My So-Called Life
September 3, 2012 9:30 AM   Subscribe

There are some TV shows that last for years and years, and when they finally go away, they're barely missed. And then there is the phenomenon of the TV show that dies quickly but leaves an indelible mark. Ten years ago, ABC fielded such a show: My So-Called Life, produced by the thirtysomething team of Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, premiered on Thursday, August 25, 1994 -- and was quickly reduced to ratings rubble by another new 8 p.m. series, NBC's Friends. But in 19 sublime episodes, Life left a lasting pop-culture legacy. Not only did it launch the careers of Claire Danes and Jared Leto, it defined the modern family drama -- and has influenced an entire generation of television writers. Says Greg Berlanti, the creator of The WB's Everwood and Jack & Bobby, ''It's the most painfully honest portrayal of adolescence ever on television.''
posted by Egg Shen (53 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
Much supplemental material at My So-Called Library.
posted by Egg Shen at 9:31 AM on September 3, 2012


Woah, I had no idea Edward Zwick was involved in My So-Called Life...
posted by nathancaswell at 9:34 AM on September 3, 2012


"My parents keep asking how school was. It's like saying, "How was that drive-by shooting?" You don't care how it *was*, you're lucky to get out alive." - Angela

My friends and I repeated that endlessly in high school.
posted by skycrashesdown at 9:36 AM on September 3, 2012 [11 favorites]


Very, very cool. I love MSCL, but much prefer adolescent angst in Zwick's series, "Once & Again"
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:38 AM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am exactly Angela/Claire Danes' age. I loved the show at the time, but it is hard for me to reflect on it because it was so tied up with my own so-called life.
posted by k8t at 9:41 AM on September 3, 2012 [8 favorites]


the creator of The WB's Everwood and Jack & Bobby, ''It's the most painfully honest portrayal of adolescence ever on television.''

Somebody didn't see the 4th season of The Wire
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:43 AM on September 3, 2012 [16 favorites]


Thank you for this. I actually didn't know the story behind why there was only one season.

I was a senior in high school in 1994-1995. This show contributed to my being lucky enough to get out alive. My boyfriend/husband-guy got the DVDs for me the Christmas it came out. I rewatch it from time to time. I still remember my Jordan Catalano, and I love that our generation has that shorthand for what that means from this amazing, heartbreaking show. It's amazing to find that that 17 year old has not gone away and doesn't forget what that was like almost 20 years ago, when I, like Angela, was desperate to be loved and to just have something happen.
posted by hydropsyche at 9:46 AM on September 3, 2012 [8 favorites]


Jack & Bobby was pretty good, actually. Very strange premise, and as far as awkward adolescence is concerned there's a very moving, painful and awkward scene where one young homosexual man admits his attraction towards another character with a howling sadness that to this day makes me want to vomit in sympathy.
posted by PapaLobo at 9:48 AM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jordan Catalano. Oh man...

But yeah, Claire Danes.

I'm gonna go weep for my lost adolescence now.
posted by roboton666 at 9:59 AM on September 3, 2012


Every time someone mentions My So-Called Life, I think of the Ross Rojek saga, which took place in the days before big companies realized that complete seasons of cult TV shows would sell on DVD.
posted by MegoSteve at 9:59 AM on September 3, 2012


Shows like My So Called Life and Freaks & Geeks, as much as they're tragic examples of television perfection being hastily dumped by the network, are also shining examples of shows that only needed the one season.

I mean, they're shows about that very specific phase of life, right? Did we really need six seasons of The Wonder Years?
posted by Sys Rq at 10:06 AM on September 3, 2012 [15 favorites]


Jack & Bobby was pretty good, actually. Very strange premise...

Which they ruined in the pilot by announcing which of the two boys grows up to be president.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:09 AM on September 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


I really wanted to like My So-Called Life, but the show had a combination of great and awful casting. Claire Danes and Jared Leto were inspired choices. Everybody else was terrible.

"Hey, let's be forward-thinking and give Angela a gay friend."
"Great idea. But let's be sure to cast the most obvious, mincing, effeminate guy we can find."
"Is Chris Colfer available?"
"Dude, he's four years old."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:14 AM on September 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


as much as they're tragic examples of television perfection being hastily dumped by the network, are also shining examples of shows that only needed the one season.

It seems to be mostly an American/Hollywood thing, that a great TV show must overstay its welcome if it's got the ratings to continue to sell advertising. Filthy lucre trumps artistic relevance every time. Look no further than something like MASH, which started as a genuinely hilarious piss-take on the US military (set in Korea, but it was really about Vietnam), but eventually managed to be about as pro-military as you could get and still be about the emergency medical side of things. I hated it by the time it was done.

Meanwhile in Britain, Fawlty Towers ran for two seasons, a total of 12-episodes. Because that's all the writers had in them.
posted by philip-random at 10:17 AM on September 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Chris Colfer and Wison Cruz are absolutely not the most mincing, effeminate gay men you could find. As a gay man who has spent a lot of time with other gay men, I promise that the range of possible behaviors is vast: these men might fall closer to the stereotype than many, but they're both strong actors delivering nuanced performances, and if you can't get past the limp wrist, then that might actually just be your problem. They're giving a face to issues that visibly gay teenagers deal with, and I for one was thrilled to have Ricky to relate to.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 10:24 AM on September 3, 2012 [53 favorites]


Claire Danes looks so young in that pilot. Of course, it's because she was only 13 when it was filmed, according to Wikipedia.

I wish the video weren't so fuzzy.
posted by grouse at 10:34 AM on September 3, 2012


"Hey, let's be forward-thinking and give Angela a gay friend."
"Great idea. But let's be sure to cast the most obvious, mincing, effeminate guy we can find."


I was about that age at the time My So-Called Life was on, and it rang very true to me. My friends who weren't deeply closeted behaved very much like Ricky, because they were trying to grow up and that was the way they believed gay men behaved. It was before the Internet, remember. So if your role models acted a certain way, maybe that was how you were supposed to act?

I own the DVDs and watch it about once a year, just to remember what a baffling hell growing up seemed to be.
posted by winna at 10:40 AM on September 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


I think that AIDS had decimated the ranks of many who could have been role models.

Richard Katimski played a gay teacher to whose home Ricky runs after his family rejects him. I wouldn't call his depiction mincing. If the series had continued, I was hoping to see the teacher and his partner adopt Ricky.
posted by brujita at 10:54 AM on September 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


I was the same age as the characters on the show when it premiered. And I LOVED the show. The episode "The Zit," about the mother/daughter fashion show and the list of hottest girls that the sophomore boys put out resonated with me SO HARD that I spent the final third of the episode crying. When I watched show originally, I haaaaaated Angela's mom and thought she was a lousy parent. When I got the DVDs as an adult, I thought she was a pretty good mom. Heh. Amazing how twenty years of perspective and a new appreciation of my own mom can completely change how I viewed a character. (I still don't care AT ALL about Graham and Patty's marital problems. Ugh, SHUT UP, Graham.)

I think Wilson Cruz's portrayal of Ricky is one of the best television performances from a young actor. He's beautiful in the Christmas episode.
posted by Aquifer at 10:56 AM on September 3, 2012 [13 favorites]


To this day, I can't hear the name "Jordan" without thinking "Jordan Catalano". If there was any more honest portrayal of young girl-crush love, it was how teenage girls always call their crushes by their full names.
posted by thanotopsis at 10:59 AM on September 3, 2012 [14 favorites]


I love you all so much. I will no doubt be coming back to this thread throughout the day to smile, and giggle, and cry a little.
posted by hydropsyche at 11:01 AM on September 3, 2012


I thought Tino was perfectly cast.
posted by Knappster at 11:06 AM on September 3, 2012 [35 favorites]


I was a year or two too young when this came out, and in the days of four TV channels, once you missed the start of the series that was it, unless it got repeated. I'm sad I didn't get into Freaks and Geeks, and I think it was because I watched it too late - it was never broadcast or released on DVD here, so I didn't get to see it until I was 28 or so. I saw The Breakfast Club when I was sixteen, and I think a couple of years older and I would have found it profoundly irritating rather than amazingly profound. How would MSCL stand up to a first time watcher now? Popular still works for adult me, but then that show was always a bit ridiculous and campy.
posted by mippy at 11:29 AM on September 3, 2012


I was 23-about-to-turn-24 when My So-Called Life and Friends premiered. I know Friends was supposed to be geared toward my age then but it always felt like they were older. Now when I watch it I see how painfully young they were, and how young the characters they were portraying were, but they seemed so sophisticated to me back then. I don't know why, maybe because they lived in The City? I lived on my own, had a job, a live-in boyfriend (who would soon become my fiance and then husband) but I felt like a kid when I watched that show.

Conversely, when I tried to get into My So-Called Life, I felt so much older and wiser than I probably was. I didn't really connect with Angela because I felt so far away from high school and that time in my life was so painful that I didn't want to go back. I was done with it, it was over, and I desperately didn't want to relive it. When I come across an episode now, I can appreciate how well done the series was.

I think Degrassi Jr. High was my My So-Called Life, even if it didn't ring entirely true all the time.
posted by cooker girl at 11:29 AM on September 3, 2012


rayanne was one of those early moments where i simultaneously related to and was attracted to a girl - confusing times. i agree that ricky rang very true to me. i had a few friends who spent their limited-outness time miming stereotypes as they learned who they really were. he was honestly my favorite part of the show and was probably the overall best person on the show (as far as just being a decent human being).

also - i know it's just the boiler room setting but christina yang and owen hunt give me flashes of angela and jordon sometimes.
posted by nadawi at 11:35 AM on September 3, 2012


I have one of the lunchbox DVD sets MegoSteve mentions. I guess I was fortunate in that I actually got a set with the bonus disc and that I never had any of the problems mentioned (double/triple-billing, email sold to spam/porn companies). My memories of what happened are pretty fuzzy - I bought it, there were delays but since it seemed to be a fan-funded labor of love I was okay with it. I didn't know about the problems or the scamming until afterwards, probably because I got my set was like "Oh, I'll google about why there was such a delay."
posted by zix at 11:45 AM on September 3, 2012


MegoSteve, I'm glad you brought that up. I got to know Dan after all of that happened so it was kind of a gap in my knowledge about him. But we often still geek out about MSCL together and he's promised to leave me the prototype MSCL lunchbox when he dies (which considering we're the same age, more or less, probably won't ever happen).

At the time the show was on, I looked a lot like Claire Danes -- of course, it didn't help I had a similar haircut and color, but needless to say I related to it a lot. And not just because of that -- I think it's rare that the experiences of a certain type of teenage girl get reflected in popular culture. It's strange when I watch the show now, though, how painful it feels and how young and naive Angela seems. At the time, that just seemed like how life was.
posted by darksong at 11:52 AM on September 3, 2012


Jack & Bobby was pretty good, actually. Very strange premise, and as far as awkward adolescence is concerned there's a very moving, painful and awkward scene where one young homosexual man admits his attraction towards another character with a howling sadness that to this day makes me want to vomit in sympathy.

Agreed, Jack & Bobby was pretty great. What was interesting to me was the depth the characters were allowed, all of them--the saga of their mother and Bradley Cooper had a ton of nuance (and Bradley Cooper, in boxer briefs, on a dining room table). I always find myself wanting to discuss it when people ask about seducing their grad advisors on ask.metafilter. Also, the speculative premise went a lot deeper than "Who grows up to be president?" The revelation in the end of the series about their dad? Reeeally interesting.

Also also tons of Mad Men actors! Megan as Roger Sterling's daughter! Awesome.

I think Degrassi Jr. High was my My So-Called Life, even if it didn't ring entirely true all the time.

I'm sort of a major aficionado of TV for and about teenagers, and I'd say early Degrassi comes close to My So-Called Life for realism--maybe moreso, in terms of class and diversity issues. Freaks and Geeks was probably better about class issues, too. Not that MSCL wasn't great, because it was.

(On a related note, if you haven't followed modern Degrassi/TNG, the current season has been fantastic, with only a few of the soap opera flourishes the most recent incarnation has become known for. Very, very well-written.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:03 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


"People are always saying you should be yourself, like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster."

Wisdom for the ages.
posted by likeatoaster at 12:13 PM on September 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


My friends and I still consider the scene where Jordan Catalano publically holds Angela's hand in the hallway, after weeks of secret makeout sessions in the boiler room, to be one of the greatest moments in the history of all television.
posted by lalex at 12:14 PM on September 3, 2012 [16 favorites]


For me, the closest tv ever got to my adolescence was Freaks and Geeks. My jaw hit the floor in recognition when I came across that. Or maybe its just my own personal demographics
posted by C.A.S. at 12:25 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Best show ever on Broadcast TV. Ever. I forced my wife and daughter to watch it with me a few years ago. They thought it was "OK" until Jordan came on, then I couldn't drag them away.

The relationship between Angela's parents was just amazingly real.

Rikki (why no love for Rikki here?) He may have been the first "gay" kid on TV. I say "gay" because he said in a show near the end he had never actually had a relationship.
I love that he was a fixture in the girls restroom with very little made of it.

And what about Rayanne? She was the girl that was way too cool I'd fall for in high school.

I was so bummed it went off TV.
posted by cccorlew at 12:41 PM on September 3, 2012


The other bit of 1990s media I remember as being painfully authentic was the book Girl, which I think was first excerpted in Sassy.

It's basically My So-Called Life in YA novel form - teenage girl gradually moves from good-girl clique to the local alternative scene while developing an all-encompassing crush on local indie heartthrob Jordan Catalano Todd Sparrow. I may need to reread that book.
posted by lalex at 12:42 PM on September 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


I'd never read/heard that Ross Rojek story, and I'm still reading through (the awesome) Colleen Doran's post, but I have to say that the guy who rescued the lunchboxes from the box set snafu and mailed them out to people who had ordered but never got them deserves some sort of Fandom Hall of Fame award.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:56 PM on September 3, 2012


I was just this morning talking to a friend about the Jordan/Angela handholding scene and the "be yourself, like a toaster" quote. The handholding scene is just perfection.
posted by Mavri at 1:05 PM on September 3, 2012


I was shocked when I learned that Homeland is a direct sequel to My So-Called Life, and that Claire Danes is playing the grown up version of the original teen age girl.
posted by Chekhovian at 1:06 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile in Britain, Fawlty Towers ran for two seasons, a total of 12-episodes. Because that's all the writers had in them.

And The Office. And Gavin & Stacey. And so much more. British TV shows end while people are still asking "why" rather than "why not".
posted by vidur at 1:28 PM on September 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, apart from Juliana Hatfield as a Christmas Ghost.
posted by mgrichmond at 1:28 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Which they ruined in the pilot by announcing which of the two boys grows up to be president.
I didn't see it that way at all, but that's a topic for a Jack & Bobby post. Which will probably never happen unless Bradley Cooper joins up and makes one himself.
posted by PapaLobo at 1:31 PM on September 3, 2012


When did they, like, do these interviews with the cast? All of them totally still sound like their characters.

And yet there are certain phrases ("burgeoning sexual self") they use that make me think this was done well after the fact.

"DANES: I remember there was one scene with Jared where the direction was
to kiss him all over his face. I didn’t know what that meant because I
hadn’t really made out many times before. I was kind of slobbering all
over him. He guided me through it and educated me on how to, like, make
out. There were so many overlaps with our real adolescence. I was 13
when I did the pilot. I was having a rough time making sense of my
development, my burgeoning sexual self, all of those unruly feelings
that accompany that time. I was just so glad that I had a forum to kind
of exercise these feelings. I mean, I had Jared Leto teaching me how to
make out."
posted by eric1halfb at 2:08 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


If there was any more honest portrayal of young girl-crush love, it was how teenage girls always call their crushes by their full names.

Teenage boys, too. Or at least me at that age, although I actually identify pretty strongly with Angela Chase in that show, so what do I know.
posted by madcaptenor at 3:10 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I kinda lost interest when Tino left Frozen Embryo and took the name with him and Jordan renamed them 30 Seconds to Mars. Total sellouts.
posted by item at 3:27 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I loved this show... it came out when I was a junior in high school, and I remember my French teacher being completely obsessed with it. In retrospect it wasn't that weird, because he was only about 32 that year and I'm sure it reminded him of his own teenage years, but it was kind of trippy to be sitting in class and hear him erupt in a blue streak of French about Angela Chase and her cheveux roux.

Rayanne, though... the trippiest thing about Rayanne, for me, is that someday she'll be the Countess of Devon.
posted by palomar at 3:42 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was a few years older than Danes, darksong, and with the same hair (but I'm pretty sure I dyed it before the show came on). People used to tell me I looked like her which, in retrospect, is hilarious because I don't look like her at all. I probably tied flannels around my waist though. It was so honest and relatable... watching most teen shows (Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl etc.) makes me sad for how far removed these shows are from reality of most teens' lives.

Jordan Catalano will always be my definition of a teenage dreamboat. "I just love the way he leans."
posted by Bunglegirl at 4:49 PM on September 3, 2012


Sorry, no. Angela's mom was a joyless harridan. However she did host an LSD party on Mad Men.
posted by asockpuppet at 4:57 PM on September 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Not only did it launch the careers of Claire Danes and Jared Leto

It's some kind of testament to the cultural centrality of this show that, although I never watched it myself (I was already in my early 20s when it came out) I had no idea that Jared Leto had a career other than this -- his name means to me "the guy who was the love interest on My So-Called Life."
posted by escabeche at 6:41 PM on September 3, 2012


escabeche, that's okay. Jared Leto was also in his early 20's when the show came out. (He was born in '71; Claire Danes was born in '79.)
posted by madcaptenor at 7:12 PM on September 3, 2012


I thought this show was amazing because it trained its focus on that point in adolescence when you you realize that you're outgrowing everything about yourself. That's difficult to describe, much less script in a believable way. I was a year out of high school and still a bit shell shocked when this came out , but SO MUCH of this show kicked me right in the gut. I had a Rayanne for a best friend, and I had a Jordan (ok, Jared, but he was left back. Twice. etc) And I mean gawd, mom, it's just hair! It's not about you!!!

For me, the real drama in MSCL is the tragedy of Brian Krakow. His whole character is perfectly encapsulated in the hallway scene linked above, in which he seems to embody heartbroken resignation. Poor, sad Brian.
posted by Eumachia L F at 12:47 AM on September 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


I was shocked when I learned that Homeland is a direct sequel to My So-Called Life, and that Claire Danes is playing the grown up version of the original teen age girl.

Like I didn't fucking love Homeland enough.

(I once had dinner sitting next to Wilson Cruz -- long story -- and he is one of the nicest people in the world. And was very kind when I stepped on his foot giving him a hug.)
posted by kalimac at 4:56 AM on September 4, 2012


I was shocked when I learned that Homeland is a direct sequel to My So-Called Life, and that Claire Danes is playing the grown up version of the original teen age girl.

Huh? I believe Homeland is based on an Israeli show called Hatufim. I'd be interested to hear more about this direct sequel business.
posted by claytonius maximus at 6:56 AM on September 4, 2012


oh don'tevengetmestarted talking about my so-called life.

Claire Danes and Jared Leto were inspired choices. Everybody else was terrible.

Devon Gummersall, Wilson Cruz, A.J. Langer, Tom Irwin, Bess Armstrong...

... not household names, but great actors. I'm not sure they could have asked for better casting. And it's not like those actors disappeared. They've had good careers.

I realize Patty was a stick in the ass, but that's what she's supposed to be. She's MOM, and finally a TV mom that sorta looks like a mom. On any other teenage TV dramas, I am literally dying during the parent plotlines (get back to the hot kids!). On MSCL, I'm embarrassed to say Graham was probably my favorite character and Patty my next favorite (although even still, get back to the kids).

I was happy to see Patty in the Mad Men LSD scene as the pretentious psychologist's wife (i.e. the Tibetan book of the damned). She's one of those actors whom you know is great but you also know will never get much success because of her look. Mad Men is a good fit for her.

For me, the real drama in MSCL is the tragedy of Brian Krakow. His whole character is perfectly encapsulated in the hallway scene linked above, in which he seems to embody heartbroken resignation. Poor, sad Brian.

The Brian-Danielle subplot was one of my favorites, just b/c I was also that guy for a little bit, when you're too young to get cool chicks your age, but all the little sisters love you.

I loved MSCL (watched the whole thing in a MTV marathon, probably twice, when i was 22 or 23). Highly recommended. That said, a post like this needs some more video links. ;)

The collected wisdom of Angela Chase.

And do you remember when Robin Colcord became Vic Racine?

Or Ricky and Jordan in the Christmas episode ... (T_T)
posted by mrgrimm at 8:40 AM on September 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


I stopped liking Brian Krakow after he raped the pink Power Ranger on Felicity.
posted by elsietheeel at 3:53 PM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was in the middle of watching this when I came across this thread and I'm coming back to respond to Cool Papa Bell's description of Ricky as mincing and effeminate. When I remember back to my first memories of this show, Ricky was waaaay more mincing and effeminate in my mind. And I think maybe he was a little extra "jazz hands!" in the first episodes but, really, his character blossoms and changes a lot as the show goes on. In fact, I really only think he was a standout gay character with those gay stereotypes at the time. I think his character has aged really well. There are now so many different media portrayals of gays that we can compare him to now that he barely registers on that scale.

Like, now it's: wow, Ricky, so much more down-to-earth and not-at-all "out-there" as I recall. It's really sort of great.

And I just got to the English teacher storyline and am just so impressed with how mature the whole thing is. I remember it being a much bigger deal. So, yay for that. And yay for Ricky, dammit!
posted by amanda at 5:18 PM on September 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


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