Judge Jennifer Malkowski says that whoever was responsible for canceling this show can kiss her so-called ass.
"This life has been a test. If it had been an actual life, you would have received instructions on where to go and what to do."—Angela Chase
It's a bittersweet thing to remember a show like My So-Called Life that was so good and so important and so true—and so short. But more than a decade after its broadcast, with the pain of its cancellation somewhat numbed by time, it's a joy to find these 19 episodes about a teenage girl searching for an identity in the '90s just as relatable as they were back then, if not more so. And the gorgeous, thorough presentation of the series in this new release, My So-Called Life: The Complete Series, will fill fans with gratitude and overwhelming nostalgia.
Facts of the Case
Angela Chase (Claire Danes, Romeo + Juliet) is a fifteen-year-old girl struggling with her identity. She comes from a totally "normal" white, middle-class family with two parents, Graham (Tom Irwin, 21 Grams) and Patty (Bess Armstrong), and a little sister, Danielle (Lisa Wilhoit). She's separating herself from them in search of something more, and from the comfortable friends of her childhood, like best friend Sharon (Devon Odessa) and neighbor Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall, The L Word). Now she's more interested in people who are new, different, and a little dangerous, like the highly crushable bad boy, Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto, Requiem for a Dream), kooky party girl Rayanne (A.J. Langer, Escape from L.A.), and semi-closeted fashion pioneer Rickie (Wilson Cruz, All Over Me).
• "Dancers in the Dark"
• "Guns and Gossip"
• "The Zit"
• "The Substitute"
• "Why Jordan Can't Read"
• "Other People's Mothers" (with commentary by Bess
Armstrong, Claudia Weill)
• "Life of Brian" (with commentary by Devon Gummersall,
Todd Holland, Jason Katims)
• "On the Wagon"
• "So-Called Angels" (one commentary by Wilson Cruz,
Winnie Holzman; one by Scott Winant)
• "Weekend" (with commentary by Bess Armstrong, Lisa
Whilhoit, Adam Dooley)
• "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities"
It is particularly apt that Joss Whedon wrote a piece included in My So-Called Life: The Complete Series because, with Buffy The Vampire Slayer and My So-Called Life, he and Winnie Holzman conveyed the universality of teenage suffering more effectively than ever before or ever since. Beyond just conveying it so very well, the revolutionary thing both shows did was make it serious and relatable. Sure, teenagers are the most self-absorbed of people, but when the characters on these shows figure out that every single person around them is dealing with issues that feel just as earth-shattering and all-important as their own, then we get a real lesson in the impossible and impossibly important project of really understanding another human being. Whedon combined horror and melodrama to play with and accentuate the problems of a "normal teenage girl," Buffy Summers. Buffy has to save the world, so of course she has something to be angsty about. But what My So-Called Life does is both simpler and more difficult: it takes a girl who seems to have the "perfect" life and, instead of revealing the secret supernatural problems she actually has, it reveals how difficult a "perfect" life can feel for the person living it. And then it goes a step further, and lets that perfect girl get outside her own head and her own experience and earnestly confront the very different sets of problems that surround her at her public school.
The show is not flawless, but it's surprisingly close. Do too many episodes end with Angela crying and admitting to something deeply personal? Yes. Is it realistic for very different high schoolers like Sharon and Rayanne to secretly bond as much as they do? Probably not. Does Leto really convince us that Jordan is deeply intelligent even though he doesn't have book smarts? Not exactly. And does that shot of angel wings at the end of "So-Called Angels" cheapen a great story? Undoubtedly. But it's hard to come up with many more criticisms than those. In just nineteen episodes there are countless things I could praise, but I'm going to whittle it down to my top ten:
10 Things I Love about My So-Called Life
10. The Theme Song
9. How Everyone is in Love with Each Other
8. Its Sense of Humor About Itself
7. Gross Bathrooms and Limited Wardrobes
6. Its Reflection of a Cultural Moment
5. Its Beautiful Images, especially Brian and Angela in the Street
For a show set mostly in public school hallways and teenagers' bedrooms, My So-Called Life attained a very high level of creativity and beauty in its visuals. The contrast between the warm lighting and earth tones of the Chase house to the dingy fluorescents and metallic color palette of the school was particularly effective.
4. Parents as Real People
3. Its Endless Quotability
2. Rickie's Sexuality
It hardly seems possible to create a character like Rickie Vasquez now, post-Brokeback Mountain, and the fact that My So-Called Life pulled it off in 1994 is pretty amazing. Every young queer person has some TV or film character that made them feel like it was okay to be gay. Mine is Buffy's Willow Rosenberg, but for a lot of people, it's Rickie. In the special features, Cruz asserts, "I can't even tell you how many times I've gotten a letter from somebody who said, 'That show saved my life. That show made me feel like I was not alone.' " Cruz himself had recently come out when the show was in production and even got kicked out of his house for being gay, just like Rickie. When his father watched him perform in "So-Called Angels," he called his son and they began to work through their issues. Cruz says, "This episode is the reason that I have a relationship with my father." Creating a gay character like Rickie—who is so kind and funny and three-dimensional, and who is so deftly portrayed by Cruz—back in 1994 may be the series' most important legacy.
1. Angela's Narration
There are a million more things to love about My So-Called Life, but the last one I get to talk about is its presentation on this new DVD set. The only technical problems with this set are a certain degree of pixelation on darker scenes and bad balance between the volume levels on music and dialogue. For a '90s television production, it looks and sounds great. Packaged like a teenage girl's scrapbook, complete with lots of photos, scribbled quotations, facts about the episodes, and even a reprinting of Jordan's apology letter, the physical set itself is gorgeous. The 36-page booklet (with a plaid-print cover, of course, includes lots of episode info (including guest stars, quotations, and song lists) and the three essays. An impressive seven commentary tracks employ a wide variety of cast and crew and offer lots of fun little tidbits about the experience on-set, thoughtful discussion of the series' themes, and insight into the stylistic strategies the directors employed. Cruz and Holzman's track about "So-Called Angels" is the most moving, with Cruz discussing his real-life experiences as a gay teen, while Danes and Holzman are particularly thoughtful in their conversation about the feminist aspects of the show. Danes reflects, "When pushed, [Angela] does rally and assert herself…I wish there were more representations of peo—-- women like that. Especially girls." On the track for "Other People's Mothers," Bess Armstrong identifies the productive tension between watching the show as a teen and as a parent (and I myself am stuck between these two phases of life right now): "I have a mother and I have children, so you understand it from both sides. You remember being a teenager yourself and having those conversations with your mother and the experience with your own [children]." There are also a number of featurettes and interviews, each between 15 and 30 minutes long, which are quite well-produced and manage to bring back a huge percentage of the cast and crew.
In fact, the only regular cast member who didn't return to film these special features is Jared Leto. It's particularly fun to hear all the actors looking back and reading aloud their character descriptions from the start of the series. Perhaps the biggest treat here is just to watch Danes, who is such a marvelous actress and who has gone on to do so many other roles, look back on the series that started her career. We really get the sense that she grew up alongside Angela Chase, even (reportedly) sharing her very first kiss as Angela with Leto's Jordan Catalano. Danes laughs when Holzman says she felt bad about making her do all those make-out scenes: "You made me kiss Jared Leto, you cruel, cruel, corrupt woman!…How lucky was I to be having my imaginary teen romance with Jared, the ultimate heartthrob?" A photo gallery and highlights from a 1995 panel on the series round out the special features. The latter is fun, but also a little bit sad because the cast and crew were all answering questions about the series at a time when they had unknowingly shot their final episode, just before the cancellation.
Marshall Herskovitz speaks to the universal appeal of My So-Called Life with the insight, "Nobody forgets what they were like in high school. That moment in life is always radioactive for everybody." The series' place in TV history and the lives of its fans parallels that experience of being a teenager: it was brief and intense and heart-breaking—impossibly formative and totally unforgettable. It's been riffed on and ripped off by the next waves of great high-school shows: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Freaks and Geeks, and Veronica Mars. Joss Whedon best describes our relation to the series now at the close of his essay:
"[It's] the show that…I'll love the way you can only love as a youth: with fierce bewilderment and unembarrassed passion."
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• 36-Page Booklet with Essays by Joss Whedon, Janeane Garofalo, and Michele Byers
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