentimental “Life” was. Good thing it’s also ribald and hilarious.

(OK, there are two episodes I’m cool to - a Halloween fantasy episode and the sitcommy “The Weekend” in which the parents go off to a B&B, leaving Angela and friends at home.)

This new package comes with all 19 episodes on five discs (looking very good ... there were complaints that the digital transfers of earlier DVDs were sub-par), a fancy booklet with essays by series creator Winnie Holzman, actress/fan Janeane Garofalo and “Buffy” guru Joss Whedon, and a sixth disc of extras.

Among the new perks are a doc about the making of the show (mostly talking heads, no on-set footage) and where-are-they-now interviews with cast members as they reflect on the series’ legacy.

About half the episodes feature commentaries by cast and creative personnel. Some are really informative: Wilson Cruz reveals that he shot the Christmas episode - his character Rickie is thrown out when his family discovers his homosexuality - just a few months after the actor was thrown out of his real home for the same reason. After seeing the episode, Cruz’s father was so moved he called and the two were reconciled.

If you weren’t already bawling over the show itself, that revelation will have you groping blindly for tissues.

Here’s the great thing. Everybody was once a teenager. And “My So-Called Life” puts you right back in the thick of it.

//Mixed media