My So-Called Life is now streaming on ABC, the network that first aired it back in 1994, right after Kurt Cobain committed suicide and right before O.J. Simpson’s jury was sworn in. The show, low-rated in its time but also beloved far beyond the single season it was given, serves, still, as a touchpoint for teen drama and for quality television in general. It gave birth to a micro-generation. Winnie Holzman’s drama about high-school life, told mainly from the point of view of 15-year-old Angela Chase, didn’t just launch the career of Claire Danes; it was also a prestige cable show that happened to air on network TV.
The show had one very long season, 19 episodes in all, before it was cancelled in 1995. And, given its relaunch on digital platforms that make the old new again, I recently re-watched the series. Here are, in no particular order, some takeaways:
The show scans, via Danes’s measured delivery (“it’s like a baby knows how to play a Stradivarius,” Jeff Perry, otherwise known as Cyrus Beene but before that known as Mr. Katimsky, recalls of her preternatural acting ability), as a series of tone poems. Angela, the show’s protagonist, is particularly prone to making observations about the world that are as profound as they are absurd.
“I mean, if you stop to think about chewing—like, what it really is. How people just do it. Like, in public.”
“What I, like, dread is when people who know you in completely different ways end up in the same area. You have to develop this, like, combination you—right on the spot.”
“What’s amazing is when you can feel your life going somewhere. Like your life just figured out how to get good. Like, that second.”
These observations tend to get both emptier and deeper when they involve Angela’s love interest, Jordan Catalano. Talking with him at one point—although it should be said that the two exchange, all in all, very few words—she fixates on a string that has come loose from a seam of his shirt. “All I could look at was his shirt collar,” Angela recalls, wondering at her own reaction, “like he was from a poor family and couldn’t afford new shirts. It was all I could see. The whole world was that unraveled piece of fabric.”
Which is painful and lovely and true. To be a teenager is to be a simmering mix of arrogance and anxiety and agony and joy and crippling self-consciousness and even more crippling self-confidence; it is, often, to feel that all the beauty and hurt and knowledge the world has ever known can be summoned and captured through one look from The Person You Like. It is, even more often, to feel that anything that is not a look from The Person You Like is offensively trivial. My So-Called Life captures all that, elegantly. The show, as Wired put it in a 2015 assessment, “treated teenagers like people, not just stereotypes of people.”
That started with the writing. “It just seems like you agreed to have a certain personality or something, for no reason,” Angela tells a guidance counselor. “Just to make things easier for everyone. But when you think about it, I mean, how do you know if it’s even you?” She tries to explain why she’s quit yearbook. “It’s like, everybody’s in this big hurry to make this book to supposedly remember what happened. But it’s not even what really happened, it’s what everybody thinks was supposed to happen. Because if you made a book of what really happened, it’d be a really upsetting book.” She pauses. “You know, in my humble opinion.”
Later that episode, we’ll find out that “in my humble opinion” is a favored phrase of Angela’s mother, Patty—one she uses as a way both to assert herself and as an acknowledgement that women aren’t really expected to assert themselves. Those four words will in that way become loaded and layered, verbal evidence of the ties that bind mothers and daughters, and women and men, and children and adults.
Parents and Kids, Together
My So-Called Life foreshadowed, neatly and effortlessly, the generational collisions that are such prominent features of the current cultural moment. It used to be that network TV shows—dramas, but especially sitcoms—assumed an oppositional relationship between teenagers and adults: One would rebel against the other, and vice versa, through the trajectories of social Darwinism. My So-Called Life has some of that impulse, sure—there’s a great series of scenes that feature kids engaging in the time-honored cliche that is cleaning up a messy house together before the parents come home—but it mostly complicates, and pokes fun at, those divisions. (Those scenes of frantic house-cleaning take place after the kids find a pair of handcuffs the parents were going to use to “spice things up,” and accidentally cuff Rayanne, Angela’s best friend, to a bed, and … yeah.)
There are some moments, certainly, of painfully awkward miscommunication between the generations, as in:
Dad: How’s school?
Angela: I’m starting to like Anne Frank.
Dad: Oh, is she a sophomore, too?
Angela: No, she’s dead.
And there are also moments, just as there are between the teenagers themselves, of people talking past each other. (Brian, in particular, is a serial past-talker.)
For the most part, though, My So-Called Life takes for granted a notion that is at once obvious and profound: that adults and younger people are in it together—whatever the “it” might happen to be. They’re all confused. They’re all hopeful. They’re all hurting. They’re all figuring it out as they go along.
The You never really leave high school, it’s said. As Paul Feig, the creator of Freaks and Geeks, the 1999-2000 NBC show very much in My So-Called Life’s vein, recently admitted: “Inside, I still feel like I’m 15 to 18 years old, and I feel like I still cope with losing control of the world around me in the same ways.”
Empathy as an Aesthetic
My So-Called Life, in that spirit, treats high school not as a place or even as a stage of life, but as a state of mind—from which one never fully escapes. Patty, Angela’s mother, succumbs to, yes, peer pressure to, yes, drink during the aforementioned couples’ weekend. One of the high school’s teachers has a crush on Mr. Katimsky and acts like a “schoolgirl” because of it. This, in the show’s emotional universe, is as fitting as it is ironic. And, over at Rayanne’s house, Rayanne’s mother, Amber, teaches Angela about tarot cards. They’re talking about Angela’s mom; Amber draws, for Patty, a daughter card. Angela protests: She’s a mother! But Amber explains the obvious: “She’s a daughter, too.”
Karma is a constant theme throughout the series—sometimes literally (“the karma in this house is, like, ridiculous,” Angela informs her mother, channeling Amber but perfectly misunderstanding her) but more often figuratively. Slights and betrayals are carried from one person to the next. Patty’s mother hurts her, so Patty takes a little of that out on Angela, who takes a little of it out on Danielle, her little sister. And in the run-up to the school’s big dance (which everyone wants to attend, but no one wants to admit to wanting to attend) Jordan hurts Angela, so Angela hurts Brian, so Brian hurts Delia.
And: Audiences are privy to the effects of all that, from various characters’ perspectives. Angela may narrate most episodes; one, “Life of Brian,” is narrated by her neighbor and fanboy, Brian Krakow; another is narrated by Danielle. (“My whole life is waiting for something to happen,” the girl confides at the outset of the episode, channeling her big sister and also pretty much every other character on the show.) Even when Angela is doing the narrating, though, My So-Called Life lingers on each person—Rayanne, Ricky, Jordan, parents, friends of parents, teachers—and pays each one the respect of empathy.
My So-Called Life aired on Thursday nights, against sitcoms like Friends and Mad About You on NBC, and Martin and Living Single on Fox. It’s remarkable, in that context, how prescient it was about the direction higher-end TV would take in the decades that would follow it. The show rejected the time-tested model of network TV’s favored primetime genre—the sitcom, with its closed universe and its treatment of outsiders as intruders—in favor of an approach that was more inclusive and much more empathetic. In that sense, it prefigured the rise of shows like Orange Is the New Black and Game of Thrones and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and before them The Wire and Breaking Bad and Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, and the many, many others that derive their dramas from the splintering of perspectives. My So-Called Life was, before it was fully fashionable to be, fundamentally generous.
The show’s music, by W.G. Snuffy Walden—who also orchestrated the sonic stylings of The West Wing, and Roseanne, and thirtysomething, among many others—is perfectly suited to the tone of the show. The music is appropriately ponderous yet still subtle, and it swells whenever a particularly emotional moment is coming—a kind of psychic form of onomatopoeia. The music functions as white noise, and it suggests the connections that exist between characters, even when “connected” is the last thing they feel.
But: It Had Limited Empathy, Too
The show, like Freaks and Geeks and many similar ones that would follow it, embraced a fairly narrow idea of “diversity.” On the one hand, Ricky was the first openly gay teenager on American network TV—and the show treated his story with the same empathy that it afforded everyone else. On the other, though, aside from Ricky, all the show’s main characters were white. For a while, toward the end of the show’s long season, it seems that Abyssinia Churchill, who gets great grades but pretends not to—and who commiserates with Angela about the tensions that romance can pose to academic success—might be brought more into the fold. She isn’t, though. And while the show’s being canceled after one season is sad for many reasons, one of them is that the cancellation prevented more explorations of her character. Audiences, whether of today or of the mid-’90s, never got an episode narrated by Abyssinia. It’s unfortunate.
That Ending, Though
The series’ finale—the culmination of the love triangle between Angela, Brian, and Jordan—is magical. A little bit Cyrano de Bergerac, a little bit The Notebook, it involves a letter that contains the lines “I hate this pen I’m holding because I should be holding you. I hate this paper under my hand because it isn’t you.” The letter is slight and epic and simple and deep and about endings and also about beginnings—which is to say that it is also a lot like being a teenager.
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