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This installment of Advanced TV Herstory provides you a fascinating look into a short-lived series from the mid 1990s that focused on teenagers. In the context of generations, the young people who comprised the core group of My So-Called Life were the first Millennials or the last Gen Xers.
It’s a bit of a time capsule of what teen years were like before cell phones and the internet. My So-Called Life was a drama set in Pittsburgh that focused on the lives of a group of sophomores from Liberty High School.
Advanced TV Herstorians will appreciate My So-Called Life for a few reasons.
The main string of relationships featured in the 19 episodes that aired focuses on daughters and their moms. The main character is one of those daughters, a 14 year old Claire Danes who walked away with a few trophies for her portrayal of Angela Chase.
Another reason to value this show is the depth of the storytelling. There’s no condescension in addressing the earthly crises of coming of age. In fact, the writers create numerous parallels between the young women and their mothers, as all confront emotional or ethical dilemmas. In its brief life, this show tackled weighty issues and examined universal questions.
Finally, we all need to know what producer, writer and actress Winnie Holzman has brought to TV. In addition to her work on My So-Called Life, take a look at her influence on the story lines of other shows, primarily through the 90s and early 2000s.
In this clip from the Paley Center interview, Claire Danes and Bess Armstrong discuss the mother-daughter vanity involved in the episode entitled “Zit.”
So quick, grab that plaid flannel shirt, or if you identify more with the mother figures, your favorite pair of high-waisted pleated pants, and let’s get into storytelling, 90s style.
From the very first episode, viewers know through narration that the show is seen through the eyes of Angela Chase and told largely in her voice. Danes delivers her narration in a deliberate and paced tone, turning sentences into rhetorical questions and observations into priceless teen philosophy.
<Angela narration episode 12>
On the continuum of high school girl personality styles, she’s fairly middle class, bright, stable and cautious. She’s the center to the other two young women – Rayann Graf, played by A.J. Langer on the less stable side and Sharon Cherski portrayed by Devon Odessa, on the more traditional end. Sharon and Angela have been friends their whole lives, as their mothers attended high school and college together, while Rayann is new to Angela’s social circle.
In a parallel construction, Angela’s mother Patty, played by Bess Armstrong, is at the center of the Mom spectrum. Patty has taken over the family printing business from her father and works long hours. Her old friend Camille, played by a warm Mary Kay Place, is married with one daughter and an unacknowledged job status. She seems fairly well off and traditional. New to Patty’s scene is Amber, played by Patty D’Arbanville, the mother to Rayann. Amber is a single, a radiologic technician who works the evening shift and shifts from being street smart to fragile in short order.
Each episode unfolds a few story lines across the young people and one that features the parents, with a certain degree of cross over. We’re talking 15 year olds here, so of course parents factor into plots.
<Parent/youth story lines>
Because television rarely singles out grown women characters and their responsibilities to teenage girls, My So-Called Life, as what might initially be perceived as a teen drama, is in fact timeless and an inter-generational must-watch.
With only 19 episodes, it’s tempting to examine each one in depth. I leave that to you, as the DVD set is widely available and episodes are accessible online. Instead, I will focus on how some of the relationships and windows into life’s lessons unfold throughout the series.
So think of it this way. Rayann and Amber represent an opportunity for growth to both Angela and Patty, and sometimes Angela and Patty cause Rayann and Amber to grow as individuals and within their own relationship.
Angela seeks out Rayann’s assistance on all sorts of matters, eventually declaring Rayann to be her best friend. Angela is enchanted by Amber’s loose approach to parenting, her knowledge of Tarot cards and her reasoning that if kids are going to drink, they do it under her roof.
Patty sees in Rayann a ghost of a college roommate, who died from reckless choices. Patty initially views Amber’s relaxed parenting as irresponsible, but later witnesses that mother daughter love is not necessarily packaged in over-sized sweaters from the Gap.
When the show starts, we get the sense that the relationships that Angela and Patty have with the other mother daughter pair, Sharon and Camille, represent a somewhat stale and predictable status quo. Over time, Angela and Patty grow to the find new value in their old friends. Conversations become deeper, much more relevant to trust, instincts and caring about the well-being of the other. Supportive rather than competitive.
With Angela in the middle, many plots involve competitive tensions between Rayann and Sharon. Rayann drinks, even on school property. Rayann earns distinction in a gag poll by sophomore boys for being the girl most likely to become a slut.
In that same poll, Sharon is credited with having the biggest boobs. Sharon’s traditional upbringing leaves her with even fewer skills to cope with the realities of high school. She’s involved in extra curricular activities like yearbook and begins a relationship with Kyle as her relationship with Angela begins to fade.
Patty sees Sharon as a model daughter. In fact, with Sharon’s poise, make up and wardrobe, Patty may think Sharon is on the path to becoming the popular beauty she was in high school and college. On the other hand, we learn through an exchange with Patty that Camille struggled with her weight throughout high school and college. Even Camille, as the resident conventional mother, has a few moments as the cool mom.
On the matter of boys, all three young women can be competitive and judgmental, yet occasionally stand to defend the honor or safety of their friend. Had the final three episodes of season one aired, or had the show continued onto season 2, viewers may well have seen all three become more confident in themselves and supportive of each other.
Let’s face it, at 15, most emotions and thoughts are raw. Since teenagers first hit the small screen, we have seen how important clothes, cars, music and attitudes toward school can be in defining characters. Rayann blends punk with grunge style, experiments with her hair and regularly skips class.
With her figure still a work in progress and a style that emphasizes neutrality over attention, Angela’s wardrobe combines tomboy aesthetic with plaid jumpers, tights, and Doc Martins. She skips classes once her own social life picks up, but never embarks on risky behavior with alcohol or drugs. The pilot episode partly focuses on Angela’s bold move of dying her hair a bright red, without her mother’s permission. While this might not seem like a strident step of independence, the narrative voice of Claire Danes provides rationale and background to the decision. Symbolizing her first step of independence, he narrative voice of Claire Danes provides rationale and background to the decision.
And never missing a beat to tie in the growth of mother to the growth of daughter – to be 15 or 40 is to be examining your dreams and progressing toward fulfilling them – Patty gets a dramatic hair cut early in episode 2.
In contrast to Angela’s experimentation, Sharon’s look remains pretty traditional, mostly consisting of a suburban mall style with a hint of feminine sophistication that Angela has yet to acquire. Nearly every episode features a disagreement or consultation in the school girls’ bathroom between Sharon and Rayann. Each is smart enough to recognize that the other knows things that they don’t, but the competition for Angela’s friendship overshadows their progress toward mutual trust.
Yes, there are men on the show in case you’re wondering at this point. Graham Chase, Patty’s husband and Angela’s dad, is played by Tom Irwin, and three young men fill out the core group of teens who grow so much during the 19 episodes- Wilson Cruz as Rickie Vasquez, Jared Leto as Jordan Catelano and Devon Gummersall as Brian Krakow. Each has gone on to further roles in acting, producing and directing.
My So-Called Life is great and timeless in part due to solid acting by Bess Armstrong, Claire Danes, Jared Leto and really, the entire cast. Wow! Each is able to deliver solid performances consistently because of the well-written scripts and story lines that boldly go where few dramas have gone. The range of identities among characters allows viewers of many different backgrounds to see pieces of themselves onscreen in ways that are not always possible on network television.
Assisting young people through the difficult teenage years is a lesson in knowing your own character, as much as it is the development of their characters. These very real themes emerge from the very first episode and continue over time, with various characters immersed in the experience.
If you have any recall of your own high school years, these may sound familiar:
- Envy & Jealousy
- Betrayal or the use of another person to advance your own desires
- Realizing your place in the world
- Peering into another’s life that serves to help you value your own
- Justice and fairness that aids in you in finding your voice.
Let’s start with envy, which goes hand in hand with jealousy. Envy we know to be longing to possess or achieve something that another person has. It’s a two part deal, as envy is deployed by one person in relation to another person’s situation.
In a show filled with love triangles and unrequited, unspoken crushes, jealousy acts as an unfortunate companion to young people as they gain their own confidence and self-esteem.
Envy is also at the heart of the girls’ interest in each other’s living situations. Angela finds Rayann’s house to be filled with laughter and just the two of them – Rayann and her mom. Rayann envies the life Angela lives – a large house, two educated parents who care and earn enough money to take care of Angela’s necessities.
At one point, we have to assume that her 30 days of sobriety is partly due to her desire to live up to the higher standards of Angela and Patty.
Here’s how Rayann’s mom Amber describes the girls’ relationship to Patty, whom she meets for the first time at school
<Amber talking about Rayann’s interest in Angela – episode 3>
Jealousy forms the core of the Rayann, Angela and Sharon’s triangle. And the Brian, Angela, Jordan triangle. And the Delia, Brian, Angela triangle. Each character handles his or her jealousy differently. Sharon’s jealousy erupts in direct confrontation with Angela.
<Sharon clip – episode 1>
A bedrock teen-age feeling is definitely betrayal. With already highly sensitized feelings and an emerging sense of self within the context of others, these young women encounter betrayal in every episode. Some of that is tied to NOBODY being able to keep a secret. To keep score through the 19 episodes, a viewer would likely find that Angela, Rayann and Sharon are all guilty on this count. Angela feels particularly betrayed in one episode where Rayann and Jordan have sex in Jordan’s car.
As it turns out, Patty admits to having stolen, albeit briefly, one of Camille’s boyfriends back in college.
<Betrayal bathroom scene Rayann & Sharon – episode 16>
Perhaps to simplify things, being used by another person to advance your own desires is a fault that falls more to Angela than anyone else. And in doing so, largely unintentionally, Angela gives us a teachable moment regarding our own selfishness. Angela uses her neighbor and long-time friend Brian. She uses his possessions, his intellect and time in pretty much every episode. Sharon perceives this early on and attempts to set him straight.
<Sharon on using people– episode 2>
Sharon, perhaps more than any other, is the voice of truth and integrity – wise in ways of people that make her a stabilizing influence for Angela, Brian, Rickie and even Rayann.
Because integrity and truthfulness are key to living in adult life, it was smart of the show writers to avoid a subplot around any one of the teen characters “fudging the truth.” Instead, through Angela’s eyes we witness her father Graham having an intense, close contact conversation in the street with another woman. We watch the high school principal attempt to subvert students’ freedom of speech when he confiscates the literary magazine.
And, we watch Patty grow, even in middle age, when handling the IRS audit of the company she took over from her father. She finds out he didn’t always act truthfully. There are questions regarding his claim of expenses during the last year he led the printing firm.
No doubt that the parent/child relationship is complex at any age. Holzman does a great job of putting Patty in clear-thinking role-model mode. Her reaction to her father’s behavior is believable and totally consistent with her moral standards.
With all these relationships, I believe Holzman purposely puts the characters at a fence to peer into the other’s world. From that view, each woman may appreciate her own situation a bit more.
So when given the opportunity to help others through a challenge, do our women rise to the occasion? Yes, and in both stark and subtle ways, the writers provide us insight into their thinking.
For instance, one episode focuses on Sharon’s father’s heart attack. It occurs during a period when Sharon and Angela’s friendship is strained. Out of Patty’s concern for Sharon’s well-being and to lighten the load of her own friend Camille, Patty arranges for Sharon to stay at the Chase’s house.
Angela acts awkwardly through the entire event. Even Rayann goes out of her way to help Sharon by helping her get a ride to the hospital. But when it’s apparent Sharon’s father is out of the woods, Sharon and Angela rediscover the importance of their friendship.
<Importance of Friendship – episode 8>
And in one of the most memorable scenes in the whole series and a sure finalist for Coolest Mom on TV – sorry Phylicia Rashad, this is a drama, Patty rises to an occasion that could happen to anyone.
In episode 10, entitled Other People’s Mothers, Rayann’s father sends her money for her birthday. This is during the period where her drinking has surged and she decides a massive party at the apartment she shares with her mother is in order. Angela, realizing that Rayann’s party conflicts with her grandparents’ anniversary party that will be held at the Chase’s home, disappoints Patty by choosing to attend Rayann’s.
Rayann starts drinking early that day and passes out as the apartment is filled with strangers and acquaintances. Angela and Rickie confer and Angela calls Patty.
<Being there – episode 9>
It took nine episodes for Patty to transform from a fairly self-centered middle-aged woman to one who recognizes that her daughter has a circle of decent friends who are human. Her transformation comes from reflecting on her own teen and college years. And while viewers also see her marriage to Graham through Patty’s eyes, you get the sense Patty is stronger for having taken stock in her own value.
Like so many parents, Patty walks the fine line of getting too involved in the problems and issues her daughter’s friends are experiencing. She has evolved to a point of welcoming them and understanding that they come from homes of lesser means and attention than what she and Graham are able to provide for Angela and her sister.
Episode 14 is entitled Grace of God. It’s Christmas themed and is probably one of the most memorable Christmas episodes I’ve ever seen. As the family readies the house for Christmas, Patty announces it would be nice for them to go to church. This is an important moral bookmark, for the plot unfolds to bring the major characters to a better understanding of faith, hope and charity.
Christmas Eve shows Sharon and Rayann working a teen hotline shift and finding new things in common and new strengths each other finds admirable (discovering common ground and mutual respect). By Christmas eve, Rickie’s homelessness is approaching crisis stage. The school counselor has him on a shelter wait list that is a month long. The English teacher, who we discover is gay, is also very concerned about him.
Patty and Angela have a fight when Angela realizes Rickie is out on the streets, likely staying in an abandoned warehouse. Patty, concerned for Angela’s well-being, goes in search of Angela. Remember, this all took place before everyone had a phone in their pocket.
<Grace of God episode 14>
The episode ends with the Chase family in a church, with Rickie, who regularly wears a crucifix.
Finally, as it happens for many teenagers, it is through Angela’s continued search for justice and fairness that she begins to gaining confidence. Her voice as narrator becomes stronger and holds more conviction that it does early in the series. And it’s this progress, so worthy of discussion and celebration that makes the show’s cancellation all the more tragic. Wrestling with justice and fairness is part and parcel of an American teen experience.
Because many of the plots revolve around school and academic activities, we get the sense that Angela is an above average student when she applies herself. A substitute English teacher captivates her attention and opens her eyes beyond the realm of Liberty High. She responds with a whole heart. In the process, Patty is forced to flash back to coming of age in the 60s and how important she thought it was to speak out and stand up for what she believed in.
The school’s principal has confiscated the student literary magazine (printed by Patty’s printing company) because one poem is sexually suggestive. Angela recognizes this restriction as censorship, using her new appreciation of self-expression and art gained from the substitute teacher.
After the printed magazines have disappeared, Angela keeps fighting the fight by producing copies on the school copier. She gets called in to the principal’s office.
<Magazine – episode 6>
My So-Called Life is remembered for not sugar-coating the many ethical and moral questions. In that sense, the show is nearly timeless. There aren’t many distractions or deviations from the growth curve set for each major character.
Much of that is due to the experience of writer and producer Winnie Holzman. Holzman had previously worked on the TV show thirtysomething, which also was a production of Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick. They all went on to work on Once and Again, which starred Sela Ward.
Wikipedia paints Holzman’s road to Hollywood as one of poet, sketch comic and musical theater writer.
In a 2014 interview for Vulture Online Magazine about My So-Called Life’s plotlines, Holzman said this:
Series television is kind of intensive in terms of time. You fall hard for TV writing, but it’s almost love-hate. You’re under pressure all the time, but that pressure gets interesting things out of you that are, you know, mysterious. The whole idea of a dream, to me, is a mystery plane. Things are operating there that tell us the real truth. The stuff going on inside us that we don’t express or even know about pours out in our dreams. In a funny way, it was a way for me to instantly get to a deeper psychological place.
These three dramas – thirtysomething, My So-Called Life and Once and Again are highly regarded for their thoughtful approaches to real life situations.
Holzman delivered this ground-breaking show that brought real teen issues to life with respect and dignity. She spoke openly at the 2013 ATX Television Festival about teamwork and support that went into the show.
<“You can do it”>
Advanced TV Herstory holds this show, and all the people associated with it, in high regard. Unfortunately, for all sorts of reasons, it lasted only 19 of the first seasons 22 episodes. It was cancelled without fanfare, mid-story arc. MTV news coverage of the campaign to save My So –Called Life is available online as a video archive. In it, a young Claire Danes speaks to the show’s risk taking and honesty.
In other interviews, both Danes and Holzman assert that maybe it was all just too real to attract the significant audience size a TV show needs to sustain itself. It was deep. Thoughtful.
Advanced TV Herstory wants to posit one more reason for the show’s abrupt cancellation in 1995.
In the last episode, viewers followed the on-going romantic entanglements of Jordan and Angela, Graham and Hallie, Brian and his feelings for Angela, and were introduced to a new one when minor character Delia Fisher revealed her feelings for Rickie.
In 1995, that was still a pretty big statement on primetime network TV. Just two years earlier, Congress called for an investigation on PBS over its airing of an adaptation of Armisted Maupin’s Tales of the City, which featured a gay character. Gay characters – mostly adult men – had been shown in more comedies than dramas.
But in 1995, I have to wonder if between the network execs and the irate sponsors, the idea of a Puerto Rican teenage boy declaring he’s gay was just too much. And such declaration, from a character who regularly worships in the Catholic Church and wears a crucifix, would only lead to more complex and controversial story lines. Would those story lines include Ricky’s temporary stay with the gay English teacher and his partner?
So Advanced TV Herstory has researched extensively and not been able to answer this question:
Did Winnie Holzman know this was truly the last segment and put all her eggs of controversy – namely that of Rickie’s sexual preference – into that one final basket? Or was Holzman plodding along thinking she had three more episodes in which she could bring closure to the many storylines – but – the content of Episode 19 brought it all to an abrupt halt?
Since there’s no evidence pointing in any direction, Advanced TV Herstory appreciates Winnie Holzman for her profound capacity to tell a story and tell it like it is through the eyes of women. We applaud her leading the team right up to the brink of a breakthrough moment in TV.
Everyone associated with the show has stuck to the talking points of low ratings and intense storylines. But producers Herskovitz and Zwick were established commodities and this was another example of their quality work. It just seems so… odd.
The show ends with a thousand questions and open story arcs all over the place. Kind of fitting given the jaded narration of teenage Claire Danes.
Thanks for listening to this installment of Advanced TV Herstory. All 19 episodes of My So-Called Life can be found on Hulu and DVD.
Background music you’ve heard is by Ian Alex Mac entitled “Let Her Go” and can be found at freemusicarchive.org.
Audio clips of the actors and Winnie Holzman were pulled from 2013 interviews that were from the ATX Television Festival, Season 2 and a Paley Center interview from 2008.
I am grateful for the editing and content assistance from Molly Henderson, a senior at Northwestern University majoring in American Studies and Urban Studies. We might just as well say she’s worthy of a minor in My So-Called Life. I appreciate all she contributed to this script and show.
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