'My So-Called Life' wears well on DVD

Ellen Gray
Philadelphia Daily News (MCT)

Thirteen years ago, I fell hard for a girl who'd fallen hard for a boy.

Both of us got our hearts broken.

The girl was Angela Chase, the 15-year-old center of the universe that was ABC's "My So-Called Life."

Played by Claire Danes - who was herself 13 when she was cast and just 15 when the show finally premiered in late August 1994 - Angela was achingly, embarrassingly in love with Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto), onto whose blank, beautiful face she'd projected more hopes and dreams than any boy could fulfill.

At home, her parents, Patty (Bess Armstrong) and Graham (Tom Irwin), watched helplessly as their older daughter dyed her hair red and took up with a tragically funny Madonna wannabe named Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer) and Rayanne's gay best friend, Rickie (Wilson Cruz), whose use of eyeliner alone broke ground in television.

I, too, watched helplessly as the Nielsen ratings arrived in my office each week and I relearned that hard lesson of high school: Telling the truth about adolescence doesn't necessarily make you popular.

Particularly if you're a girl.

This, remember, was before "Felicity," before "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," before "Veronica Mars."

Before the WB or UPN, those youth-centric predecessors of the CW, had made it possible for a show to be watched by only one in 50, or even one in 100 Americans and still remain on network television.

In the 1994-95 season, a show with 9.87 million viewers - more than NBC's "ER" is drawing this fall - was considered a ratings failure, especially in the year that launched "ER" and "Friends," both Top 5 shows at a time when "Seinfeld" and ABC's "Home Improvement" were each averaging more than 30 million viewers a week.

And so, after 19 episodes, "My So-Called Life" left the air, ending abruptly on what felt like a bit of an emotional cliffhanger.

Later, it would find a new life on MTV, which acquired the rights to the series and played those 19 episodes half to death, and in 2002 there would be a DVD.

But like the high school yearbook Angela had no use for - "if you made a book of what really happened, it'd be a really upsetting book" - I wasn't ready to go there.

It just felt too soon.

Now, though, there's a new "My So-Called Life: The Complete Series," which went on sale this week. Six DVDs, including one full of the "extras" I usually skip but this time haven't, plus a booklet that includes tributes from people like "Buffy" creator Joss Whedon, who admits that "we all stole fr- I mean learned from it, but never matched it."

At home on the couch, I drank cup after cup of coffee - remember when Angela started taking hers black, with lots of sugar, because that's the way Jordan did? - and went back to high school, worried that it might actually be worse than I'd remembered.

Bad enough that my own 20th reunion was already in sight when "MSCL" first went on the air, how would a mid-'90s story hold up in 2007?

Surprisingly well, it turns out.

Oh, 21st-century Angela's voiceover might've come from her blog if the show were done today (and you can bet she and all the other characters would have their own MySpace pages to interact with fans).

There'd be a lot of texting and IMing. And the clothes would certainly be different.

But while I found myself wincing when "the year 2000" was chosen as the theme for yearbook - as in what it might be like - the cultural references hold up better than you'd expect.

When Patty decides to cut her hair, it's Hillary Clinton who's the reference point. (At least then, we weren't yet talking about her cleavage.)

When a gun goes off inside the school in Episode 3 and parents go ballistic, it's a reminder of Columbine and other massacres to come.

But not as eerily prescient as the beginning of the same episode, when Angela and her classmates are watching a tape of Kennedy's inaugural speech in class and she muses that "grown-ups like to tell you where they were when President Kennedy was shot, which they all know to the exact second. Which makes me almost jealous - like I should have something important enough to know where I was when it happened."

Angela, I guess, would've been 22 in 2001.

Danes herself is now 28, and when she joins creator Winnie Holzman in a bonus "conversation" as well as in commentary on Episode 12, "Self-Esteem," you can still see and hear Angela in both of them (though Holzman, who occasionally popped up in the series as guidance counselor Cathy Kryzanowski, seems closer to her inner adolescent).

There's no mention of the reports that circulated at the time of the show's cancellation that Danes, eager, at nearly 16, to pursue her movie career, had wanted out.

Whatever happened then seems to be water under the bridge, with Holzman sounding maybe just a bit more at peace than her bosses, "thirtysomething" producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, with how it all played out.

For those who've long wondered what might have happened next - to Angela, her parents, to Rickie - Holzman offers a few hints in the foreword to an accompanying booklet, none of which should prove surprising, the groundwork having been well laid.

I'm not sure much more I actually needed to see, considering that I've carried those 19 episodes in my heart all these years, while forgetting countless shows that lasted far longer.

I do know that when the end came, still somewhat unexpectedly, after a day of feeding one DVD after another into the machine, the disappointment was every bit as sharp as the first time.

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