For three years after ABC canned the ratings-challenged My So-Called Life (it was the network’s lowest rated series of the 1994-95 season) despite support from both the media and viewers, MTV continued to air marathons of the show’s 19 episodes ad nauseam. The series achieved a level of cult popularity almost unheard of a decade ago, launching a flurry of fan websites (one even analyzed the metaphorical meaning behind the use of the word “prison” in four different episodes!) and inspiring a German TV show called Mein Leben & Ich. Ted Harbert, then head of programming at ABC, boasted that “not since Moonlighting has there been a show that when the rough cut comes in, the place stops,” but then speculated that MSCL was too tough for viewers to watch. It took the network over a year and a half before they even decided to premiere the show, so their long-term support—or lack thereof—once it was actually on the air wasn’t surprising. (Harbert has since placed blame on lead actress Claire Danes, who, while the series’s fate was being determined, decided to pursue a film career instead.)
There have been many successful coming-of-age teen television shows over the years, but what had been missing for so long was realism, and MSCL‘s quality may have actually helped lead to its demise. Danes pitch-perfectly played lead character Angela Chase all the way to a Golden Globe victory (beating out veterans such as Angela Lansbury and Heather Locklear), and while the writers deserve the bulk of the credit for keeping it real, it takes a gifted actor to liken a day at school to a drive-by shooting or distill the evolving relationship between a father and daughter into one pithy, potentially disastrous line of narration (“I think my breasts have come between us”) without coming off as comical or disaffected. The teenage characters’ relationships with their parents were particularly candid, flawlessly addressing how family dynamics can change when children attempt to carve out their own sovereign identities. (The fact that union rules prevented Danes from working long hours was a blessing in disguise, forcing the writers to focus on other characters.) What MSCL was able to do best was delicately and truthfully capture those changing relationships, choosing to focus almost as much screen time on the parents as the kids, and rather than ship Angela’s parents off to, say, Hong Kong, Graham and Patty Chase (Tom Irwin and Bess Armstrong) rediscover their own identities as their eldest daughter tries to find hers.
The fourth episode of the series, “Father Figures,” focuses primarily on Angela’s relationship with Graham, and Angela’s internalized conflict with the man she grew up with but no longer recognizes is communicated via astute, though appropriately clumsy, voiceover: “When you’re not sure you trust a person anymore, say a person you really trusted, say your father, you start wishing they’d do something, like, really wrong, just so you could be right about them.” Later in the episode, Angela snoops through Graham’s briefcase and wallet, searching for some kind of “proof,” something that would justify her distrust. The episode gracefully dances back and forth between scenes dealing with Angela and Graham and scenes with Patty and her father without ever becoming heavy-handed, and eventually Patty begins to empathize with her daughter. When Graham confides in his wife that he’s afraid of losing Angela, Patty reassures him: “All she’s doing is pushing you off your pedestal, and she’s right to do that. She has to do it. She’s right on schedule. She’s not a thousand years late, like I am.”
In the 10th episode, “Other People’s Mothers,” Angela’s best friend, Rayanne (A.J. Langer), overdoses on a potentially fatal cocktail of drugs and alcohol at a party Patty forbade Angela to attend. “So, how did you know all that stuff, like, what to do?” Angela asks her mother after Patty helps bring Rayanne to the emergency room. As they sit in the car, avoiding an awkward family gathering inside their house, Patty reveals that she had a friend in college who died of an overdose. She’s once again reminded of the parallels between her daughter’s life and her own, and when Angela goes inside, Patty remains in the car and breaks down in tears. The episode, and this moment in particular, provides the characters with a crucial turning point—one that we sadly never truly got the opportunity to watch progress—as Patty begins to view Angela as an individual and even a peer with which to share common ground.
Occasionally, MSCL‘s storylines veered into cliché: the episode “Guns and Gossip” tackles the hot topic of gun violence in school, while “The Substitute” finds Angela fighting against censorship when a teacher who encourages freedom of expression is fired, though in both cases the performances elevate the proceedings above typical Afterschool Special pap. The final episode, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” pays homage to Cyrano de Bergerac, but if not for that trite literary allusion, which my 10th grade English teacher thought useful enough to play the episode for our class, I might not have ever known MSCL existed. And then there’s the mysterious, potentially problematic character Tino, who we never see but who plays a pivotal role in many of the other characters’ decisions.
It helps that the supporting cast, led by Langer’s eccentric, thorny, and heartbreakingly raw Rayanne, are so spectacular: Wilson Cruz is brave and un-hackneyed as Angela and Rayanne’s bisexual best bud Rickie (particularly in the moving Christmas episode “So-Called Angels,” which, in a just world, would air alongside It’s a Wonderful Life every holiday season), Devon Gummersall is endearing to watch as the painfully awkward Brian Krakow (especially when he starts to come out of his shell and marvels at “an erection from actual physical contact” in “Life of Brian”), and guest star Patti D’Arbanville as Rayanne’s bohemian, permissive mom. And of course, there’s Jared Leto as perpetual leaner Jordan Catalano, Angela’s mythic object of affection. The part didn’t require much beyond a generous dose of bad-boy charisma and conventional good looks, of which Leto had in spades. To Leto’s credit, though, there’s a childlike innocence in the way he conveys both his disappointment over Angela’s refusal to sleep with him and his complicity in Rayanne’s betrayal of her best friend that could have easily turned menacing or misogynistic in the hands of a more zealous actor; in the case of many of the other young actors in the cast, inexperience was a virtue.
“When someone dies young, they stay that way, like, forever,” Angela says in the Halloween episode of the show, and MSCL, which was still in its own adolescence at the time of its cancellation, possesses a mystique that it might not have had otherwise. But ultimately, wondering what could have been is a waste of time when one considers the depth and breadth of the material that does exist. Despite whatever plans the show’s writers had, these 19 episodes have a distinct narrative arc, the climax materializing in Rayanne’s betrayal (in which Danes and Langer are forced to rehearse a scene from Our Town that will surely bring a lump to the throat of anyone with tear ducts) and ending with the final episode’s open-ended revelation. On the eve of the episode’s airing, The St. Louis Post declared that My So-Called Life was “an island of realism and sophistication.” The fact that the series was not an escape in the traditional TV sense was probably its biggest downfall, but it was indeed an island on which many sought comfort and asylum—and as this new DVD release is bound to prove, it will probably continue to be.
Not much has changed from the now out-of-print five-disc set that was released by BMG in 2002. The image and sound quality is essentially identical to the previous version, though the menus and graphics are a huge improvement. The sound quality is good (dialogue, narration, and sound effects, like the shattering of a Christmas ornament in "So-Called Angels," are crystal clear). The image quality remains mediocre (dark scenes are particularly bad), but it's presumably better than on the six measly episodes that were released on VHS years ago and it's most certainly a step up from the episodes you taped off of MTV back in the '90s. And don't pretend you didn't. The details reflecting Angela's insulation and isolation-the inside of her black sweater and the flickering fluorescent lights of the classroom in the pilot episode-as well as the myriad colors of Rayanne's apartment are vivid.
This long-overdue comprehensive box set includes an entire disc devoted to extras. Among them: the 24-minute featurette "My So-Called Life Story," which recounts the series's short life via interviews with its producers and writers; "A Conversation with Claire Danes and Winnie Holzman," in which the actress and the creator of the show reminisce genuinely and intimately; "A Conversation with Marshall Herskovitz and Winnie Holzman," in which the pair discuss creator Holzman's uncanny grasp of what it's like to walk down the hall of a high school and sit in a classroom without being able to leave (the word "visceral" is used plentifully); character analysis and discussion with the cast (perhaps fittingly, everyone is present and accounted for except Jared Leto.and Tino); an interview with Danes, who reveals that she was inspired to become a performer after seeing Madonna on TV; a pretty dry featurette on the show's use of music (and this is coming from a music critic; long before The O.C., MSCL captured the early-'90s zeitgeist with the Cranberries, Buffalo Tom, the Lemonheads, Juliana Hatfield, the Ramones, Violent Femmes, Sonic Youth, and of course, Haddaway); and highlights from a 1995 panel discussion with the cast and crew.
The nicely designed box set also includes commentaries on six episodes that are worth listening to for the most part: Wilson Cruz joins Holzman on one of two commentaries for "So-Called Angels," which basically amounts to a lot of giggling, while Devon Gummersall, director Todd Holland, and writer Jason Katims shoot the shit on "Life of Brian," during which the two older gentlemen frustratingly recount an anecdote about how A.J. Langer's chicken pox almost shut down production but don't clearly explain how the issue was resolved. Extra credit for a book featuring commentary from Holzman in which she divulges some of what she had planned for the characters following the final episode, testimonials from fans Joss Whedon (creator of two other cult faves, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly), Janeane Garofalo, and professor/author Michele Byers, as well as a note from Jordan (written by Brian) to Angela.
The best teen drama of all time finally gets a worthy release.