My So-Called Life is one of those shows that made a significant impact despite being on-air for an incredibly short time. It premiered in August 1994, and its last episode aired in January, 1995. That’s only five months. It was a victim of not only low ratings, but of the misfortune of being a bit ahead of its time in set-up and subject matter. While the hour-long dramatic format and cinematic style wasn’t unheard of in prime time, it was not nearly as common as it is today. Not to mention that the WB (RIP) was still a few years away from hanging their hat on hour-long teenage dramedies, and ABC just didn’t seem to know how to market the show.
Re-watching the premiere was a weird experience, because despite all the time that’s passed since I’d first seen it in ’94, there were so many lines and visuals that I’d remembered. I was two years younger than Angela Chase, so I was able to relate to her while still having a bit of her younger sister’s jealousy and awe of her excitingly dramatic teenage life.
Long before Claire Dances was mid-level actress, before she was known for “stealing” Billy Crudup from his pregnant girlfriend, before she was a spokeswoman for a creepy eyelash-growing serum, she was Angela Chase. Just like how Jared Leto was Jordan Catalano before he was “something beautiful” to destroy in Fight Club, before he was a slightly surly never-quite-leading-man, and before he was the lead singer of 30 Seconds to Mars.
Let’s talk about Angela Chase. In a weird bit of continuity, they had Angela, the main character and narrator, make a drastic change to her appearance a few scenes into the pilot by dyeing her hair bright red. For the rest of the show’s duration, though, the main credits, showed Angela with her original dusty blond hair. Claire Danes herself has been blonde for so long, it may be easy to forget that her two early, high-impact roles had her with dark hair (MSCL: red, Romeo and Juliet: brown).
Angela ostensibly did this to symbolize the new direction her high-school life was taking with her new friend Rayanne Graff, and also to piss off her mom. Angela’s mother, Patty, and her father, Graham, ended up being a not-boring parental relationship to watch onscreen, even to a pre-teen like me. Graham forces Patty to be the bad cop with Angela, and he struggles with his own feelings of inadequacy about a career that never took off. The pilot sets up these struggles well, showing us multiple conversations between Graham and Patty that don’t suffer from too much exposition.
Overall, this show holds up despite the sixteen years (oh my GOD) that have passed since it was on-air. Viewers who were within a few years of Angela’s age found her voiceovers and spoken lines to be incredibly deep, meaningful, and relatable. Listening to them now from a distance of both age and time, I’m struck by the earnestness of the dialogue, and I’m impressed by 15-year-old Danes’ acting ability. That said, some of the lines were mildly cringe-worthy to listen to: School is like a battlefield”¦for your heart. Angela’s pensive pauses in the middle of small speeches or her omnipresent voiceovers became a permanent fixture of the show, and I can’t wait to hear them all as I work my way through the series.
The other thing that dates the show, though not necessarily in a bad way, is the realistic look of the sets and filming locations. The high school kids are actually kids. Claire Danes was actually an early teenager, not in her late twenties. Even the “older” actors were still not drastically older: Jared Leto and AJ Langer, who played Rayanne, were in their early twenties and late teens, respectively. The rest of the students and extras all look like real, early 90s kids, not perfectly coiffed fashion plates. Angela’s house looks like a real house; during a heart-to-heart between Graham and Angela in the house’s kitchen, you can see how disorganized the counters are. You can see the run-down cabinets.
The cinematic style of the show itself, mentioned above, are what hold up the best upon reexamination. The showrunners took advantage of being liberated from the sitcom-set three-camera style, and it shows. There were two shots that I remembered clearly from the original premiere, one of which became an iconic image of the show itself: Angela hiding inside her turtleneck sweater (right before she ““ gasp ““ quits yearbook!), and the nighttime shot of Angela and nerdy neighbor Brian Krakow in the street (pictured at right).
The pilot of My So-Called Life did a great job of introducing us to Angela, to her life, and giving us tiny peeks of the conflict to come: Angela sees for the first time that Rayanne’s wild side isn’t always fun, she notices her Dad talking to a strange woman outside their house late at night, the old best friend she ditched (Sharon) and the boy who’s in love with her (Brian) live on her street. The first episode takes its time, slowly teaching you about Angela and her world. Especially since I now know where the show is going, both in terms of its plot and its premature demise, it’s going to be a bittersweet experience to revisit this world for a while. I hope you (and Tino) will join me.