Today, shows about teenage life seem to be a dime a dozen. A few are good, but most are mediocre or worse. In 1994 however such shows were a rarity. Besides the excellent Wonder Years, there was the so-bad-its-good Saved By the Bell and the super soapy Beverly Hills 90210. Then in 1993, Winnie Holzman, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz came up with something truly original: A show that delved much deeper into what it means to grow up in the most turbulent years of your life. Instead of corny dialogue, pretty faces and window-dressing locales, the show would focus on the day to day big and small problems that we all deal with at that age.
My-So-Called-Life follows the exploits of 15 year old Angela Chase (Claire Danes) and right from the beginning, we are introduced to a character we can all relate to. Angela isn’t perfect and the show never makes her out to be. She has her faults, but they are ones we can all identify with. As it happens, there have been some major changes in Angela’s life. In an attempt to start redefining herself, she’s dyed her hair “Crimson Glow”, pushed aside her best friend Sharon (Devon Odessa), and has started hanging out with perpetual outsiders Rayanne (A.J. Langer) and Rickie (Wilson Cruz)
Transition is probably the word that best describes Angela’s life. Along with branching out on the kind of friends she has, she’s also trying to figure out who she is and what her stance is on things in her life. Her relationship with her parents have dramatically changed. In her fathers eyes she has changed. He no longer recognizes the young woman who’s breasts have come between them. The young girl is gone, replaced instead with someone beginning to test the limits of her independence.
Standing against the grain of this burgeoning independence is her mother Patty. Though wonderfully played by Bess Armstrong, Patty comes across as a shrill mother and wife. She’s her husband’s boss which has been causing a fair amount of problems in their marriage, to the extent that Graham is contemplating an affair. As a mother, she’s constantly fixated on how Angela’s behavior is primarily meant to “provoke her”, whilst simultaneously hating that she is treating her daughter the same way her own mother treated her. Daughters becoming their mothers is something brought up on more than one occasion in the series.
Of course there has to be a boy in Angela’s life. His name is Jordan Catalano and Angela spends a fair amount of time just spying . . . errr I mean looking at him from a distance. In Jordan, Angela has poured all of her romanticism and idealism which of course could never be lived up to by anyone. It’s wonderful to see Jordan changes in her eyes as the series progresses. He’s a mythical object for her affections that takes on real form, substance and faults.
Tinged with a sense of naïveté and whistfulness, Angela’s narration/internal monologue is at times funny, thoughtful, profound and best of all, her thoughts sounded like the those of a real teenager. For many teenagers who watched the show, it felt like the writers were in their head. It didn’t end with Angela’s narration either. The dialogue was often intelligent and sharp but thankfully lacked the hyper-articulate verbal exchanges that would come to dominate Dawson’s Creek only a few years later.
One of the best things about the show, and something that still is not done well enough to this day, is showing parents as real people as opposed to caricatures. Angela’s parents Patty and Graham were shown in a fair light, and due to Claire Danes work restrictions due to her age, the writers had to create bigger roles for the adults. It became an an unexpected benefit.
We got a chance to see a real marriage on screen. It wasn’t something from a Norman Rockwell painting. It was messy, strained and full of pain. Patty and Graham were probably happy once, but time, children and circumstances have dulled that happiness considerably.
For the most part there were no “after school special” episodes that dealt with hot button issues. These issues were simply weaved into the everyday life of the characters which made for a much more satisfying and realistic experience. For instance, Rickie was the first full time character who was bisexual, thought the series took great pains to make sure his depiction was realistically portrayed.
Whether it was Rayanne’s long-running battle with alcohol and drugs, Graham’s infidelity, or Angela’s newfound sexual awakening, the series kept everything grounded in realism. More often than not these things were not the overt issues that other shows would have brought attention to.
My So-Called Life won four Emmy’s, but sadly lasted only one season. The show went up against 4 top ten shows that year in it’s time slot and never got the backing from ABC it so richly deserved despite widespread critical acclaim. In short, it was cut down way before it’s prime. However, on the upside the show never jumped the shark. It never stayed on the air too long.
My So-Called Life is by far the most realistic portrayal of teenage life I have ever seen whether were talking about the big screen or silver screen. More shows would do well to examine the show and find a way to emulate or even blatantly rip off the show. Although the “big issues” don’t hit as hard now because things like sex and homosexuality are far more common and accepted, they haven’t lost their overall impact and deft touch.