Revisiting My So-Called Life In 2013, screenwriter Mike White spoke to the AV Club about the cancellation of his HBO series Enlightened, and how it’s harder than ever to mount television that lacks ‘noise’, ‘noise’ being stunts and shocks and things scandalous enough to make you tweet about it while you’re watching. The shows on the opposite end of the spectrum to that ‘noise’ are the quieter, more contemplative ones, the ones where the emotional pinnacle of an episode isn’t somebody getting pumped full of bullets, but instead the moment a character dyes their hair in an act of youthful rebellion, or discovers that the person they’ve been completely infatuated with from afar actually knows their name.
My So-Called Life is the televisual embodiment of ‘quiet’, but a quiet that speaks to adolescence, identity, and teenage struggle in a way that few, if any, young adult series have ever done before or since. At the centre of the show is Angela Chase (played by a young Claire Danes): a perpetual over-thinker, adrift in a sea of adolescent turmoil, her ever-present voiceover introspective and full of youthful pondering. She is simultaneously naïve yet wise, full of broken sentences, an abundance of ‘likes’, speaking with delicate precision as she ruminates on her choices, her decisions, and her dreams. She’s a fantastic character, traditional as a teen heroine in terms of personality, but complex enough to be an easy surrogate for everybody watching at home. It’s hard to watch My So-Called Life and not feel particularly linked to her, or see her as an extension of our own identities. Whether it’s suffering through a zit or nervously riding a bicycle without touching the handlebars, Angela Chase is all of us. It’s kind of creepy.
Surrounding her is a cast of similarly subversive leads, notably Angela’s best pals Rickie and Rayanne. Rickie, the first gay lead on American television, is a fascinating blend of carefree joy and solemn insecurity. He’s also a character never defined by his sexuality. Compare him to somebody like Jack McPhee on the far more successful Dawson’s Creek a couple of years later, a character who couldn’t swing a cat without it hitting some kind of gay-basher, and you can understand why he remains an iconic landmark in television history. Rayanne, too, is a great yin to Angela’s quieter yang: frank and provocative, loyal but flawed, fond of sex, booze and partying, yet never judged for it by the show itself. She doesn’t have any kind of tragic backstory or bullshit ‘explanation’ for her wildness, either. She’s just a girl who enjoys a good time.
Though disappointingly left unresolved by the end of the show’s first and only season, the emotional backbone of My So-Called Life is the unspoken love triangle between Angela, brooding musician Jordan Catalano and her goofy neighbour Brian Krakow. Jordan, played by a pre-fame Jared Leto, is the personification of every intense outsider who leans against lockers because of All The Emotions, driving all the girls crazy in the process. Brian Krakow is absolutely none of those above, yet desperate to act on the aching feelings he has for Angela. He’s only stifled by his own awkwardness, doing everything he can to just be around her, even if Angela finds him completely exasperating. Brian Krakow is… some of us. Ahem.
Whenever the good die young, we tend to insist that they burned too bright, like the world just couldn’t keep up with them. But what My So-Called Life did so fantastically was upend that cliché. It’s an enormously respected cult series, which existed very much on its own terms, unburdened by network interference or insistence that everything should be sexier or louder. My So-Called Life died young only because, if anything, it was just too damn small. And it would have been wrong to have it any other way.
Originally published in Venue #302 (28/10/14)