In the summer of 1994, ABC aired the first episode of a drama that would ultimately become a ratings disaster. The show dealt with the familiar angst of teenage existence through the eyes of Angela Chase (Claire Danes). “My So-Called Life” struggled to compete directly against “Friends” for ratings, and sadly, the former was cancelled after its initial 19 episodes. But, then a strange thing happened — MTV (in its last days of street cred) syndicated the show’s episodes and started running them in weekend-marathon format. After MTV moved on to its masturbatory interest in reality shows and the revolting Carson Daly, the fanbase of “My So-Called Life” breathed a sigh of relief that they’d been wise enough to preserve the show on their trusty VHS tapes. In a cult-like fashion, these fans kept the show on rudimentary life support until it finally appeared within a proper DVD set with bitchin’ extras in the form of episode commentary and a book.
“My So-Called Life” was far before its time in that it didn’t rely on the bubblegum pop and beautiful eye-candy that, say, “Beverly Hills 90210” survived upon. Instead, the show focused on substance over style, which, sadly, was also the reason for the series’ demise. The program’s target audience of teenagers didn’t tune in because they didn’t wish to relive their respective adolescent humiliation; they wanted to dwell within the escapist options provided on those other television networks. Of course, while these programs will be quickly forgotten, “My So-Called Life” will live on for its posthumous nostalgic appeal.
It’s impossible to properly discuss all of the deserving matters within the world of “My So-Called Life” in one review, but I’ll jump into the mine and attempt to pluck out the roughest of diamonds. I took on 19 episodes over two days and lost myself in the eerily familiar world of Angela Chase. In the pilot episode, Angela dyes her hair a shade of crimson glow and attempts to subtly trade in her oldest friend, Sharon Cherski (Devon Odessa). Angela herself is not the most sympathetic leading lady; she’s flawed, and she’s cruel in her treatment of the emotionally masochistic Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall), who obediently licks the muddied footsteps of Angela as she walks with her new best friends — Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer) and Enrique “Rickie” Vasquez (Wilson Cruz). In unskilled hands, Rayanne and Rickie could have devolved into caricatures of “slut girl” and “bisexual, racially mixed guy,” but they rise above their stereotypes on the wings of the rich dialogue:
Rickie: If you were about to do it, okay, what would you want the other person to say, like, right before. Rayanne: “This won’t take long.” Rickie: No, seriously. Rayanne: “Don’t I know you?” Rickie: No, for real, like, like, romantic. Angela: “You’re so beautiful, it hurts to look at you.” Rayanne: “It hurts to look at you?” Rickie: How’d you think of that? Rayanne: Where would it hurt? Rickie: I really like that.
Later, of course, we learn a lot more about Rickie and Rayanne, who would both die to protect the other but fail to properly care for themselves. The unruly, tough-talking Rayanne yearns for a father figure. In seeking male approval, she is sexually promiscuous and thrilled when she’s recognized for having the “Most Slut Potential” on a Sophomore Top 40 list. Rayanne’s progression into alcohol and drug abuse develops into the inevitable overdose scare, which again, could have been played up for rating purposes if it weren’t so true to the high school experience. Towards the end of the series, Rayanne’s ultimate betrayal of Angela isn’t at all surprising — not for its predictability — but because we’ve all known someone like Rayanne.
Rickie’s problems are slightly more troublesome if only because they are not of his own creation. Sexual ambiguity isn’t exactly something that goes over well in high school, and Rickie is no stranger to getting his ass kicked by classmates. In addition, his family troubles lead to a poignant Christmas episode where Rickie leaves his home and is seen bloodied and stumbling into the snow.
Not every aspect of “My So-Called Life” was quite so captivating. The episode in which the Chase family business gets audited was, at times, about as high on the snooze radar as the “Melrose Place” episode that revolved around bartender Jake Hanson getting his GED. At the same time, the episode fills in some necessary details about family dynamic and how, exactly, Patty (Bess Armstrong) and Graham Chase (Tom Irwin) have drifted apart during their marriage. Angela begins to distrust her father when she overhears a phone conversation between Graham and his would-be mistress:
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.
Meanwhile, the financially errant father of Patty arrives to the joy of Angela and her perpetually ignored younger sister, Danielle (Lisa Wilhoit). Later in the episode, Patty begins to realize the parallels between her relationship with her own father and the one between Angela and Graham. The storyline never delves into the sickening yet commercially viable dramatics that most programs would indulge in. Instead, we simply observe the internal conflicts associated with realizing that your own parents aren’t perfect, which is always a bittersweet experience.
Finally, there is Angela’s everpresent infatuation with Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto):
Rickie : It’s an obsession. Angela : Right. And, and if you make it real, it’s not the same. It’s not, it’s not yours anymore. I don’t know, maybe I’d rather have the fantasy than even him.
Of course, Angela can’t help but become involved with Jordan when he shows interest, and she is dismayed when he turns out to be little else than a walking set of hormones. Angela’s disappointments with her failed expectations for Jordan are something most teenage girls can identify with. High school crushes often do base themselves on how a guy leans against his locker and how he closes his eyes a lot, like it hurts to look at things. After Angela pines for months over her version of Jordan, she is dismayed when his reality doesn’t even come close. Jordan doesn’t say anything even remotely romantic when he’s about to kiss her. Instead, it turns out something like this: “You know those guys … up in the mountains? Who make snow, like, like, as their job? I would really like to do that.” Jordan also writes a song called “Red” that sounds as if it was written for Angela, but it’s really about his car. Hell, Jordan can’t even spell Angela’s name correctly. Jordan Catalano is perfectly in sync with the gorgeous yet brainless type that appeals to so many girls. While I can’t speak for girls outside my generation, I know that before high school I expected boys to be like Jake Ryan — handsome, sexy, popular, romantic, wealthy, and polite to my parents ; basically, the whole package. Jake Ryan was the guy who got Samantha’s panties back from Farmer Ted without showing them to anyone. In contrast, Jordan Catalano probably would have shown them to a few buddies beforehand. Nowadays, he might even publish pictures of them on the internet.
In the final moments of “My So-Called Life,” Angela finds out that Brian wrote the love letter that Jordan used to make amends. This development was intended as a cliffhanger, but I’m not sure that resolving this matter would have made for a worthy second season of the show. In fact, all 19 episodes were so heavily saturated with material that I like to think that the producers sort of used all the good up. It’s fairly possible that the show properly ended when it should have — before it went downhill like so many other promising series tend to do. During the Halloween episode, Angela voiceover tells us, “When someone dies young, it’s like they stay that way forever, like a vampire.” In the same way, we can also remember “My So-Called Life” quite fondly and simply for what it was. We had a time.
Agent Bedhead (a.k.a. “Kimberly”) lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She can found reminding herself that Jared Leto is a douche over at agentbedhead.com.We Had A Time.
TV | November 8, 2007 | Comments ()