Retro Rewind: My So-Called Life

[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]

[Life In These Divided Halls]

“My parents keep asking how school was. It’s like saying, ‘How was that drive-by shooting?’ You don’t care how it was, you’re lucky to get out alive.” – Angela

Once upon a time, a television show debuted focusing on a teenage girl struggling to make her way through high school. Although she was a commendable student, she ended up falling in with the wrong crowd and making all sorts of morally questionable choices. The show, which focused on the turbulent circumstances which accompanied her dramatic decisions, was a critical success, but failed to find a substantial audience, and was cancelled after a single season.

And, if you’ve glanced at the title of this article before you began to read it, you can probably guess that this show was not called Freaks and Geeks.

When the Critically Touched Blog came into existence at the start of this year, it offered a fresh and tempting opportunity: Rather than just limiting the site’s output to analyze episodes of specific shows, it provided the fertile ground to discuss a wide range of topics, to be employed whenever their creative attention began wandering outside of individual series. But perhaps the most inviting aspect of this new tool was the way it gave writers a flexible niche for discussing television – a pulpit for sharing thoughts on shows that we weren’t busy dissecting every episode of (at least, not at the moment).

I ran through a list of such shows in my head – several of which predate the turn-of-the-century explosion of the Internet, and are thus ripe for further exploration. (Stay tuned for more Retro Rewind articles to pop up over the next few months.) But I needed to find a particularly standout show to start with – a series that perfectly captured the magic that television can bring to the screen, both intellectually and emotionally.

And one show jumped right out at me.

My So-Called Life premiered twenty years ago, on August 25, 1994. Created by Winnie Holzman and executive produced by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (best known at the time for their collaborative work on the widely-acclaimed series thirtysomething), it aired 19 episodes on the ABC Network before concluding its first season on January 26, 1995. (It may seem strange for a network season to air from August to January, but teen shows do all sorts of crazy stuff like that.) A few months later, it was officially cancelled, a casualty of low ratings and on-set scheduling conflicts. Fans bemoaned the loss – and if you’ve seen the show (which, as I’m about to explain, you should), you wouldn’t blame them.

My So-Called Life follows Angela Chase (current Homeland star Claire Danes), a 16-year-old girl who finds herself perpetually tormented by the trials of adolescence. As she reveals to us in a constant voiceover narration that melds pathos with humor, high school is not the glossy, uber-sexed heaven-on-Earth we’ve seen on other teen dramas. It’s confusing, frightening, and excessively cruel, often all at the same time. Despite her intellectual talents, Angela finds herself inexorably drawn away from her good-natured and idealistically-minded friend Sharon (Devon Odessa) toward the darker side of her alma mater, and finds new companionship with the tough-as-nails Rayanne Graff (AJ Langer) and the gay outcast Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz). The relationship between Angela and Rayanne is one of the grounding pegs of the series, as the latter pulls the former to a more daring and dangerous side of adolescence, inviting her into a world where trouble runs rampant and consequences are little more than an afterthought.

Angela’s slow turn towards the edgier side of teenage life is combated by her parents, Patty (Bess Armstrong) and Graham (Tom Irwin). Angela’s mother in particular takes her daughter’s slowly-changing lifestyle rather difficultly, and it’s up to her ambivalent husband to lend her support when her own daughter comes across the likes of drugs and alcohol. Angela’s little sister Danielle (Lisa Wilhoit) is likewise confused by her sibling’s change in attitude, even if she’s not yet old enough to have a deeper understanding of internal stress, hormones, and other teenage troubles.

Angela pines for Jordan (Jarde Leto), the dreamy “bad boy” (and, without spoiling anything, I use those quotes intentionally) who has more layers than he initially lets on. Lending the third point to one of television’s all-time best-crafted love triangles is Brian (Devon Gummersall), Angela’s nerdy next-door neighbor, who harbors a secret crush on her, but seems permanently stuck in the “friend zone”.

All these characters, assembled together, comprise the heart of My So-Called Life. Throughout the show’s first, last, and only season, each one goes through a compelling arc, and is given their own moment to shine and show us just how great they are. The actors play their parts to perfection, with Danes in particular giving an exceptional performance as a heroine who always captures our hearts, even if we don’t always agree with what goes through her mind.

(Oh… I forgot about Tino. Well, I won’t tell you much about Tino, but rest assured, Tino may be the most awesome character in the history of television. I’m just saying.)

When Joss Whedon pitched Buffy to the WB network in 1996, he described it as “My So-Called Life meets The X-Files“. The latter show inspired the supernatural element of Buffy, but the former was what really encouraged Joss’ final product to hit its excellent mark. The emotional resonance of the characters of My So-Called Life cannot be understated – Joss understood this, and used it to craft a high school show of his own (one which, thankfully, ran for a far longer period).

For such a brief show, though, My So-Called Life is overflowing with memorable episodes. “Other People’s Mothers” is a deeply insightful look into the different households that Angela and Rayanne lead. “The Substitute” is a key moment in showing Angela’s growing rebellious nature, and features a memorable guest appearance by Roger Rees (Lord John Marbury from The West Wing). “So-Called Angels” gets flak from many fans for its supposed over-sentimentality, but it’s in actuality a heartfelt Christmas story about how the holiday season isn’t necessarily about fun and joy. But my vote for Best Episode goes to “Life of Brian”, a moving story which breathes new life into the “love triangle” concept, and features an ending that’s touching, sweet, and triumphant.

I’ve spent so much time praising the series by this point that I’ve yet to address the most obvious question: How exactly does My So-Called Life compare – and differentiate – from Freaks and Geeks?

Well, the difference, surprisingly enough, lies not in execution, but in source. Freaks and Geeks is essentially a subversion of the teen shows that peppered the Nineties, revealing that everything you thought you knew about high school was a mere front. It flips all the tropes on their respective heads – the jocks and cheerleaders are revealed to be just as human as the outcasts, and the geeks are nowhere near as smart as you’d expect supposed geniuses to be.

My So-Called Life, on the other hand, plays everything straight – every character conforms to the role you expect them to fit into, and there is no misdirection in regards to the cliques they each find themselves in. But while this point could have easily led the show down the road into being just another trite and clichéd teenage drama, Holzman, Zwick, and Herskovitz recognized the untapped dramatic potential that lurks within such a formula. The familiarity of the series is precisely what makes each episode so emotionally resonant. You may have seen high school before – but you’ve never seen it quite like this.

So… is My So-Called Life as good as Freaks and Geeks? Well, no… but it’s pretty close. Over the course of a single season, it crafts some wonderful characters and memorable storylines, and has deservedly garnered itself a spot in Television’s All-Time Greatest hall of fame.

If you haven’t watched My So-Called Life, I think it goes without saying that I highly recommend it. The show was released on DVD a few years back, but if you’re unable to afford that route, the entire series can be viewed for free on Hulu. Give the pilot a shot, and I think you’ll be surprised at how swiftly addictive the show becomes.

Perhaps someday, My So-Called Life will gain a permanent spot as a reviewed series on Critically Touched. Me, I’m all for it. This is one sparkling little gem of a show, and even twenty years later, the characters it gave us are a delight to watch.

(Especially Tino. Tino might just be the most awesome character in the history of human existence.)

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Jeremy Grayson is a freelance writer and reviewer for Critically Touched. When he’s not writing about television, he can usually be found watching television or talking about television.


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3 thoughts on “Retro Rewind: My So-Called Life”

  1. [Note: Freudian Vampire posted this comment on August 24, 2014.]

    Speaking as somebody who believes Freaks and Geeks is one of the best TV shows ever made, do you think this show is sufficiently similar (and not only in quality) that it would be safe just to buy the boxset? Although I’ve been dabbling a little with this Amazon Prime Instant Video thingy lately, it’s library is rather restricted and I don’t really want to expend the time and effort trying to find ways of viewing the shows online.

    My So-Called Life has been on my radar for a while now, largely because I keep hearing it compared to other shows I loved, but I’ve never actually gotten round to watching it. But to hear it praised so highly from somebody who loved Freaks and Geeks as much, even more than I did, and somebody who’s opinion I sort of vaguely trust about things not called The Wire, makes me all the more excited to see it.

    So is it worth blindly buying?

    Great article by the way.

    Like

  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 24, 2014.]

    My So-Called Life shares several similarities to Freaks and Geeks. It’s a bit less laugh-oriented (though can still be pretty funny) and sometimes verges on melodramatic. But both shows do an excellent job of tapping into the well of adolescent life, even if they do so from slightly different vantage points.

    So overall, I’d say it’s well worth buying for any F&G fan, and doubly so for those who are also Buffy fans.

    Like

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