When My So-Called Life debuted on television in 1994, it was seen as a smart alternative to mindless teen pap like Beverly Hills 90210. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know anyone like the “teens” (just how old were the actors anyway?) on that show. In comparison, the kids on My So-Called Life were awkward, vulnerable and, most importantly, real. All of the characters on this show acted like actual people. Sure, the writing, at times, was a little too touchy-feely and bleeding heart liberal for its own good – the influence of Thirtysomething’s Mitchell Herskovitz and Ed Zwick – but its observations about teenage life (and life in general) and the many melodramas that make it so difficult were right on the money.
Angela Chase (Claire Danes) is a nice girl still figuring out who she is as she pines after the dreamy Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) who, initially, barely knows that she exists. Angela is friends with party girl Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer), the openly gay Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz), Sharon Cherski (Devon Odessa), who used to be Angela’s best friend but has since been replaced by Rayanne, and the awkward Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall) who secretly has a crush on Angela. In the first episode, Angela dyes her hair crimson as an act of rebellion against her mother (Bess Armstrong) who tries so hard to understand her daughter but doesn’t have a clue what she’s going through. Her father (Tom Irwin) is a nice enough guy but also equally clueless about his daughter’s day-to-day trials and tribulations. Angela’s parents are both liberal-minded people who were probably Hippies in the 1960s, grew up and bought into the system while still retaining their liberal sensibilities.
One of the great things about the show is how the writers flesh out the characters and the relationships between them. The conflicts that Angela has with her mother are spot-on and have a real ring of honesty to them. Rayanne’s self-destructive, partying ways are addressed in one episode. In another, Rickie comes out to his relatives and is kicked out of the house by his abusive uncle. The seemingly perfect Jordan turns out to be flawed as we find out in one episode that he can’t read or write.
There are so many stand-out episodes (let’s face it, they are all good), like the one with Angela’s substitute teacher (played to perfection by Roger Rees) who inspires her to think outside the box. However, she becomes blind to his flaws by his dynamic charisma. Arguably, the best episode is the Christmas one where singer/songwriter Juliana Hatfield plays a homeless person that Angela tries to help. It’s a truly moving episode as materialism and the commercial aspects of Christmas are rejected in favor of family, friendship, and selfless acts of kindness.
Looking back at it now, My So-Called Life is a wonderful snapshot of the mid-1990s with the hairstyles and the clothes (you can even spot an REM poster in Angela’s bedroom) distinctive of that decade prominently on display. One can now look back at this decade through nostalgic glasses via this show. Despite its brief run, My So-Called Life not only helped launch the careers of Claire Danes and Jared Leto, but without it there would be no Freaks and Geeks or Joan of Arcadia or Gilmore Girls, which also presented smart and sensitive teens in a realistic way. Both of these shows also had brief runs which seem to suggest that American viewers favor escapist fare like The OC and not heartfelt shows like My So-Called Life.