Many people consider the ’60s and ’70s the rule-breaking decades, a time for protest and radicalism. But what about the ’90s? That decade, too, was a time for shaking things up. The ’90s was a time for breaking rules and breaking ground, especially on television. ABC’s teen drama “My So-Called Life” is no exception. Despite its early cancellation, the show sparked a movement of serious, candid teen dramas and remains the most evocative and sincere depiction of high-school life ever captured on television.
“My So-Called Life” revolves around Angela Chase (Claire Danes, “Homeland”), a naïve yet strong sophomore whose voiceovers fill every episode. The show uses this technique more effectively than most shows ever manage. Her commentary is poignant and perceptive at times, though always delivered in the believable voice of a high schooler, with plenty of filler words and pauses. Angela remarks in the pilot, “Like cheerleaders. Can’t people just cheer on their own, like, to themselves?” Other times, her narration is dramatic: “So I started hanging out with Rayanne Graff. Just for fun. Just ‘cause it seemed like if I didn’t, I would die, or something.”
Even when her words are cheesy, everything Angela says resonates with honesty. Her thoughts sound like what a teenage girl might use to line the pages of her diary. And that’s what this show really is — Angela Chase’s diary, a place where we see not just her, but all variations of her. Angela at school, Angela at home, Angela trying to fit in, Angela trying to stand out. And there are more than just Angela’s stories to tell. The other characters borrow the diary and share their own emotions.
Angela’s mom Patty (Bess Armstrong, “One Tree Hill”) and other parents also get to share their stories. The parents of “My So-Called Life” are not just zombie authority figures without dimension. They have sex lives, fears and real problems of their own. Other ’90s shows such as “Dawson’s Creek” and “Beverly Hills 90210” also gave screen time to parents. Making the parents real characters adds an extra dimension to a show, but we rarely see this anymore — the “Glee” parents are nondescript and most of the “Vampire Diaries” guardians are dead or nameless.
“My So-Called Life” also portrayed realistic and compelling friendships, seen best in Angela’s and Rayanne’s (A. J. Langer, “Private Practice”) relationship. Rayanne, the show’s best character, is a stark contrast to suburban, principled Angela. Rayanne was raised by a single mother, and she drinks, celebrates in the girl’s bathroom when voted “Most Slut Potential” and always dances on the edge. Angela’s attraction to Rayanne perfectly captures best friendship between teenage girls. Angela is devoted to Rayanne and listens to her. Rayanne loves Angela right back, saying early on in their friendship: “I’ll always watch out for you, OK? I’ll always be there for you, so don’t worry.” Their connection is intimate, which is a representation of young female friendship true to life, but hard to find on television.
One typical ’90s trope that “My So-Called Life” managed to avoid was the idea of the “very special episode.” Networks in the ’90s popularized the term, which was used in advertising to highlight specific episodes and garner big ratings. “Very special episodes” usually dealt with controversial issues like adultery, sexual assault, disordered eating or drunk driving. But the problems that arose from these social issues were usually resolved neatly at episode’s end. No single episode of “My So-Called Life” was a “very special episode” because all of them were “very special.” Classmate Rickie’s (Wilson Cruz, “Party of Five”) sexuality and Rayanne’s drug abuse were continual themes, and the show dealt with less-covered issues, like pretty-boy Jordan Catalano’s (Jared Leto, “Fight Club”) dyslexia.
Obviously, there could never be a show today exactly like “My So-Called Life.” So many things about it are inherently ’90s-esque — the two-sizes-too-big clothing, lip liner, references to Hillary Clinton’s new haircut. But are there any shows these days about high schoolers just being high schoolers? “Gossip Girl” is fabricated, the characters of “90210” barely attend school and the “Pretty Little Liars” are so beautiful and privileged they could never be as accessible as Angela and Rayanne. MTV’s “Awkward” is the closest match, but despite its strong characters, it still doesn’t ring with the candor of “My So-Called Life.”
In just 19 episodes, “My So-Called Life” made me fall in love with its characters to the point where I’m still holding a grudge against ABC for its premature cancellation. Its early demise is a shame not only because we don’t get to see these characters continue to grow, but also because it’s a reminder of the television no longer around — a simple coming-of-age story devoid of supernatural elements, self-indulgence or picture-perfect hairstyles.