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.