Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Late to the Party #9: My So-Called Life (1994-95)

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around.

One of my biggest dreams, that I keep shoved down in the deep recesses of my mind because it's never going to actually happen, is to create a high school drama.  It's something I've thought about for as long as I can remember, and who knows, maybe I'll grow out of it when I get older.  But to me, there's no greater desire I have than to create something that has an emotional effect on others in the same way that my favorite works of art have on me.  (It's part of the reason why I write these blog posts, and look at me failing miserably!)  For better or worse, my high school years were the ones where I felt things the most deeply, and I'd specifically want to be able to reach those who are going through the same thing.

When you think about it, it's kind of crazy that television has existed as an art form for so long and we've gotten so few high school dramas, and even less truly great ones.  Still, even some of those only approach high school life in roundabout ways.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my second favorite show of all time, but the three seasons that took place at Sunnydale High buried metaphors about the high school experience in its monsters of the week.  Friday Night Lights, another great one, is more of a small town drama, and even a family drama centered around the Taylors, before it could be classified as a true high school drama.  Even the wonderful and also canceled-too-soon Freaks and Geeks pitches itself enough on the side of comedy to where it's certainly a high school show, but not necessarily a drama.  In that sense, ABC's cult hit My So-Called Life is the truest -- and possibility best -- example of the form.  It's so good that watching it has almost squashed my desire to create a high school drama of my own, because I can't imagine ever making something that surpasses it.

Where something like Freaks and Geeks was a nostalgic stroll through the pains and joys of high school, My So-Called Life is a headlong rush into the maelstrom of emotions that seem to be a part of adolescence's default package.  Never before have I seen such an accurate depiction of the teenage temperament in its fully saturated glory.  When you watch any episode, you run the risk of experiencing a dull ache wondering how the show can have a such a keen eye for internal details.  How the lust of a crush feels so raw and tangible, but how the pain of unrequited love feels even more so.  How friendships can be so mercurial.  How adults seem completely alien, to the point where it's basically impossible to imagine they were ever your age, or felt the same things you feel.

Of course, there are also so many things about it that are uniquely 90s.  Some of those elements date the show in a bad way -- Angela's parents freaking out in the pilot over Rickie being bisexual feels so hilariously antiquated, and at one point somebody says the line "that is like so known," which is a phrase that sounds painful to 2014 ears.  But in general, its 90s-ness gives the show even more texture and specificity.  Even from a structural standpoint, the show is indicative of the time period during which it aired.  The first and only season is definitely serialized, but it came before the post-Sopranos boom of heavily serialized storytelling, so the arcs sort of amble about in an oblique way.  The show is almost like a series of teen short stories that accumulate into an overarching narrative, a style that the television landscape has started to circle back around to with shows like Mad Men.  It was also very interesting stylistically, proceeding with a kind of daydream logic.  The hazy mood, the ubiquitous narration, the occasional reverie -- it all works so well because adolescence is almost like its own form of magical realism.  Even when My So-Called Life wasn't being "real," it still felt real.

It takes on this bleary, ruminative air because it's essentially the world as seen through the eyes of Angela Chase (Claire Danes).  Angela's more of a dreamer than a doer, and most of the episodes are framed around the observations she has about her life and the environment around her via narration.  It's a device that can be disastrous if employed poorly, but here, the narration is such an essential part of understanding who she is.  Sometimes it's so attuned to the small human behaviors that only teens notice because they spend so much time being self-conscious, but other times it's the kind of faux-profound musings we'd expect from a 15-year-old.  That balance is an important point, because when I was watching these episodes, I was struck by Angela's normalcy.  For the most part she's a regular, well-adjusted teen, and the show was never afraid to indulge in the emotional highs and lows that all teens face.  Angela is an extremely moody person -- not unlike Dana Brody on Homeland, or any other sullen teen that annoys most of the internet these days -- but it's not the only side of her.  She's capable of being taciturn with her parents, but then having a deep moment of understanding with them; she can sulk to a song by The Cranberries one second and giddily dance to The Violent Femmes the next; and she can show great kindness and great selfishness in equal amounts.  It's one of the most well-rounded depictions of a teenager that I've ever seen, and even when she's not likable, Angela Chase is always relatable.

Part of that comes from Claire Danes' skills as an actress.  It's hard to wrap one's head around the fact that she was only 15 years old during most of the filming of this show, because she's just so darn good.  Angela feels like a real, three-dimensional character because Danes is able to sell her emotions so effectively.  She's got such an expressive face -- to the point where her crying has become an internet meme -- and it's just fascinating to sit there and watch her gears turn.  The casting of Danes makes a strong case against the current CW model of casting, where all of the teenage characters are played by impossibly beautiful 24-year-olds.  Danes feels like a believable teenager mostly because she was an actual teenager at the time.  (Though to be fair to other shows, most of the other actors here were 19 or 20 at the time, and finding a 15-year-old as talented as Claire Danes isn't exactly an easy task.)

For as much as My So-Called Life is known for being a show about Angela Chase, it revealed itself as having a rich ensemble very early on.  The show was never afraid to put its main character on the sidelines for a little while, hanging the weight of important storylines on her friends at Liberty High, who evolved just as thoroughly as she did.  Rayanne's (A.J. Langer) arc throughout the season is a great example of this. At the beginning of the show, she's portrayed as the fun and wild type, and it's easy to see why Angela would find her alluring.  But the season goes on to show how frustrating and tiresome being around somebody like Rayanne can become.  She emerges as the most tragic figure of the series, forced to face the consequences of her lack of impulse control and general insouciance.  And while it may seem like a common archetype now, Rickie (Wilson Cruz) was a pretty groundbreaking character at a time where teenage homosexuality wasn't something that got examined to the extent that it did here.  All of the characters are placed in slightly different corners of the universe, and the season is all about the slow accumulation of connections between them.  Just look at the subtle friendships that form between Rickie and Brian (Devon Gummersall) or Rayanne and Sharon (Devon Odessa), both of which occur independent of Angela.

The show was always interested in taking a 360 degree look at all of its characters, probing deeply in search of what makes them tick.  "Life of Brian," the show's eleventh episode, takes this idea to its furthest extent.  The episode -- written by a young story editor named Jason Katims, whom you may recognize for being the creator of two of the greatest dramas of the past decade in Friday Night Lights and Parenthood -- offers a refreshing look into life from the perspective of the hapless Brian Krakow.  It even passes the reigns of narration over to him, where we learn that his concerns are much less flowery and soul-searching than Angela's are.  He's mostly self-deprecating and hilariously focused on the immediate goal of getting a girlfriend.  For an episode that could've just been a stylistic detour from the rest of the show, "Life of Brian" manages to strike an excellent balance between uproarious comedy and wistful melancholy.  It's one of the show's best episodes.  (If nothing else, it proves that Claire Danes is much better at voiceover narration than Devon Gummersall is.)

There's no better example of how well My So-Called Life handled its ensemble than its treatment of Angela's parents.  In fact, Patty (Bess Armstrong) and Graham Chase (Tom Irwin) might be the most interesting characters on the entire show.  Where other parents on teen shows are just there as decoration so we don't think the main character is an orphan, Patty and Graham were fascinating, fully-realized people.  They weren't just pesky deviations from the central narrative, but something that was essential to the show's grand scheme.  Most of their storylines focused on the two of them navigating the difficult terrain of married life, showing that just like parenthood, marriage is a constantly evolving process.  There's never any doubt of the love between the two of them, but their own individual grapples with middle age and the tiny disappointments they have with their lives have warped the edges of parts of them that used to connect perfectly.  I can imagine that teenagers in 1994 looked at their plotlines and thought, "why are we wasting time with this Baby Boomer BS?," but the Patty and Graham material is actually riveting stuff.

Series creator Winnie Holzman came up under the tutelage of Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, where she was a writer on the last two seasons of their classic, thirtysomething, so it's no real surprise that the stories about Angela's parents on My So-Called Life were so strong.  thirtysomething was revolutionary for the way that it opened an avenue for telling stories about the middle aged and middle class, and Patty and Graham feel like lost characters from that show.  But Holzman learned more than just that from Herskovitz and Zwick, who also served as executive producers on My So-Called Life.  She was able to mine conflict from the ordinary, channeling the everyday angst of being a teenager in the same way her mentors did for Baby Boomers on thirtysomething.  The drama of the stories on My So-Called Life turned the knob a notch or two higher, but they rang true because the core was lifted straight from life itself.

Is My So-Called Life the product of a bygone era?  You can certainly see some vestiges of the way it applied heightened emotion to relatively small scale issues in Friday Night Lights or Parenthood (which is no surprise, given that Jason Katims is another student of Herskovitz and Zwick).  But it's hard to even imagine a show like My So-Called Life existing on ABC today, or Freaks and Geeks on NBC.  After the failures of both of those shows, teen dramas were mostly ghettoized to The WB, and even now they've almost completely gotten phased out in The WB's transition to the increasingly sci-fi CW.  There are still some teen and family dramas that exist, they've just been pushed further to the fringes, as you can see a lot of My So-Called Life's mixture of earnestness and melodrama in ABC Family's Switched at Birth and The Fosters.

But still, there's nothing that has been as pitched down the middle to teens as this show was.  In a way the central story of "The Substitute," the show's 6th episode, is sort of like the ethos of the entire series -- showing that teenagers have a right to have their voices heard and their stories told.  Even in 2014, the frank discussion about sexuality in "Pressure" still holds up.  The show has made such a lasting impression because it gets at something deep within the human condition, showing how we all can be so stuck in our inner monologues that it's hard to have any real perspective on ourselves.  Even though it may be specific to the details of its period and the emotions of the age range it depicts, the themes are as universal as they come.  In that way, it serves as a bible for those still in the heat of adolescence, a comforting hug for those whose last embers just recently burnt out, and an old photo for the people whose youth has long since had its ashes blown away in the wind.

Ever since the show's cancellation in 1995, Winnie Holzman hasn't had much success anywhere else.  Her first post-MSCL project was a show that was going to air on HBO, until they decided to pick up a little show called The Sopranos instead.  (Do you ever lie awake at night wondering what the current television landscape would be like if they went the other way with that decision?  No?  Just me?)  In 2010, she co-created ABC Family's Huge with her daughter Savannah Dooley, but it was cancelled after one season, despite critical acclaim.  So who knows if she'll ever run another show and deliver the magic that she did with My So-Called Life, but I like to remain hopeful.  Until then, I'll be waiting with my flannel T-shirt and Buffalo Tom cassettes.

Essential Episodes

1. Episode 8, "Strangers in the House"
One of the best things about My So-Called Life is the great sense of history that it has.  We don't start the show at the beginning of any of these relationships between the characters, even Angela's newfound friendship with Rayanne and Rickie is something that happens a little bit before the pilot.  There's no relationship on the show with a greater sense of history than the fractured one between Angela and Sharon.  In the pilot, the writers don't feel the need to hold your hand and explain exactly why they're not friends anymore, because the pain of the distance alone is deeply felt.  The backstory of their relationship is doled out in piecemeal fashion: they used to be lifelong best friends because their moms are also best friends, but drifted apart once Angela started hanging out with Rayanne and Rickie.  "Strangers in the House," brings everything to a head, finally putting the two of them together when Sharon's father has a heart attack that lands him in the hospital.  Even though they don't instantly become best friends again, the mutual understanding that they still care about each other even though they've become different people is a powerful one nonetheless.  To me, Angela and Sharon are the heart and soul of the show, and this episode is easily my favorite.  If you don't bawl like a baby when the "squeeze my hand as hard as it hurts" moment happens at the end, then are you really even a human being?

2. Episode 3, "Guns and Gossip"
The show went to the "somebody brings a gun to school" well dangerously early, but they managed to pull it off spectacularly.  In many ways, this episode reminded me of one of my favorite Buffy episodes, "Earshot," where the idea of somebody bringing a gun to school is just a catalyzing factor for the episode's true aims.  Like that episode, "Guns and Gossip" posits that teenagers are just like vessels carrying all of this overwhelming pressure, occasionally intersecting and crashing into one another.  Nobody specifically knows what it's like to be anybody else, yet there's this unspoken connection between everybody at Liberty High.  Just look at the way information is conveyed through glances in this episode.  It's almost as if the suspicion that Rickie was the one who brought the gun to school is passed on through telepathic waves.  My So-Called Life was always good at having one event that affected every character in some small way, and "Guns and Gossip" is the first and best example of that.

3. Episode 15, "So-Called Angels"
Let's get this out of the way right at the top: this is technically not a good episode of television and I think most of us can agree on that.  If this was a list of the best episodes, I'd probably have "Life of Brian" or "On the Wagon" somewhere on here.  But whether or not "So-Called Angels," the show's Christmas episode, is good doesn't matter because it's important to understanding what My So-Called Life is all about.  This is a treacly, goofy, heavy-handed episode.  But somewhere underneath all of that is a beautiful story about people struggling for meaning in what they do and being forced to venture outside of their small cone of existence.  The message is essentially "help one another!," which may seem a little facile, but it's easy to imagine teenagers finding that idea extremely powerful.  "So-Called Angels" swings for the fences and lands somewhere in the dugout, but it's never not fascinating to watch.

4. Episode 17, "Betrayal"
Here's another one that's not one of the top 5 best episodes (although, like most episodes of this show, it's still terrific), but it's essential in that it shows how deftly the series dipped into melodrama.  The Angela and Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) arc is one of the show's many great curveballs.  It's basically a common tale of "girl attains the seemingly unattainable guy, but then he's not what she expects" that gets transformed from a cliche into something real and painful and complicated.  "Betrayal" intersects that arc with Rayanne's story, which had been bubbling under the surface for a few episodes.  Jordan is confused by Angela acting like she's over him and pursuing another guy and Rayanne is upset about her growing distance with Angela, one that was only temporarily mended in "On the Wagon," and the two of them are briefly united by the mutual cause of their dismay. When Rayanne has sex with Jordan in his car, and it turns out that Brian Krakow caught it on tape, it feels like a moment where the show could go completely off the rails.  And maybe the way that the episode juxtaposes that storyline with Patty suspecting that Graham is cheating on her with his new business partner, then sprinkles on top the element of Angela realizing what she's doing to Rickie is the same thing Rayanne did to her, is a little too neat.  But none of that matters, because any qualms fall away in that final scene, where Rayanne and Angela re-enact a snippet from the end of Our Town.  I mean, just watch this scene.  It's absolutely gutting.

5. Episode 18, "Weekend"
All of the rest of the episodes on this list are pretty heavy, but My So-Called Life was often very funny, and one of my favorite episodes is also the one where the show let its hair down the most.  "Weekend" is a great example of the short story structure that I referred to earlier in the piece.  It's framed around this weekend that seems like a fun little diversion, but it also sneaks some long-form plot momentum into the mix.  It neatly divides the episode into the teen half and the adult half, uniting the two storylines by having the Angela-Rayanne pairing and the Graham-Patty pairing both trying to address the underlying issues of their relationship without actually addressing them.  At first, Rayanne getting cuffed to Graham and Patty's bed seems like a hackneyed sitcom plot, but the story just slowly introduces every character into the mix, to the point where it's ridiculously fun.  Graham and Patty's story is a little more weighty, but even that one is pretty fun too.  "Weekend" may initially seem like a strange way to set up what would ultimately be the series finale, but it's actually a lovely and clever penultimate episode that subtly comments on the journey that these characters have been on over the course of the season.


  1. Add this to the list of shows that I've never heard of, though the way you describe this makes it sound like Claire Danes' "ER" (in George Clooney terms) if we considered Homeland a movie. Did you ever watch ER?

    And are you implying that the television landscape would be filled with heartwarming family dramas like Parenthood dominating the ratings as opposed to the inescapable rise of "The Antihero?"

    1. I've only seen a handful of ER episodes and they were all from the post-Clooney era.

      I'd say that the Clooney comparison is slightly off because 99% of people think of George Clooney and say "George Clooney the movie star," but there are alot of people who still immediately think of My So-Called Life (or Romeo & Juliet) when Claire Danes' career comes up. And rightfully so, because as much as I love her work on Homeland, her performance as Angela Chase is so iconic. I mean, did you see that scene I linked to in the essential episodes section about "Betrayal"? She says one line in the whole scene and it's still incredible!

      I don't think that family dramas would dominate the ratings under any circumstance today, even if HBO had picked up Winnie Holzman's second show, which wasn't similar to MSCL in premise at all. I tend to believe that television cycles (and cycles of all art, for that matter) are somewhat of a response to whatever the current national climate is. So the brooding drama/antihero movement was probably bound to start with or without The Sopranos, since it was sort of born out of America's frustration with the Bush administration. I just wonder whether there'd be less of them if the tides had turned in Holzman's favor.