(Bitter Script Reader challenged their followers to make a list of 16 Great Shows that have influenced them as writers and viewers. This is my list.)
I first watched My So-Called Life in re-runs, but shortly after its first run. Probably 1997 or 1998. When I look back, I can track my love of TV and teen drama back to this show.
My So-Called Life is one of those shows that’s venerated to such a degree that you think it must be over-hyped. It can’t possibly be everything everyone says it is, everything you remember.
In some ways, that’s true. In others, it’s not. 23 years later, much of My So-Called Life doesn’t hold up. Its slow pacing, its dull coloring. Angela’s so-called problems mean little in terms of modern day issues that teens face. The time Angela spends contemplating a simple kiss is nothing compared to how many teen characters have already had sex by the time their teen show starts.
In Episode 103, Angela wishes for a major world event for which she can remember exactly where she was when it happened, much like the Assassination of JFK was for her parents. In seven years, she’ll get her wish on 9/11.
This is the same episode in which there is a school shooting–of a soda can. School shootings were so new, so few and far between in 1994 that I’m sure this was one of the first shows to discuss guns in schools. The final scene in which Angela, Rayanne, and Ricky stand in shock at seeing the metal detectors at the entrance of their school is something that is so commonplace, at the very least in media, that it just doesn’t hold up.
But that’s not why I loved the show. Its edginess at the time wasn’t what stuck with me.
In rewatching the first few episodes of My So-Called Life this week, it struck me how genuine and relatable it still is. And that’s why it’s still seen by many as one of the best teen shows in television history.
It’s why the show is on my list. This was my first teen show and it may be the best.
The way I could feel what Angela felt when Jordan Catalano saw her getting into that police car and called out her name from across the parking lot. It doesn’t matter that as an adult I can now recognize how terrible a choice Jordan Catalano is. In that moment, I wanted Jordan Catalano to call out my name from across a parking lot. I wanted to know that Jordan Catalano knows my name and cares enough to utter it.
What holds up is Angela’s inner dialogue. Because so much of it captures what it is to be a teen in any decade.
For those of us who do remember 9/11, her wish may seem callous. But it’s understandable, and that’s the charm of this show. As a teen, we want important things to happen to us. We want to feel like we’re a part of something. And Angela gets to the core of this over and over again.
If we’re being honest, the show captures what it is to be a person in any decade. Because I still want to be a part of something bigger.
Because I still get those butterflies. When I’m in close quarters with a cute boy, I’m hyper aware of my elbow and how it’s so casually grazing against his sleeve. My elbow is suddenly a separate part of myself in an out of body sort of way. A part of myself that is touching a part of him, however tangential.
And that’s how Angela Chase made me feel. Like we were a part of the same world. All the things I worried about, she worried about too. I wasn’t the only one. Someone out there understood. Looking back as an adult, it’s even bigger than that, but there was a real person, a writer, and other writers, that made this show that knew too. They knew what it was like to be a teenager. They knew what it was like to be a teenage girl. And it wasn’t so different from how I felt at that time.
And let’s not get started on how they integrated music into the series. In my experience, Queer as Folk (2000) is regarded as one of the first shows to introduce popular music into their soundtrack. But as we know, My So-Called Life did this just as well, if not to the same extent, six years prior. Everybody Hurts, Blister in the Sun, I Wanna Be Sedated, all popular songs that supported the narrative. This, of course, is a precursor to The O.C. which took this technique to the next level (more about that later).
I can’t forget to talk a bit about Ricky. This was one of the ways the show was edgy that nowadays doesn’t seem as big a deal when watching the show. But early on, in the second or third episode, Angela just comes out and says it, “He’s bisexual.” I forget exactly how this plays out and whether he ever shows an interest in girls or whether this was an assumption on Angela’s part or a ret con on the show’s part, but he’s usually considered to be gay in the larger pop culture landscape.
Regardless, he was the first confirmed LGBTQ character on network television and that had a huge impact on the trajectory of my life and my capacity for empathy. More on that a few posts from now when we talk about the LGBTQ character that had the most influence on my life.
In retrospect, My So-Called Life set me up for a lifelong (so far) love of teen dramas, among other things. There will be plenty other teen dramas on this list, but this was the first and therefore holds a special place in my narrative.