The Complete Series
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Will Harris
t’s surprisingly easy to see why “My So-Called Life” wasn’t a tremendous ratings success when it premiered on ABC in August 1994. Think about it: it’s a show which, ultimately, only appeals to those who are currently in high school or those who are far enough away from the high school experience to not find it excruciatingly painful to look back at that time in their lives. There’s a pretty big gap between those two demographics, and, unfortunately, most of the viewers who fell into it were busy watching “Friends,” which was sitting in the very same timeslot over on NBC and doing a pretty good job of dominating it.
As time passes, however, there’s always another new generation of high school students who’ll see the show and be astounded at how successfully creator Winnie Holzman captured the reality of teen angst. Similarly, the number of adults who’ve escaped their past continues to grow, and if any of them should dare to delve into “My So-Called Life: The Complete Series,” they’ll find that, in fact, Holzman spent a considerable amount of time tackling adult angst, too.
But, okay, let’s talk about the kids first. There hasn’t been such a realistic portrayal of the highs and lows of so many different aspects of the teenage experience on television since, like, forever. Take the show’s central character, Angela Chase (Claire Danes), a 15-year-old girl who doesn’t realize how cute she is and can’t make anything in her life work the way it’s supposed to. Her parents don’t understand her, she can’t figure out how to maintain the friendships of her teenage years – Rayanne (A.J. Langer) and Rickie (Wilson Cruz) – without completely destroying the relationship with the friendships of her youth (Brian Krakow, played by Devon Gummersall, and Sharon Cerski, played by Devon Odessa), and, perhaps worst of all, the love of her life…yes, the one and only Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto)…barely knows she exists.
From Angela, the show spirals outward to examine the other characters, where we find still more familiarity: Rayanne is the party girl who struggles to know when the party’s supposed to end; Rickie’s gay and is frightened that he may never find happiness as a result; Brian is a boy genius who’s loved Angela for years but can’t shut his brain down long enough to let his heart do the talking; and Sharon’s kind of the female equivalent of Brian, except that she’s trying to balance a boyfriend and still keep a vaguely pristine reputation. And, then, there’s Jordan Catalano, the individual who manages to spawn the majority of the show’s romantic entanglements, one way or the other. We’ve all known a guy like him: the good-looking rebel who has all the girls swooning even though he’s working on only about half a brain, because, really, with dreamy eyes like those, who cares about smarts? But the guys end up liking him, too, because he’s a pretty decent dude. Even Brian Krakow is driven crazy by the fact that, despite Jordan’s unintentionally swiping Angela’s affections away from him, he generally finds the guy okay.
Meanwhile, Angela’s parents, Patty (Bess Armstrong) and Graham (Tom Irwin), are dealing with their own growing pains. In addition to seeing too much of themselves in their daughter’s life and not knowing how to respond to what she’s going through without feeling insanely hypocritical, they’re experiencing the same moments of uncertainty that everyone goes through. Graham battles through the realization that what he’s doing for a living right now could well be what he ends up doing for the rest of his life, which leads him to try something new: starting a restaurant with a beautiful and flirtatious investor (Lisa Waltz). Meanwhile, Patty’s running the family printing company and battling with her father (Paul Dooley) over business matters and her mother (Barbara Bain) over personal stuff, all the while wondering just how solid her own marriage is. Somewhere in the middle of all of this turmoil lies Angela’s little sister, Danielle (Lisa Wilhoit), who, in the last few episodes of the series, begins to offer hints that she’s heading rapidly toward her teens as well, which makes it all the more depressing the show didn’t get a chance to continue any further.
The characters in “My So-Called Life” are so intricately drawn and developed that, despite the limited number of episodes produced, they’re still some of the most realized individuals in all of television. There are any number of moments throughout the episodes where you’re all but stricken mute by the accurate the portrayal of these people. Particularly Danes, who is the living embodiment of the misunderstood teenager struggling on a daily basis to fit into the high school world, and who fails as often as she succeeds. Though they often lie in the shadow of Danes, Armstrong and Irwin are revelatory in their roles as well; they jointly provide a tour de force when Graham struggles to come to grips with the realization that a similarly-aged friend – Sharon Cerski’s dad, to be specific – is lying in the hospital, possibly on death’s door, as a result of a heart problem. Watching Irwin repeatedly try and fail to put into words what he’s feeling is only matched by Armstrong’s inability to comprehend why her husband is so upset by the situation. Throw into the mix the confusion that Angela is battling over how she should act around Sharon, and you’ve got one of the show’s most brilliant episodes.
The series doesn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger, but it does leave several questions lingering. Now that Angela knows how Brian feels about her, would she have considered him as a possible beau, even though Jordan had admitted that he still has feelings for her as well? With the sexual tension between Graham and his fellow restaurateur now evident, would he have acted on it? Would Ricky ever have found true happiness? Would Rayanne eventually have ODed? Alas, the answers remain forever left to the viewers’ imagination. Yes, it’s depressing if you dwell on it too long, but if you watch these episodes, then move onward to appreciate the recollections of the cast members, you’ll realize that they’re ultimately just happy that they were able to bring as much of the show to the small screen as they did, and, subsequently, you’ll realize you’re pretty happy about that, too.
Special Features: Given their reputation in the past for delivering fantabulous box sets to spotlight criminally underappreciated television shows, it should come as no surprise that Shout! Factory has gone all out and then some to produce just the sort of kick-ass collection that “My So-Called Life” deserves. Housed in a textbook-style box, the six-disc collection includes commentaries on six episodes, featuring contributions from actors (Danes, Cruz, Gummersall, Wilhoit and Armstrong), producers (Holzman, Marshall Herskovitz and Scott Winant), writers (Claudia Weill, Jason Katims and Adam Dooley), and even a director (Todd Holland). Additionally, there are new featurettes which tackle the beginning, middle and end of the series, with special focus on the characters and a spotlight on the importance of music in the show. There’s also a nice back-and-forth conversation between Danes and Holzman about how much the series affected both of their lives, plus a flashback to the Paley Center’s 1995 panel on the show.
It has to be said, though, that there’s a particular omission from the proceedings that’s painfully obvious as you watch the newly created documentaries. Of the nine major characters who appear in virtually every episode of the series, only one actor couldn’t be bothered to work it into his schedule to contribute. Wherefore art thou, Jared Leto? Was he too busy fronting the Frozen Embryos -- oh, sorry, we meant 30 Seconds to Mars -- to reminisce about the show that made him a star in the first place? We’d like to think he’s not that big of a jerk, but, then again, Jordan Catalano was known to blow off dates, so maybe it’s only appropriate.