Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Time of the Season: S1 of My So-Called Life (’94-’95)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 10, 2007

“Why do you always have to say stuff like that?”

Lately, due in no small part to the Apatow mania ensuing from the runaway success of Knocked Up, I’ve been seeing a lot of people choosing to re-express their love for the quickly-canceled late-90s teen series he executive produced, Freaks and Geeks. I recently watched the show’s 18 episodes myself for the first time, and for the most part, it deserves the hosannas–it’s a clever, mostly honest and extremely fun TV show, with a great cast and a killer soundtrack. If it was still on TV today, I’d probably make watching it a priority.

But despite enjoying it a fair amount, I didn’t feel much of an emotional connection with the show. It’s partly attributable to it being set in both a time period and a part of the country I had little relation to, and partly because I didn’t really like either of the show’s main characters (Sam was a simpering little dolt most of the time, Lindsey was a little better but was too explicitly poser-ish to really inspire too much sympathy). But mostly it was because I felt like emotionally, the show sort of pulled its punches–it never really had the balls to go for the gut.

As a slightly inevitable result of the show being set in the past and being based on the experiences of the shows’ creators, the whole thing felt kind of rose-tinted to me. Even the worst humiliations the characters suffer have the anecdotal vibe of a bunch of friends laughing over the story ten or twenty years down the line (“Oh man, you remember the time you got locked out of the locker room when you were ass-naked? Or the time your sister got high for like the first time, right before she had to go babysit for her neighbors, and she totally freaked out?”) Parts of the story are unrealistic enough that it even feels like the show is using an unreliable narrator (“Wait, are you sure that it was YOU who broke up with Cindy Sanders, not the other way around?”) It’s not necessarily a bad thing–god knows it makes the show more enjoyable, and it’s probably the way I’ll choose to remember my high school experiences ten years or so down the line. But considering the raving I’d heard about the show, people talking about the pilot episode making them cry and such–that I don’t really see.

Partly as a result of my Freaks and Geeks experiences, I downloaded the first (and like F&G, only) season of the mid-90s ABC teen series My So-Called Life. MSCL was, when you get down to it, the teen drama that I grew up on. I didn’t start consciously watching anything from the genre until at least a few years into the 00s, but in 1996, I watched a whole lot of MTV, and when they weren’t playing videos, animated programming, Singled Out or Real World/Road Rules, they were showing My So-Called Life re-runs, so I invariably caught a fair share of episodes. Watching them again, there were plenty of eps that I didn’t remember at all, but then there were some episodes–or really, just lines or scenes from them–that I was shocked at how vividly I remembered.

And even though I was probably too young to really appreciate it at the time, watching it now, it was obvious why I remembered these moments so vividly–because My So-Called Life never pulled its punches. The episode I remembered best was “Betrayal,” where Rayanne (A.J. Langer), the best friend of series protagonist Angela Chase (Claire Danes, her breakout role at a shocking 15 years old) sleeps with Angela’s on-and-off boyfriend, Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto, building up the good will he would subsequently squander over the course of the next decade), while Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall), Angela’s neighbor with a serious crush, semi-unwittingly tapes the whole thing. I especially remember watching the last scene, where an estranged Rayanne and Angela act out a scene from Our Town for the theater director, the dialogue of which echoes what the characters want to say to each other, but can’t in their own words. They finish the scene, both of them in tears, and they walk off the stage in separate directions. As the credits started to roll, I was stunned–Huh? You mean they don’t kiss and make up? What the hell is going on here? Sure enough, even by season’s end, Angela and Rayanne still haven’t fully made up from their falling out, and as far as we know, they never do.

One of the governing rules of episodic TV, especially where family or friends is concerned, is that you never stray too far or too long from your comfortable emotional core. If a character runs away, eventually they come back, if Dad is tempted to cheat on Mom, he eventually decides to return to his wife’s loving arms instead, and if two best friends have a fight, they eventually kiss and make up. But what makes My So-Called Life so different is that the comfortable emotional core is never really there–from the very first episode, Angela is fighting with her parents, father Graham is considering an affair, and Rayanne is getting in over her head with boys and trouble. And over the course of the series, Angela’s relationship with Jordan never even approaches stability, and neither does gay friend Rickie’s traumatic home life, or Brian’s unrequited feelings for Angela. But MSCL doesn’t play to sensationalism, at least not any more than say, your average episode of Law & Order–it’s just part of the job of being a teenager.

And the show’s emotional honesty works, mostly because the cast and characters are strong enough to sell it. The roots for most of the show’s characters and dynamics I feel come from a sort of unspoken antecedent, the similarly cruel 1986 teen drama Pretty in Pink. Claire is obviously Andie, the emotionally troubled girl with a pretty-boy crush on Jordan/Blaine (though this being the 90s instead of the 80s, the dividing line of wealth has been replaced with the dividing line of alternative-y coolness–suddenly the most likely lower-class Catalano is afraid his friends won’t approve of the dorky, upper-middle class Chase). Rayanne is Iona, the more experienced best friend, and parents Graham and Patty take their turns at playing the Harry Dean Stanton role of the concerned, confused parent, trying to give advice that they weren’t always able to follow themselves.

But the series’ most brilliant transposition of the Pretty in Pink archetypes is how they take the paradigmatic character of Duckie, and split him into two different characters, Brian Krakow and Enrique “Rickie” Vasquez. Brian inherits Duckie’s lovelorn loner side–terminally in love with his childhood friend, but too socially inept and fearful to do anything about it, forced instead to watch from the sidelines as she’s courted by some jerk-off that doesn’t nearly deserve her. And Rickie inherits Duckie’s, well, gay side–flamboyantly dressed and largely effeminate, a sexually unthreatening friend to the protagonist, except, unlike Duckie, one that is explicitly homosexual. Some series so obviously set from the female perspective tend to write guys that are kind of one-dimensional, but Rickie and Brian are two of the show’s best characters (as is Jordan, probably the series’ most uncompromised character, who unlike Blaine, barely even tries to hide what an asshole he is).

There really are no weak links in the cast, though–Devon Odessa’s Sharon, Angela’s overachiever ex-best friend, can be kind of annoying, but she’s still necessary as Rayanne’s foil. Besides her, Angela’s family is uniformly strong–Lisa Wilholt is maybe the series’ unsung hero as Angela’s ignored younger sister Danielle, and Tom Irwin and Bess Armstrong as the girls’ parents serve as brutal reminders of how grossly underwritten the Weir parents were on Freaks & Geeks. AJ Langer is inspired as wild-child Rayanne, never too grating in her attempts to be shocking or too cloying in her moments of obvious insecurity. And of course, Claire Danes holds the whole thing together, in an occasionally thankless role as the 90s everygirl, but one that the series obviously couldn’t have survived without.

You could say that the show was ahead of its time–and the show was certainly fairly influential, especially on F&G, which even borrowed the central premise of “girl leaves her comfortable social circle to hang out with the bad kids” for Lindsay’s main story line (not to mention James Franco’s Daniel DeSario character, for which I hope Jared Leto at least received some royalties). But to say a show is ahead of its time implies that TV eventually caught up with it, which I’m not really sure it has yet with My So-Called Life. That there hasn’t been a remake (or at least remodel) of this show for the Emo generation is such a wasted opportunity–imagine how much Angela would’ve enjoyed having a LiveJournal, or how often Brian would’ve checked Facebook every day to see if Angela or any other girl had finally friended him. The gang could even go to see The Academy Is in concert or something.

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