Critics' Re-Watch: 'My So-Called Life,' Timeless Classic or Teenage Wasteland?

Courtesy of Photofest

THR's TV critics revisit the 1994 ABC drama that launched the careers of Claire Danes and Jared Leto, debating its resonance today, its treatment of a prominent gay character, the unsettling relatability of Brian Krakow and more.

For those of us stuck at home, it's a great time to catch up on the two hundred or so shows we always meant to catch up on. But if the coronavirus has you nostalgic for a simpler era, it's also an opportune moment to revisit a classic series and see if it's just as good as you remember — or worthy of the years and years of hype you've heard about it.

After some lobbying from reviews editor Jon Frosch and a nod of approval from departing editorial director Matthew Belloni, The Hollywood Reporter's TV critics decided to do that with My So-Called Life, which ran on ABC from 1994 to 1995, and became a touchstone for a generation despite its brief existence.

Starring Claire Danes as 15-year-old Angela Chase, a daydreaming high-schooler in suburban Pittsburgh, and created by Winnie Holzman, the teen drama became an enduring cult classic for its insights into the mind of a teenage girl. But does it hold up in the era of prestige TV? We discuss.

Inkoo Kang: Until this weekend, my so-called TV expertise failed to include My So-Called Life, a show that I was too young for during its original run and that for some reason I'd never been interested enough in to check out.

Having watched it for the first time this past weekend, over a quarter-century after its debut, I can say that it's a show I admire more than one I connect with. Most teen stories onscreen (your Riverdales, your Buffy the Vampire Slayers, your American Pies) seem to be more about reaching milestones in fantastical fashion than actual teenage experiences (one wonderful recent exception: Eighth Grade). So I greatly appreciated that My So-Called Life felt like a channeling of adolescence rather than Holzman's version of, say, The Breakfast Club.

Angela (Danes) is both profound and inarticulate, transparent and incoherent. The writing, and especially the jokes, are frequently great (e.g., the immortal line when Angela's dad asks, sincerely, "Who's scarier than Madonna?" in the Halloween episode), but the writers also know when to put themselves in the backseat to the looking and being looked at that are so much the currency of high school.

One big surprise as a first-time viewer who's heard so much about My So-Called Life's access into teenage girls' minds was how deeply we also dive into the world of Angela's parents (Bess Armstrong and Tom Irwin), who find themselves nearly as lost as their older daughter in their newfound roles as mom and dad to a moody, secretive teen. In spite of all this, I think I spent more time commending the show for what it was able to do as a mid-'90s network series than I did getting sucked into the characters' problems.

What's your history with My So-Called Life, Dan, and what are your overall impressions on, I assume, your rewatch?

Daniel Fienberg: I definitely watched My So-Called Life when it premiered in the fall of 1994. I cared what critics said, and it was the most acclaimed show of that season. But more than that, I was only a hair older than the characters, and it was a show people seemed to be talking about and relating to at my high school (and probably every high school). I've subsequently watched the pilot a couple of times, but this was the first time I've watched the rest of the series in 25 years.

For me, My So-Called Life has always been a show I appreciated, but nestled beneath other shows I liked more. As ultra-earnest evocations of youth went, I preferred The Wonder Years, with its killer '60s soundtrack and first-crush Winnie Cooper. I also preferred Beverly Hills, 90210, even though I knew it was garbage. Within a couple of years, The WB's teen template was established and shows like Buffy and Felicity and Dawson's Creek were able to combine earnestness and knowing awareness of John Hughes in a way that spoke to my reference-craving Gen-Y brain. (I miss you, Generation Y!)

Rewatching now, My So-Called Life remains easy to embrace, equally easy to mock and totally fascinating in its placement right on the cusp of TV's latest golden age. How do you process the show if you're accustomed to dramas more aware of their genre conventions? How do you process the show if you're accustomed to series with fewer restrictions on content and topicality? Can you avoid the ahistorical condescension of calling MSCL "quaint" or "dated" when it was ahead of its time in so many ways? Rewatching these 19 episodes was a freaking roller-coaster!

One thing that maybe always held me back on the show was that I never saw myself in any of the characters — even if I know that High School Dan probably exhibited more Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall) behaviors than I would ever admit. On first viewing, did you see reflections of your own high-school experience here?

Kang: I had a slightly atypical high-school experience — strangely enough, I think Booksmart is the closest I've ever seen to a screen representation of my high school — and I'm a nerdy Asian American woman, so I'm pretty accustomed to seldom relating to teen movies and shows. (This probably also explains my general aversion to teen content until I hit my 30s, when I no longer expected to see myself in these stories.)

All that's a slightly roundabout way of saying that I really did have trouble identifying with any of My So-Called Life's characters, and I'm sure that hampered my visceral enjoyment of the show. Angela is too normcore for me, Rayanne (A.J. Langer) too wild, Rickie (Wilson Cruz) too effervescent and perfect, Jordan (Jared Leto) too dumb. (The scene where Jordan asks if Kafka's The Metamorphosis was based on a real person killed me.) Like you, Dan, I think the character I was probably closest to in high school was emotionally stunted (and negging prodigy) Brian, whose 2020 counterpart likely spends more time on the darker corners of Reddit than anyone should.

In perhaps one of the previews of prestige TV that you were alluding to, I really did appreciate that storylines and character arcs often took several episodes to resolve. The series begins with Angela spending more time with her new bestie Rayanne at the cost of her friendship with goody two-shoes Sharon (Devon Odessa), and it's not until eight episodes in that Angela and Sharon finally come to terms with what they've meant to each other in the past and how their relationship has probably permanently shifted.

One thing My So-Called Life does really well is show situations (or, slightly more clunkily, school assignments) from each character's distinct POV, and though I never really saw myself in any of the characters, I loved how each character came to appreciate the others through their own specific lens. The way Angela comes to like Jordan as a friend, for example, is different from the way Brian warms to him, which are different from what Rickie sees in him, et cetera. (It's too bad the show got canceled soon after Rayanne's tryst with Jordan — they always seemed like a much more natural couple than Angela and Jordan.)

I think you'd agree with me, Dan, that My So-Called Life is definitely a time capsule. Does that add to your enjoyment of the series, or detract from it?

Fienberg: Had the show survived, it absolutely would have had to deal with the fact — this is not an opinion, but a fact — that Angela and Jordan are a garbage couple, which I think the show recognizes. But the first season is all about her working through the idealized fantasy and never, until what ended up being the finale, addressing whether Jordan's being an empty vessel gives him value. Felicity started as a show about a young woman who made an impetuous decision to upend her own life for a fantasy, but discovering who Ben was once Felicity recognized his vapidity was an important part of the character's growth.

If Jordan was never really going to be a long-term romantic solution for Angela, that leaves Brian, and the last shot of the finale lingering on him seems to confirm that. But Brian is a creepy stalker! He's as much in need of rehabilitation as Jordan. It's just easier to see yourself in Brian. I, in fact, can't imagine having a conversation with a human who saw themselves in Jordan. I fear that we're all Brian Krakow, but none of us wants to be Brian Krakow, which only makes us more and more Krakovian.

But you asked about the show as time capsule. Man, I definitely hadn't remembered the gun-in-school plot (in which a soda can is the only victim) that drives the third episode, or Angela's glib pilot declaration, "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." This was five years before Columbine, but now there's no way to get that out of your head.

Sure, it's a world without cellphones and Google and cyberbullying. It's a world where a character thinking about having sex would get ideas from a purloined VHS tutorial about intimacy, and where the pinnacle of kink is a pair of handcuffs. The kids on Euphoria would probably think My So-Called Life is a light comedy! There are so many After-School Special elements here. Jordan can't read! Rayanne is drinking again! And yet Rickie's sexuality and the way the show teases out its layers still feel complex and rich to me.

So it's of-a-moment, to be sure, but I didn't think it plays as trapped-in-amber or anything. Did you?

Kang: I think the show's treatment of Rickie is definitely trapped in amber! Let's get this out of the way: Rickie was absolutely a cultural milestone in LGBTQ+ representation, as TV's first gay teen (played, not insignificantly, by an openly gay actor). Forget Angela and the rest — the single best scene in the entire series is Rickie dancing with Delia (Senta Moses) at a school dance to Haddaway's "What Is Love?," turning that usually mindless question into a profundity. Rickie is essential to My So-Called Life.

But there's no denying that, at least by the standards of 2020, Rickie was done dirty by My So-Called Life. He doesn't really get a substantial storyline of his own until that school-dance episode, which is the 11th episode of the series (arriving after what would become the series' halfway point). And though that episode is about Rickie's crush on a boy who turns out to be straight and his seeming inability to imagine that he could ever dance with a boy at a school dance (it gets better, Rickie, and soon!), it's crushing that the show doesn't ding Angela or Rayanne for not grasping that things they take for granted — or find uncool — like taking who you want to a dance seem about as realistic to Rickie as riding a unicorn to prom. They're abominable allies!

Even when Rickie finally does get storylines of his own, he's never really allowed to be anything other than a stoic, faultless victim. Rickie is beat up throughout the show, and Angela and Rayanne hardly discuss it. Rickie also ends up homeless after being kicked out by his guardians, seemingly for his sexuality (a storyline lifted from Cruz's own tragic coming out), and he still ends up reading The Odyssey for his English class. He'd rather suffer in silence than impose on Angela's family, but he's not so proud to never ask for help, eventually finding refuge in the home of his gay English/drama teacher (Scandal's Jeff Perry). Perhaps most frustratingly to me, Rickie isn't allowed to name the homophobia he experiences, but forced to use euphemisms like "I don't fit in" and "I don't belong anywhere."

Listen, I get it, this was a couple of years before Ellen's "The Puppy Episode" and Matthew Shepard's death and it was revolutionary enough in many corners of America to feature a sympathetic gay character — and not insignificantly, one of color — as part of a core cast on network TV. Progress usually takes place in half-steps and is too often easily undone. But I still can't help wishing — yes, admittedly from the vantage point of a quarter-century later — that My So-Called Life would've been kinder to Rickie by letting him have more storylines, more depth, more human flaws. Charm does not make a person alone. End rant.

Fienberg: By 2020 standards, of course you're correct, but dinging Angela and Rayanne for not being better allies is a retrospective bridge too far. In a world in which their parents are flummoxed by the idea of sexuality, much less bisexuality or homosexuality, they provide a safe space for Rickie as much as they can. And if they treat him too much as the obligatory "gay best friend," that's also a part of their journey over the course of the show. The point that Rickie reaches with Delia in the finale, where he's trying to talk himself into going out with her for social convenience and he's finally able to come out and use the words "I'm gay," only becomes the destination of his journey because the show abruptly ended. Had the show continued, the enthusiasm that Delia feels for Rickie as the person he truly is — in contrast perhaps to the enthusiasm that Angela and Rayanne have for the way they can use Rickie as a sounding board — would surely have become more important.

And criticizing Angela and Rayanne for not recognizing their privilege? Come on! They're dumb! One of the very first things Angela does in the entire series is to deem Anne Frank "lucky" because she got to spend years trapped in an attic with a boy she liked. Angela is a hugely myopic, hugely flawed, hugely sheltered character, and that's not subtext — it's text. She's an embodiment of privilege and every wrinkle in life shocks her, whether it's the prospect of her father's infidelity or teen homelessness.

The thing I love most about My So-Called Life, and this is by a wide margin, is how good Danes is at being imperfect and how entirely the show embraces that. The way Brian treats Delia is awful and the show (and Delia) condemn him for it, but he's only awful to Delia because Angela's awful to him. It's all baked in. But you can't blame characters for a lack of sensitivity and awareness if the entire show is about how unformed and lacking in sensitivity and awareness they are. Full actualization was going to take at least a few seasons.

Kang: Isn't the recognition of one's privilege what a lot of coming-of-age is, though, especially on this show? Angela realizes she has the privilege of reliable parents (unlike Rayanne), a secure home (unlike Rickie), a chance at college (unlike Jordan) and an opportunity to make her own way in life (unlike her dad for most of the show). I don't think it would've been at all beyond the realm of the show for Angela to also realize that her straightness gives her a buffer from the world that Rickie lacks.

I definitely agree with you, however, that Angela is pretty dumb a lot of the time! Bingeing the series, one of my favorite games became trying to guess whether Angela's next voiceover would be very smart or very dumb. She's certainly capable of insight ("There's this dividing line between girls who've had sex and girls who haven't"). She's also capable of teenage self-righteousness ("Sometimes people fill their minds with all these stupid things … to keep themselves from thinking about what's really important"). And as bursts of self-parody emerged as a sort of running gag on the show, the writers definitely had fun sending up Angela's mooniness ("What I was thinking as, like, a New Year's resolution is to stop getting so caught up in my own thoughts, because I'm, like, way too introspective… I think").

Yes, the show's '90s progressivism and inflated overalls and the parents' obsession with the Clintons ground the show in its era, but I did end up admiring how well the writing captures the eternal adolescent project of trying to make sense of things — and the self-absorption that almost always entails. I'd be remiss in not noting the several hilarious iterations where the teenage characters, caught up in their own drama, talked past each other without listening to a word the other said. Teenagers' reliance on the phrase "I don't know," which constitutes at least a fifth of Angela's responses, will never die, nor will the quintessential high-school phrase, "I just think you should know what people are saying about you."

But let's be, like, totally shallow for a minute. I'll admit, watching the show on Amazon Prime (it's available for purchase on many platforms), it did take a while for me to adjust to the low-res viewing experience. It's not fair to hold '90s tech against the show, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a factor in my enjoyment of the show as a visual medium. Did you run into this obstacle to your pleasure, too?

Fienberg: First, I think it would have been beyond the realm of a broadcast show in 1994 in its first season to have Angela realize the privilege of her straightness, yes. Angela's general grasp of her own sexuality is pretty rudimentary. Expecting her to look outside of herself, at that moment, implies an empathy that the show wants for its characters to have, but that it knows they probably aren't ready for. It could, and possibly would, have been something Angela and the show grew into.

Or maybe not! Because another of the things the show does so well is illustrating how parents don't always outgrow obliviousness or childishness. The paralleling of storylines between Angela and her parents is executed with some clumsiness, but also some welcome intentionality. Whatever good intentions Angela has, she comes by them honestly, and whatever mistakes she makes are organic as well. The treatment of Patty and Graham Chase is such a leap forward from the ghettoizing of teen-drama parents like 90210's Jim and Cindy Walsh. They're given the chance to be silly and self-righteous and insecure in every episode, not just every few episodes when the writers remember they exist. Even little Danielle (Lisa Wilhoit) gets to have some interiority, albeit slightly oddly. Who thought it was a good idea to give Danielle voiceover narration in the episode about the joys of light bondage?

And I streamed the show via Apple.com, which was incredibly convenient, but left me watching repeated cycles of commercials for Holey Moley and for a diabetes medication with truly horrifying potential side-effects. The low-res aesthetic didn't bother me when the show was grounded and realistic, but the couple of episodes that took detours into the whimsical or experimental — a spooky Halloween adventure and a laughable Christmas installment with Juliana Hatfield as an angel — made me giggle. I'm sure we'll encounter similar obstacles when we do our next rewatch, because this was a fun exercise!