Back in 1994, way before Dawson’s Creek, before The OC and One Tree Hill, there was a little gem of a series called My So-Called Life. It was the beginning of the teen-series explosion. It remains the original and best.
My So-Called Life traces the trials and tribulations of the awkward, wide-eyed, soulful, fifteen-year-old Angela Chase – completely unaware of her loveliness – as she grapples with who she may or may not be. Romantic about her newly-acquired rebellious friends, Rayanne (who will ultimately betray her in an act of self-sabotage) and Rickie (a tender-hearted, openly gay latino), obsessive over dim-witted dreamboat Jordan Catalano, scornful towards her parents, cruel to her desolate childhood friend Sharon who has lost Angela’s affections, and mocking to her neighbour Brian Krakow.
From the outset of this 19-episode series, you could tell this was something out of the ordinary. It had all the best values of a John Hughes picture, but without the occasional misfires and over-simplification that so often punctuated his otherwise exemplary work. The most interesting touch was the authority it conferred on its protagonist, while also demonstrating her limitations and misapprehensions: Angela narrates us through all but two of the episodes. Her voice carries us through her experiences – stopping and starting, lurching from the comically banal to the sublime and poetic. Just like a true teenager. In episode one, we see students walking the halls of her high school, each wearing their respective uniforms of self-identification – grunge, jock, cheerleader, prep – Angela observes that ‘School is a battleground for your heart’. And so it is. Later, she notes: ‘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.’ Amid such genius, her eloquence when talking to others is frequently interrupted with her sheer inarticulacy, as she bites her lip and stumbles over what she thinks she wants to say: ‘I…no…I…I…listen’
Her friendship with Rayanne and Rickie is the source of much tension in her life – but is also a release from another sort of tension. Rayanne and Rickie do not see Angela as a fixed point, as her parents, her friend Sharon and her neighbour Brian do. For them, she is a work in progress, she is growing and developing. At Rayanne’s encouragement, she dyes her light brown hair ‘crimson glow’. It is a powerful statement of distance and rebirth, and for several of the opening episodes, is a fixation of her parents, the preppy and conformist Sharon and the geeky Brian. They understand its significance and it terrifies them. But, despite her hair dye and her fashion restyle, she is never completely assimilated to Rayanne and Rickie. She may wear her grungy over-sized check shirts, but she retains her very conventional red hooded jacket. She remains divided, despite herself, between the old world of childhood and the new world of self-discovery.
This theme of division also extends to her parents and Sharon, in particular. She devalues their conformism, but, at the same time, she can never completely reject it. Sharon, though for much of the series condemned to the periphery of Angela’s life, remains nonetheless a strong presence and one who, as time progresses, demonstrates that she is changing, too. Introspective Angela comes to slowly understand a truth: that she has acknowledged the changes in herself – but denied others their right to evolution and its recognition. Angela’s discovery that the prim Sharon is enjoying frequent passionate sex with her popular jock boyfriend, Kyle, leaves her reeling. Angela and Sharon gravitate towards one another again as their understanding of each other’s hidden depths transmutes into something more authentic: a grown-up relationship, with both pleasant and unpleasant truths. In one of the most poignant scenes I have ever seen in a TV series, Angela speaks to Sharon following Sharon’s father’s near-fatal heart attack. Sharon denounces Angela for not comforting her, observing that everyone else was there for her – even her rival, Rayanne. But Angela explains that she felt, given the break in their intimacy, that she didn’t have the right to own her compassion for her oldest – and, in reality, dearest – friend. In a reference to a childhood memory shared between the two, Angela asks Sharon to squeeze her hand ‘as hard as it hurts’. The two gaze into each other’s eyes like star-crossed lovers, surrounded by the girly, childlike paraphernalia of Sharon’s room – a neat contrast to Angela’s own indie den. The scene is a reconciliation. But it is also a reminder that knowledge involves pain and great losses along the way.
While Angela struggles with her angst and developments – or lack of – in her social, psychic and physical life, she remains largely unaware of the similar conditions assailing her own parents. Her father, Graham, is a romantic dreamer, with nostalgia for his younger days at Grateful Dead gigs. He longs to become a professional cook but, for the first half of the series, he is condemned to a humdrum life at the family printing and copying business managed by his wife, Patty. During the series, he contemplates adultery twice, despite his love for, and attraction to, his wife Patty. It is a tribute to writer Winnie Holzman that he remains a good man, despite this. People are complex and can be many things, all at the same time – a point traditionally missed by US series. While Graham feels his life is passing him by, Patty is dominated by the dyad of her own parents, from whom she has inherited the business. As she is ever more controlled by them, the more effort she puts in to controlling Angela. She is a former high school beauty who has hit forty and is starting to notice the lines on her face. She feels the changes in her relationship with Graham but does not know what to do about them or how to express them to him. Mirroring her daughter, she has her hair cut short in an effort to revitalise her image and reignite surprise in Graham. He does not like her new look. Behind her façade, Patty has much in common with Angela, which she largely holds back from revealing to her daughter – frightened that disclosure will damage her authority, that familiarity will breed contempt (something she keenly perceives after noting the lack of boundaries in wild Rayanne and Rayanne’s mother’s relationship). While she disapproves of Rayanne, when Rayanne overdoses on alcohol and ecstasy at a party, and Patty and Angela rescue her, Patty reveals to Angela that she once had a friend like Rayanne who she adored – and who died in similar circumstances. She tells Angela to go into the house when they arrive home. Despite this revelation, she is unable to fully reveal the crack it has left in her and sobs, alone in her car, for her dead friend.
The series is peppered with misunderstandings that Austen would approve of. Despite Angela’s intelligence, she is swept up in her passion for Jordan Catalano. Much hilarity stems from Angela’s projection of her own beauty and wisdom onto his vacancies. A common enough practice of young girls with their first infatuations. One memorable episode has Jordan playing Angela a song he recently composed: ‘Red’. Angela assumes this paean is intended for her, a reference to her dyed red hair. The episode sees her ponder this breakthrough in their relationship with great excitement and apprehension. In fact, it emerges that the love song is a tribute to his red car.
While Angela obsesses over Jordan, Brian Krakow obsesses over her. His geeky exterior belies the passionate heart that beats beneath his science projects and A grades. The two bicker like Maddy and David in Moonlighting. At one point, they become so heated that Brian moves in and almost kisses her – but not quite. His love for her has authenticity and maturity, because it involves true sacrifice. His need to make her happy sees him eventually playing Cyrano to Jordan’s Christian – the only upside being that it offers him the release of expression. The final minutes of the series, when it hits Angela, finally – what everyone, including her parents, has always known – that it is Brian who loves her, needs her and is the one who matches her soul, are crushing. Angela leaves him standing on the pavement and gets into the car with Jordan. She stares out at Brian, who stares back at her. The audience is left with our own surprise. Angela has not got into the car because Jordan is the one she loves. She is running away from Brian because she knows that he is real and the situation has depth and reality. After all, she is just a kid.
My So-Called Life enjoyed a sizeable audience during this series – but not large enough to persuade the network to carry on into series two. Claire Danes, who played Angela with pitch-perfect skill and luminosity, also wanted to break into films. She has never been better than she was in this series. Youth is wasted on the young, they say. So is this series – that can be enjoyed as a grown-up, with both a sense of relief and a nostalgia for the time before you knew who you were and when every moment was a matter of life and death.