Sunday, 20 June 2010

It's called, like, life...or something.

Okay, so I was recently watching STARDUST again. You know the movie, the one with Claire Danes as the star who falls to Earth in a mystical kingdom behind a big old wall. And Claire is great in it. And that got me thinking about how I really should re-acquaint myself with the excellent, much loved but short-lived TV show that first introduced Ms Danes to the world at the then tender age of thirteen. So that’s exactly what I did.

MY SO-CALLED LIFE is an insightful, smartly written, smartly acted drama series that looks at the day to day life of a normal 15 year-old girl growing up in suburban America in the mid-nineties. Winnie Holzman was the series creator and head writer while Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick produced through their Bedford Falls production company. The show premiered in the US in August 1994. All nineteen produced episodes were aired in the following months with the series finale airing in January 1995. Despite a loyal fan base and widespread critical acclaim, ABC officially cancelled MY SO-CALLED LIFE in May ‘95 citing low ratings. But that didn’t stop the now defunct show being nominated for a string of awards including Emmys for writing and acting. Indeed, Claire Danes went on to win the 1995 Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a TV-Series – Drama. Quite an achievement for such a youngster.

In MY SO-CALLED LIFE, Claire played Angela Chase, the show's fifteen-year-old main protagonist whose eyes we see most things through. The show's narrative structure is similar to that of a diary, Angela's diary, though it does break away to follow other characters independently of her. This quasi-diary format allows for the inclusion of regular narration from Angela, giving us access in to her deepest thoughts and observations, most of them having a wonderfully awkward yet oddly insightful resonance. The voice of a young girl struggling to make sense of herself, of her family, and of the wider world and her place in it.

“My parents keep asking how school was. It's like saying, 'How was that drive-by shooting?' You don't care how it was, you're lucky to get out alive."

"Sometimes it seems like we're all living in some kind of prison, and the crime is how much we all hate ourselves. It's good to get really dressed up once in a while and admit the truth -- that when you really look closely, people are so strange and so complicated that they're actually beautiful. Possibly even me."

And sometimes Angela’s thoughts are just dead-on darkly funny.

"Lately, I can't even look at my mother without wanting to stab her repeatedly."

"My dad and I used to be pretty tight. The sad truth is, my breasts have come between us."

"When I was 12, my mother gave me my sex talk. I'm not sure either of us has ever recovered."

I first saw MY SO-CALLED LIFE when it originally aired in the UK on Channel 4 back in 1995. I remember liking it quite a bit. And so a few years ago, while in a fit of nostalgia, I went and bought the DVD set. And watching it again I still really liked it. Actually I loved it and still do. And not just for nostalgia value either. Quite simply it’s a great show filled with painful, awkward honesty, and weird insights and observations. Most of the stories revolve around the realities of life that affect us all: who we are, who we want to be, our relationships with our parents and our friends, our struggles to find meaning in day to day drudgery and strife. The writing and acting is of a uniformly high quality with the then very young Ms Danes setting the gold standard for the rest of the cast that included such old pros as Bess Armstrong and Tom Irwin as parents Patty and Graham. Angela’s friends and the actors playing them are all excellent, too. The standouts being Wilson Cruz as the sensitive, caring Rickie who’s undeniably gay but has not yet properly admitted it to himself let alone to anyone else. Poor Rickie is a constant target for physical abuse from other kids as well as from his own family. He feels like an eternal outsider, as if he doesn’t fit in anywhere. And then there is A.J. Langer as Rayanne Graff, Ricky’s best friend who he is always looking out for and mostly trying to save from herself. Rayanne is a wild, cynical, crazy girl who drinks too much, avoids class and has had more sex with more guys than most girls twice her age. Langer is fantastic. She’s a wild little thing dressed in wild clothes and with a wilder attitude. But its an attitude that masks deep insecurities and a secret longing to be someone else, to have a life that is more like Angela’s supposed boring one. Together this odd couple of Rayanne and Rickie get some of the best lines in the show.

Rickie: "If you were about to do it, okay, what would you want the other person to say, like, right before?"
Rayanne: "This won't take long.'"
Rickie: "No, seriously."
Rayanne: "`Do I know you?'"

Rayanne: "A potential slut. Now where do people get that kind of idea about me?"
Rickie: "Research."

Part of the reason why MSCL worked and still does work is its tone and the truthful nature of the storytelling. The tone is (for the most part) down to earth and realistic. It doesn’t do the preachy ‘issue of the week’ thing – except for one major exception: the genuinely moving Christmas episode ‘So-Called Angels’. Instead MSCL opts to subtly and more honestly explore from the kids’ own points of view the recognisable everyday problems they deal with, problems more often than not mirrored in the adults lives, too. The main themes are of growing up and the search for identity. But the show also tells us that no matter how much we might change from childhood to teenager to adulthood, we will still remain as pretty much the same troubled, mixed up people, still stressing about similar things with only the context of our angst changing over time.

It would be easy to overlook the importance of MY SO-CALLED LIFE and its legacy. After it ended other US teen focussed dramas came and went, looking to do something similar, to pick up the baton. Shows such as the sickly and more traditional PARTY OF FIVE, the self-absorbed soap opera of DAWSON’S CREEK, and the similarly short-lived and much loved Judd Apatow produced FREAKS AND GEEKS. But, arguably, the show that really did take up the MSCL baton and run with it (albeit in weirder and wilder ways) was my beloved BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. Joss Whedon is on record as being a huge MSCL fan. He said that when he was formulating BUFFY for TV his main inspiration was MY SO-CALLED LIFE. Indeed his original pitch for the show was MY SO-CALLED LIFE meets THE X-FILES. Joss took the basic concept of MSCL and in BUFFY explored many of the same themes creating a coming of age story about fitting in, finding an identity, handling the stresses and strains and pressures of high school, of growing up and of life in general. But what Joss did was to mostly address these themes through the use of allegory, using vampires, demons, apocalypses and whatnot to portray life’s everyday trials and tribulations. In my mind, Buffy Summers was indeed Angela Chase’s true (super) natural successor.

Anyway, MY SO-CALLED LIFE is over fifteen years old now and has never to this day been bettered in the non-supernatural teenage drama stakes. Sure, it’s starting to show its age somewhat with the grunge music and related fashions as well as the many Clinton era sidebars. Also the inclusion of “like” in the middle of almost every teenage sentence can get, like, a bit annoying. But the emotional and thematic foundations the show was built on are still just as sound and remain just as true. The music, the fashion, the language and the political landscape might change, but teenagers will always feel confused, insecure, alienated, as if their whole world could end at any moment over the slightest of things. But as MY SO-CALLED LIFE points out, guess what? As adults our lives might change, getting more complicated, becoming full of responsibility, but deep down inside many of us still feel exactly the same way we did at age fifteen: scared, confused, misunderstood, alone. The more we think we change the less we actually do. Getting older doesn’t necessarily mean getting wiser or smarter. It just means getting older. Says me who will soon turn forty. And who’s still not, like, wise, or smart…or something.

Opening credits

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