One Season Wonder: “My So-Called Life”

“My So-Called Life” has achieved an enviable sort of legendary status in popular culture as a show (or perhaps even THE show) that truly tapped into the inner turmoil of the adolescent mind. It boasts a hefty list of accolades, including one of Time’s “100 Best TV Shows of All Time” and AOL’s second best school show of all time (second to only Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The Internet seriously cannot sing the praises of this show loud enough and as a 16-year-old, I was lured by the siren song of sweetly simmering nostalgia. I begged my parents for a DVD set for Christmas, as it was the primitive time of pre-Netflix, and I couldn’t wake up for its 4 a.m. syndication time. My wish was granted and I watched the entire 19 episode series in a matter of days. My analysis then is the same as it is now: “My So-Called Life” is…okay.

The series takes place in a Pittsburg suburb in the midst of the 90s and is basically a series of after-school specials. It focuses on 10th grader Angela Chase and her family and friends. Angela is in “those awkward years” and provides a bumbling narration through her life of growing apart from her old best friend, making new edgy friends, dying her hair red and crushing on a slacker.

As a protagonist, Angela is honestly kind of blah. Her voice-overs and other utterances probably have a million notes on Tumblr, and some of them are pretty relatable. Favorites include: “There’s just something about Sunday night that makes you really want to kill yourself.” But mostly, she just says “like” a lot, embodying a perfect caricature of how adults viewed Generation X-ers, and says some incredibly naïve and dumb stuff. For instance, she thought Anne Frank was “lucky” because “she was stuck in an attic for three years with this guy she really liked.”

Let’s talk about this guy – the fantastical Jordan Catalano (played by Jared Leto) dreamboat extraordinaire. Aside from leaning against lockers and writing mediocre rock songs, he doesn’t really do too much. He’s also illiterate. What is relatable is Angela’s over-analysis of his every day actions: “He’s always closing his eyes like it hurts to look at things.” He was probably just tired, but in high school, we always thought the best of our crushes. It was better fodder for diary poetry.

My favorite character is boy-next-door Brian Krakow (played by Devon Gummersall), who is hopelessly in love with the Jordan-obsessed Angela. Brian is the true outsider on the show and understands what it means to live on the fringe, more than just in his own head. Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman pretty much nailed the dynamic between the men in the show when he said, “Poor Brian Krakow couldn’t get any play while Jordan Catalano couldn’t even [expletive] read.”

In fact, the best of the show is the supporting characters of Angela’s friends. Besides Brian, there is the wild-child Rayanne Graff, played vividly and perfectly by A.J. Langer, and Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz), who are struggling to come to terms with their sexuality. Both Rayanne and Rickie have compelling and poignant story lines, and deal with such issues as addiction and homelessness. Their scenes are timeless and prove to be just as touching in the modern day as they were in the 90s. Even ex-best friend and teen yuppie Sharon Chersky (Devon Odessa) has a lot of depth.

On the other hand, the worst part of the show is Angela’s parents. The show spends a lot of screen time on the crusade of their marriage troubles, which I guess is meant to be relatable for all audiences. But it just comes across as weird and uncomfortable. So much of this show’s reputation is “4 teenZ only! Or, at least, the teen in you” and really, I’m not kidding, the parents have rather large and intrusive story lines. Let it be known in a public forum: the shrewish Patty Chase (Bess Armstrong) is one of the most unlikable and annoying characters I have ever encountered.

All in all, like I said, the show is okay. It probably would have greatly benefitted from additional seasons and further development so it is sad that it was cancelled too soon. But it’s no “Freaks and Geeks” (which I truly fell in love with when it finally came to Netflix four years after I watched “My So-Called Life”) and Angela Chase simply does not have Lindsay Weir’s depth. However, I recommend seeing it to understand various cultural references and indulging in our generation’s collective fascination with the ‘90s.

Bonus: Pretty good soundtrack – see Billy Pilgrim’s “Try” and Buffalo Tom’s “Late at Night.”

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