In the nearly 20 years since My So-Called Life went off the air, there’s never quite been a series like it, though many have tried to build the program’s true successor. There have been plenty of standout shows about teenagers since the saga of Angela Chase died a much-mourned death after one season, but they’ve couched their stories in soapy excess (The O.C.) or genre trappings (Buffy and Veronica Mars). Even the shows that come close to Life’s beauty and earnestness deflect from those moments ever so slightly with the use of cringe comedy (Freaks And Geeks) or by focusing more on adult characters than teens (Friday Night Lights). My So-Called Life felt utterly and completely unique when it aired, and it feels utterly and completely unique now; if this show somehow found its way onto the schedule in the fall of 2014, it would almost certainly be just as hailed as it was in 1994, and it would almost certainly feel as fresh as it did then. It is an oasis in the history of television, but like all oases, its presence was far too small.
My So-Called Life was one of the last gasps of a particularly fertile period in the history of network TV drama. In the mid-’80s, ABC was in last place among the big three networks and had nothing to lose, so it started giving interesting writers carte blanche (within the standards of American TV networks) to create interesting programs that would hopefully boost the network’s profile. It was a period that led to shows like Twin Peaks and Moonlighting, from traditional dramas in unique settings like China Beach to straightforward cop shows that delved a little more deeply and poetically like NYPD Blue. The strategy didn’t really pay off. When ABC finally climbed to the top of the Nielsen charts in the mid-’90s, it was thanks to a bunch of family sitcoms like Home Improvement and Roseanne. But the dramas ABC was putting on the air were of the sort that would, in 10 years’ time, gravitate more naturally to cable.
Foremost among these programs was one of only two to win the Emmy for best drama series (the other was NYPD Blue), Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz’s thirtysomething. One of the most important and influential TV dramas ever made, thirtysomething dared viewers to invest in the minutiae and intrigue of day-to-day life. It was a show where the stakes might be as small as a man having a crisis of conscience over having sold his soul to work in advertising, a show where the emotional terrain had more in common with literary novels and short stories than with the detective and workplace dramas that dominated the TV landscape when it debuted in 1987. There had been series about regular people leading regular lives before, but this was the first one not to strain to find its conflict in important social issues or the like. (The idea that it was possible to tell stories about internal conflict or people struggling toward satisfaction without relying heavily on Very Special Episodes is one many of thirtysomething’s progeny would forget.) That series was greeted as so many series like it are—with several skeptical-to-hostile reviews and complaints that the characters were too self-absorbed, before eventually giving way to grudging respect—but it gradually became a touchstone of its era.
After its cancellation in 1991 after four seasons, however, Herskovitz and Zwick went looking for another series to bring to ABC, and they found it in an idea Winnie Holzman, one of the thirtysomething writers, had been kicking around: Why not tell the story of adolescence as it really feels to those living it? The sorts of heightened passions and emotions that thirtysomething trafficked in would make complete sense when filtered through the perspective of teenagers, and Holzman’s memory of what it felt like to be that age, combined with her observational skills when it came to modern teenagers, created a pitch-perfect representation of the uneasy mix of self-absorption and slow awakening that marks so much of being a teenager. (At least, they did eventually; My So-Called Life went through a long development process, particularly for network television, which has been detailed thoroughly by Holzman, Zwick, and Herskovitz.)
Holzman accomplished this with the help of a writers’ room so talented that the most junior member was Jason Katims, a kid who would go on to become one of the few current producers carrying the Herskovitz/Zwick template forward in the modern TV era. (He was responsible for the next Herskovitz/Zwick series, Relativity—which attempted to do for the 20s what Life did for teens and will be covered later in this feature—and the aforementioned Friday Night Lights.) Life’s delicate visual style was beautifully helmed by many of the best TV directors of the era, including Scott Winant, Ellen Pressman, and Todd Holland. The supporting cast was also stellar, including both unknown, fresh-faced teenagers, like Devon Gummersall, Jared Leto, and A.J. Langer, and better known character actors Bess Armstrong and Tom Irwin as the parents, whose stories would gradually become as fascinating as those led by the kids. This was perhaps My So-Called Life’s most significant innovation: Before this series, shows with teenagers as the leads would often eschew the parents entirely. After it, the parents had to be included somehow.
None of this would have worked without the right Angela, however, and in Claire Danes, Holzman and company found one of the great child actors of all time. When originally cast, Danes was just 13, playing 15, but all involved in the show were certain she was the right actress for the role. And even watching the series now, it’s obvious that she’s absolutely astonishing in the part. Danes’ greatest talent was being able to allow essentially any emotion—or any combination of emotions or cycle of emotions—to play across her face almost instantaneously. It’s a skill the show would turn to time and again, without ever over-relying on it. Notice these moments toward the end of the pilot, in which Angela arrives home from a party that went south, only to realize that things aren’t as perfect between her parents as she assumed. (The shot of Danes and Gummersall framed in silhouette against the moody trees of suburban Pittsburgh is one of TV’s most beautiful.)
Rewatching the pilot—one of the best ever made—it’s amazing how thoroughly Holzman, Winant, and the cast combine the adolescent world with the thirtysomething sensibility to make something that feels all the more vibrant for bringing them together. Pilots are meant to set up the necessary conflicts of the show’s world, often through over-expository dialogue or a new character being thrust into a setting. My So-Called Life sets up most of its necessary conflicts and character points within the first 10 minutes of its running time. It’s a supremely confident piece of work, taking us through Angela’s changed social standing (she starts hanging out with a less straitlaced crowd than she did before); the tensions between her and her parents, especially her mother; and the slowly budding sense she has of her own love life, particularly as it comes to her crush on the always-leaning Jordan Catalano (Leto). Much of this was conveyed via voiceover, delivered by Danes in a disaffected style that made you feel just how much Angela was struggling to be cool.
It would have been easy enough for Life to endlessly repeat the stories and conflicts set up in its pilot. Instead, it went about the more difficult task of deepening them, developing all of its characters and delving into their inner lives in just 19 episodes. Angela’s parents, Graham (Irwin) and Patty (Armstrong) became a kind of sequel to thirtysomething tacked on to the sidelines of Angela’s story. The center of the show, in many ways, was the relationship between Patty and her daughter, twisting and changing because of Angela’s teenage rebellion but never shifting so far as to snap. As Angela’s free-spirited friend, Rayanne, Langer gradually filled in a character who could have been an excuse for lots of hand-wringing about the problem with kids today on other series, making her rebellions the byproduct of having a mother who’d just given up on raising her daughter. (Leto managed similar feats with the more mysterious-by-design Jordan.) Both Gummersall and Devon Odessa were treated with similar empathy as the kids Angela was leaving behind on her teenage walkabout.
Then there was Wilson Cruz as Rickie, TV’s first gay teenager, a character who became the show’s most lasting legacy because he was treated not as a lesson for everyone to learn but as a human being to respect, love, and nurture. In the episodes where Graham and Patty take Rickie into their home because he has nowhere else to go, there’s a feeling of TV going to a place it hasn’t been before, but doing so in a way that’s neither exploitative nor excessive. Rickie is simply allowed to be, and Graham and Patty are allowed to be uncomfortable with him—but also to overcome that sense when they realize what a good kid he is and how unfairly his family has treated him. In a way, it mirrors the journey toward increased acceptance of homosexuality that was occurring in the United States in the ’90s, but it never pushes too far or tries too hard.
There’s a sense in almost every episode—in almost every scene—that this series could be about any of these characters. In fact, in speeches she’s given post-cancellation, Holzman has said that much of the pilot-writing process was about her learning to “love” the other characters, especially Angela’s parents, and that care for all of these people shines through every chance the writers get. It allows the show to get away with silly things like the revelation that Jordan can’t read or an entire Christmas episode centered on a homeless teen angel played by Juliana Hatfield. It also allows the show to feel more and more like an ensemble drama with every episode, to the degree that Angela actually cedes voiceover duties to Brian and her little sister in two episodes. (Part of this was the fact that Danes, being so young, couldn’t work as long as the other cast members. With a 19- or 20-year-old playing 15, as would happen on so many other series, this would have been Angela’s story, full stop. Holzman and her collaborators were always open to making lemonade out of lemons.)
Among one-season wonders, My So-Called Life is unique in that it was very nearly renewed but for its most important cast member no longer wishing to participate. Danes, with a film career calling and no love for the long hours of TV, ultimately requested of Holzman, Herskovitz, and Zwick, as well as the network executives keeping the show on the air, that it not go to a second season. ABC, which looked at the low ratings for season one and didn’t see a great deal of potential improvement for season two, was only too happy to oblige, and My So-Called Life became one of the most famous one-season shows ever, particularly when MTV picked it up for reruns in an unusual deal for the time. Danes, Holzman, and Winant received Emmy nominations, but the show faded away.
In a way, the fate of My So-Called Life is perfect. Did anyone really want to see Angela Chase grow up, or watch Graham and Patty’s marriage eventually dissolve (as it always seemed it must)? Did anyone really want to see Angela choose Jordan to close out the season-one cliffhanger, only to realize just how poorly that relationship was inevitably going to go? Better to leave Angela, her family, and her friends trapped in the moment we last saw them, frozen in the middle of the last decade of the 20th century, when things still seemed so open to possibility.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Wonder.
Next time: Phil Dyess-Nugent stalks those who go bump in the night with the original Kolchak: The Night Stalker.