Thursday, June 11, 2009
My So-Called Life was the antithesis of the "Very Special Episode". From this show's vantage point, the teenage years were a vast wasteland of politically pertinent social issues and grungy, flannel angst. It was the polar opposite of most other teen shows sprouting up during the early-to-mid 90s, according to which it seemed that high school was just one long lighthearted romp with issuettes that could be solved neatly within a period of 30 minutes. My So-Called Life epitomized the youth culture pre-Clueless-era 90s teens aspired to be in a flannel-wearing, adult questioning, angst-brimming way. In short, it was brutally honest.
Unfortunately, this brutal honesty quickly morphed into ratings disaster for ABC. It seemed people weren't interested in a real, well-rounded look at actual ongoing issues facing teens. If anything, perhaps it was too real; the show failed to create a sense of idealized fantasy like 90210 or Saved by the Bell. The characters had visible, deep-seated flaws (you know, like real people) and veered sharply from the brain-dead bubblegum pop themes of its contemporary teen programs (Zach and the Gang join the glee club!) . If anything, it was the adeptness with which the show presented characters as real multifaceted people that seemed to alienated potential viewers who were used to more one-dimensional characters.
Most teen shows at the time could cleanly divide their characters into stereotype molds: the jock, the nerd, the brain. Characters were becoming mere caricatures of actual human traits and sensibilities. In My So-Called Life, characters were, well, somewhat reminiscent of actual teenagers. They were moody, hormonal, and self-questioning. They were teenagers.
If you flipped through the channels during prime teen programming blocks, other channels would be showing unlikely self-actualized and well-adjusted teenagers negotiating through easily remediable situations. If you ever have been or even have met a teenager, you know the chance of coming across those qualities in a real life high schooler was about as likely as finding Zach Morris and Kelly Kapowski shooting up heroin together in the bathroom of a sleazy alleyside bar. In short, the teenage best-years-of-your-life fantasy may have been dominant and all-powerful in the ratings, but My So-Called Life's mirror to society manages to remain relevant and poignant over a decade later.
While most teenage TV shows featured actors well past their high school years (a la the audacity to cast a 29-year old Gabrielle Carteris as 16-year old Andrea Zuckerman on 90210), My So-Called Life cast an actual teenager as its star. At 15, Claire Danes was arguably more qualified to play a teenager than the joke-worthy 20-somethings pretending to be 15 in other teen-focused shows. Danes' character, Angela Chase, was the archetypal teenager. She was constantly questioning her own identity and the phoniness around her in a Holden Caulfield-type manner. If nothing else, she was incredibly, heart-breakingly real.
Watching My So-Called Life episodes now, it's easy to see why it wasn't a huge draw for most teenagers. In the show, Angela is impulsive, moody, rebellious, unreliable, deeply flawed, and suffers from devastatingly unrequited crushes. It's likely it hit a little too close to home for many 90s teenagers who were less than thrilled to be confronted with a reflection of their own inadequacies. Nonetheless, watching the show as an adult offers a whole new lens of perspective:
Is it just me, or did the movie Thirteen completely rip off this initial plot? I suppose the ditch-your-nerdy-goody-goody-best-friend-for-the-more-exciting-wild-and-crazy-friend is a fact of coming of age, but it certainly offers a dark insight about the flakiness and value-fluidity of teenagers seeking to find their place. Angela's completely self-focused attitude epitomizes the me-centric outlook of most teenagers, but it's not exactly an attractive quality. It seems that audiences like their main characters to represent what they are not but wish they could be, whereas My So-Called Life illuminated what they were but wish they were not. A little introspection can be a dangerous thing.
The supporting characters also offered a complex spectrum of issues generally not addressed by prime time programming. Angela's new best friend, Rayanne, is a promiscuous substance abuser with a wealth of emotional problems. Her sidekick Rickie Vasquez is openly gay (virtually unheard of for teen roles) and comes from an abusive household. The object of Angela's affection, Jordan Catalano (played by a hearthob-worthy Jared Leto) is an illiterate songwriter (I know, it makes no sense) who has been held back academically twice. After watching a few episodes, it was clear we weren't exactly dealing with the Brady Bunch here. Obviously these kids had problems that spanned a larger context than an hour-long weekly episode and thus plots were less episodic and more ongoing, making it more difficult for new viewers to jump in midseason.
The show was cut short when it was canceled prematurely in May 1995, leaving its small base of viewers with an as-of-yet unanswered cliffhanger. My So-Called Life was certainly ahead of its time, and perhaps if it had debuted a decade later it could have flourished into its full cliffhanger-answering potential. At the time, ABC executives underestimated the spending power of teenagers, particularly teenage girls) as a viable consumer demographic. Just imagine all of the value-inconsistent franchise product marketing that could have been.
If you were never among the original viewers or didn't pick up on it during the show's syndication on MTV, you are in luck. The show is available on DVD in all its angsty 90s glory. Sure, you may never find out if Angela chose rebel Jordan or brainy Brian, but at least you can know what all of these passionate message board contributors have been heatedly debating for the past 14 years.
Check it out:
Full 2nd Episode of MSCL on YouTube