My So-Called Life is one of those shows that's imprinted itself on pop culture history, whether it's being named the original teen drama or people making excited references to Jordan Catalano - surely one of the most unforgettable leading men ever. But what made My So-Called Life quite so special?
My So-Called Life: Originally broadcast from August 25, 1994 to January 26, 1995
There's no way you can possibly deny the impact My So-Called Life had on television. When it debuted on ABC back in 1994, it was something that wasn't really around at the time - a teen drama. Perhaps that's what contributed to its premature demise, but My So-Called Life will forever be remembered as one of the first quality shows to capture that awkward adolescent era.
Even from the title, you can tell that this wasn't a bouncy, upbeat, fluffy look at teen life. While shows for young people now are often undeniably glam - just take a look at 90210 or The OC - My So-Called Life bent over backwards to be as realistic as possible about teenage life. So while there were high points, and moments of unbridled joy, there was also a lot of ennui, frustration and disappointment.
It's right there in the title - the idea that everyone's having a much better time than you - and a pervasive sense of confusion trickled its way through the series. Of course, My So-Called Life also dealt with swathes of more tangible issues, too - there was everything from homelessness to sexuality, from infidelity to dyslexia, from physical abuse to alcohol abuse, from first love to friends drifting apart.
But while American teens had been used to seeing this kind of thing play out in unbearably cheesy "afterschool specials", My So-Called Life was something different. Many of the 'issues' it dealt with became entwined perfectly in the storylines, so that not everything was wrapped up in a pretty bow after 40 minutes. And, hell, it was just so much cooler - the Judy Blume of television shows.
Of course, creator Winnie Holzman lucked out massively when it came to the lead role of Angela Chase. Claire Danes was just perfect for the role, able to pull off going from pure ecstasy to the aforementioned ugly cry in a matter of minutes. She was wonderfully awkward, able brilliantly to convey the pure flares of anger so recognisable to everyone who's made it through those tricky few years. And somehow you root for her, even though Angela can be a pretty mean person.
Take Sharon, Angela's best friend from childhood. When we pick up the season, Sharon hasn't done anything wrong except be the person that she's always been. But that's no longer good enough for Angela, who's hit an identity crisis - no longer sure who she is, she's pushing away everyone - from Sharon to her parents to her neighbour Brian - and making new connections where she can.
Actually, the relationship between Angela and Sharon is one of the most intriguing of the show. Who hasn't seen a fierce friendship fade away, especially in those years of transition? But while there are initially recriminations and anger between the pair - and so much unspoken hurt - throughout the series they find a way back to a tentative closeness again.
One of the best moments in the show comes when Angela is surprised to discover that Sharon has already lost her virginity - aside from the surprised and almost insulted feeling that she 'beat her to it', Angela's terrified about taking that step herself. So Sharon kindly takes Angela to watch one of her parents' sexual therapy videos, which turns into a surprisingly sweet scene as the pair giggle and share like old times. There are just flashes when you see how much they mean to each other, and how you can never really forget that kind of friendship.
Of course, Angela's trying to leave Sharon behind to become friends with the magnificent Rayanne Graff, and in a way it's not hard to see why. Rayanne's one of those people who you can't help but watch - charismatic and uncaring and a general whirl of energy and excitement. She's like a wave thundering down a school hallway, sweeping people up and leaving a trail of destruction in her path.
It's Sharon that Angela really confides in with her nerves about her virginity, for a good reason - Rayanne's the kind of girl who makes you feel on top of the world, but can also make you feel inferior and inadequate. The sort of girl you're on edge around, trying to make sure you say the right thing. Naturally we come to discover that Rayanne's actually a screwed-up ball of insecurities and possible alcohol addiction, but you can't deny her power and force.
And as well as Rickie - who is nothing but I-want-to-give-you-a-hug loveable - you can't possibly talk about My So-Called Life without mentioning the one, the only Jordan Catalano. Sure, he was a bit of a douche, more concerned about his image than his burgeoning feelings for Angela on many occasions. But he was also the dreamboat guy - a brooding bad boy with good looks and some kind of baffling charm.
Angela's relationship with him was brilliantly done, too - the epitome of 'I love you, I hate you, I can't live without you'. It's all-consuming, the only thing that Angela can think about, and anyone who has been a teenager can understand the way she over-analyses everything about him (I love it when they're kissing, exchanging completely banal sentences which become the most romantic things Angela has ever heard.)
It's kind of gratifying that Jordan becomes the one to chase her after she breaks up with him, refusing to sleep with him to keep him around. But overall, it's no real surprise that this has become one of the TV romances - it's typically on-off and drama-filled, but there's an extra quality about the writing in My So-Called Life that just makes it feel real.
That's a general theme that runs throughout the series - take Jordan Catalano's band Frozen Embryos, which is just as rubbish as you'd expect from high-school wasters. Or Angela's mum and dad, who are wonderfully played by Bess Armstrong and Tom Irwin. Who hasn't seen their relationship? And I love that they're so conflicted about doing what's best for Angela, never quite knowing what to do, but always being there for her - whether it's just to hug her when she needs her mum again, or to take her drunk and unconscious friend to hospital.
For example, I love the moment when Angela suggests her little sister Danielle should do the mother-daughter fashion show instead of her, and then tries to bite back the tears as she watches, both happy to be growing up and distraught at breaking away from her mum.
My So-Called Life was by no means perfect - the trouble in Angela's parents' lives wasn't always as engaging as the rest of the show, though it was appreciated that the show was making an effort to make them more than just mum and dad. And sometimes the show's admirable bold steps could backfire - while the creepy Halloween episode played perfectly with the idea of hauntings, the Christmas instalment - with a homeless ghost - was a little overplayed and lost some of the realism that made the series special.
Still, it's hard to criticise a show that did so much so well, from its brilliant voiceovers - almost always from Angela - to the way its characters have surprisingly profound and genuinely moving thoughts in between all the "likes" and "you knows".
And despite all the 'issues', it would be doing a disservice to My So-Called Life not to mention how brilliantly witty and funny it is, whether it's the running joke of the never-seen Tino or the fantastic penultimate episode which sees Rayanne handcuffed to Angela's parent's bed and brings all the characters together in such a wonderful way. I also have to mention Angela's little sister Danielle, perpetually ignored and often the wisest person in the room, who brings such fun to the show.
It's not a surprise, then, that there was uproar when the show wasn't renewed for another season. The ratings hadn't been great, but the people who did watch it loved it, enough to take out adverts in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter begging the network to give it another chance. Still, Danes wasn't up for shooting another season for one reason or another, and though it's not fair or right or even factually correct to blame the end of the series on her, it wouldn't have been the same without her.
So while My So-Called Life ended on a heartbreakingly frustrating cliffhanger - we'll never know whether Angela chose Jordan or Brian or neither - maybe it's best that it ended when it did. It certainly seems ahead of its time, and now we can look back on it with fondness, knowing it burned bright for its 19 episodes.
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