In the interest of full disclosure, it seems only appropriate that I begin this review by stating that in 1994 I was a young teenage girl. Full of misplaced angst, perpetual confusion, and budding lust, I was an easy demographical target for the ABC Television marketing professionals tasked with promoting their new Thursday night teen drama, My So-Called Life. One look at Jared Leto, dangerously alluring with his mixture of ambiguous soulfulness and relaxed vacuity and there was no question that I would be spending the evening of September 25, 1994, glued in front of my television set.
To be perfectly honest, though, my interest in the show did extend beyond the superficial good looks of its resident heartthrob. It was clear from the initial print and television advertising that My So-Called Life, while concerned primarily with adolescence, bore little resemblance to such popular, escapist fare as Beverly Hills, 90210. Whether it was the (favorable) advanced press reviews or an instinctual sixth sense something told me that this show would be battling for its survival from its very first episode on. Somehow television executives had slipped up and allowed an authentic, vital and agonizingly real television series to be transmitted into our living rooms. It was doomed and I knew it.
With that in mind I set my VCR each Thursday and recorded each of the 19 episodes that aired over that nine-month period between late 1994 and early 1995. Dusty, scratched, and warped by time and repeated viewings those tapes still sit in my video library. Thirteen years on it seems that I can finally make room on my shelves and replace those old tapes with a new and impressively handsome DVD set of the complete series.
To declare My So-Called Life as a groundbreaking, seminal piece of dramatic television seems obvious to the point of being thoroughly obtuse. Debuting after the soapy excess of Aaron Spelling’s 90210 and long before the cultural assault of the (advertiser friendly) WB teen shows, My So-Called Life arrived in the mid ’90s with a refreshing mix of tacit uncertainty and patient observation. Ostensibly concerned with the lives of teenagers the show revealed itself to be a greater and more nuanced examination on the interconnectedness of family, friends, time, and place.
Viewing the series now, more than a decade later, what is most striking is how simple and unpolished it all seems. There is so little external artifice in the individual plots and overall storyline which a testament to the writers’ knowledge that in adolescence there is little distinction between internal and external chaos. The adolescent characters talk with all of the stuttering pomposity and bashful naiveté of real teenagers. There is no Dawson Leary drowning in the creek of his own blathering inanity or Marissa Cooper fumbling around the fashionable houses of Orange County tossing furniture into pools.
As in real life, the dramatic tension of My So-Called Life emerged organically from the simple accumulation of passing moments and daily experience. Set in a fictional middle-class suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania the series’ setting was familiar rather than trite or purposefully oppressive. The writers were clearly more concerned with the unembellished texturing of the character’s milieu, and in revealing the gradations of authentic truths through such a surrounding, than they were with mining the well-trodden conceit of candy colored debauchery lurking just beneath the manicured lawns of sleepy, prosaic neighborhoods.
Without defense or apology this was a show profoundly aware of and comfortable with the average. Its central character, Angela Chase (Claire Danes), is a typical 15-year old girl, being solipsistic, melodramatic, and touchingly, almost shockingly, perceptive. Too curious and introverted to be popular and too good-natured and polite to be an outcast Angela exists in that great middle, which to a teenager feels like abandonment in the dark heart of the Atlantic Ocean.
At the start of her sophomore year Angela is at an acknowledged crossroads as she tries to shed the remaining vestiges of her (perceived) boring youth. Having drifted away from Sharon (Devon Odessa), her childhood best friend, Angela is now spending time with Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer), an uninhibited force of excitement and trouble, and Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz), a young gay man who acts as the calming center in Rayanne’s manic storm. Even more exciting to Angela than hanging out with her new friends is the swirl of emotion she feels each time she sees the beautiful Jordan Catalano (Leto). For the first time she is in love and the whole world is different and rife with possibilities.
Too often teenagers in coming of age stories are tainted by a (latent) patronizing resentment that escapes from the writer’s adult cynicism. The strength of My So-Called Life is that the young characters at the heart of the series are never judged for or against their youth. Instead there is a calm, tempered balance between gentle humor and touching affection that frames these moments of self-created drama in the individual character’s stories. From the very beginning the audience recognizes that Angela’s relationship with Jordan is doomed but the writers never allow us to dismiss the sincerity and depth of her feelings.
Angela is a fully dynamic character that is afforded the narrative space to exhibit all of the contrasting qualities that mark her as a complex and thoroughly authentic character. Time and again she is allowed to be manipulative with her nerdy neighbor, Brian (Devon Gummersall), rude and dismissive towards her mother and father (Bess Armstrong and Tom Irwin), and downright naive about the consequences her selfishness has on those who love her. By not reducing her character to a type Angela’s journey throughout the series feels less structured or plotted and more organic and real.
Unrequited love, the all consuming crush, the exasperated horror of hormonal changes, the tedium of school, trouble with parents, the emergence of individual identity. The adolescent struggle and all of its attendant rites, rituals, and humiliations are ever present in the storytelling of My So-Called Life. Rather than employing such episodic conceits as melodramatic posturing or self-righteous lessons the writers chose instead to blend these moments into the textured fabric of the overall story arc that runs throughout the series. While, outwardly, the show seems focused on Angela’s story the fact is the series’ narrative is far more inclusive. Individual plotlines from the entire ensemble are carefully developed and contribute strength and scope to the entire series.
Classic television is a nebulous term thrown around a lot by critics and audiences alike. Personal subjectivity always colors this argument and true consensus is virtually impossible. At the core of its definition, though, a classic is a work of art judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality. And, who decides this level of quality to be superior to most others? Quite simply it is the audiences who discover (and return again and again to) that work of art for insight, comfort, joy, and the simple pleasures of entertainment.
My So-Called Life has achieved a sort of legendary status in the fabled museum of “brilliant but cancelled” television shows. Much like Angela’s voice-over narration the show became a sort of personal diary to its audience, which both exposed and marked the cruel banality and surprising depth of the adolescent journey. For an overlooked and underappreciated segment of the television-viewing audience My So-Called Life was more than a television show. It was an artistic affirmation and public articulation of the most sacred and personal of truths.
Its premature cancellation only deepened the devotion of its loyal audience and further enshrined its standing as a modern classic. Such vaunted audience admiration can sometimes run the risk of alienating future viewers who may perceive the emotional attachment of the series’ fans as being exclusive and to a specific time and place. Surely, devotees of any beloved television show would be quick to counter this argument and welcome the opportunity for an ever larger group of people to experience the specific pleasure and particular genius of that series.
That chance for audience expansion is now at hand for My So-Called Life, as the series gets a second life with the release of a truly impressive DVD collection. As they did with the incredible Freaks and Geeks collection, Shout! Factory has assembled a loving, insightful, and extensive package of extras to accompany the nineteen original episodes. In addition to interviews and (select) episode commentary from creator Winnie Holzman and executive producers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick (the team behind Thirtysomething, Once & Again) there are insightful interviews and episode remarks with writers, directors and many members of the cast, including Claire Danes. They have also included a 36-page booklet with tribute essays from Holzman and famous fans such as Joss Whedon and Janeane Garofalo.
In many ways this wonderful DVD collection helps to complete the story of My So-Called Life. There may never have been resolution to the character’s individual stories but, as in life, the journey has proven more rewarding than the destination. To quote Angela Chase, “We had a time.”