My So-Called Life Review
My So-Called Life, which was first broadcast in 1994, was on the surface never a very successful programme: only nineteen episodes were made before the network (ABC) cancelled it. However, by then it had attracted a strong following that continues to this day: a letter campaign tried to make ABC change their mind about the cancellation, but to no avail. Unfortunately excellence is not a guarantee of commercial success.
As this is a British website, many people reading this could be forgiven for not having heard of the programme. Channel 4 first broadcast it in 1995, and their treatment of it left something to be desired. It was thrown away on a 6pm slot, which meant that I was the only person I knew over secondary-school age who saw it. 7pm or 8pm would have been much preferable, particularly as Channel 4 did not show one episode due to content unsuitable for the timeslot. There has never been a UK video release, so these region-free DVDs offer many people a chance to revisit, or catch up with, one of the best TV dramas of the last decade. Adults should not feel excluded, partly because a lot of time is devoted to the parents, and partly because, surface details such as music and fashion notwithstanding, this series is a very accurate picture of adolescence, whenever ours may have been.
My So-Called Life was the creation of Winnie Holzman, a writer on Thirtysomething, whose production company made the series. Unlike many programmes aimed at a teenage audience, My So-Called Life shows that it is possible to treat the subject-matter with considerable sophistication, style, wit, intelligence and occasionally downright quirkiness. Although each episode is complete in itself, there are continuing plotlines that deal with, among other things, homosexuality and teenage alcoholism and drug abuse in a sensitive and unsensationalised manner. The regular cast is pitch-perfect. Claire Danes and to a lesser extent Jared Leto have gone on to bigger things, though many of her fellow cast members have yet to equal their work here. Bess Armstrong was the only one with any kind of track record at the time, having played the female lead opposite Tom Selleck in 1983's negligible High Road to China. Some notable names make guest appearances in certain episodes.
This box set comprises five discs, three episodes on the first, four each on the others. Brief details follow. I’ve tried to avoid too many spoilers, but newcomers may wish to skip over this section and go straight to the disc details at the end of this review.
Pilot ( 48:02)
This first episode introduces us to the so-called life of fifteen-year-old Angela Chase (Claire Danes, who really was that age at the time), who narrates. She's dissatisfied with school, becoming a stranger to her parents Patty (Bess Armstrong) and Graham (Tom Irwin), growing away from her long-standing friend Sharon (Devon Odessa). Angela hangs around with the volatile Rayanne (A.J. Langer) and gay Rickie (Wilson Cruz). She’s in love with handsome Jordan (Jared Leto) while not noticing how much the nerdy Brian (Devon Gummersall) is in love with her. Winant’s direction is very stylish, in particular his use of scene transitions.
Dancing in the Dark (47:15)
Rayanne asks Jordan to get Angela a fake ID, so that Angela can get close to him. Meanwhile, Patty and Graham sense their marriage is getting stale, so try ballroom dancing. Mary Kay Place makes her first appearance in a semi-regular role as Sharon's mother, Camille Cherski.
Guns and Gossip (47:12)
Brian, with an upset stomach, excuses himself from a class. While in the hallway, a gun goes off and he sees Rickie and another boy running away. This causes much concern amongst parents about their children's safety, and Brian is torn between a desire to tell the truth and to protect Rickie. Meanwhile, a rumour is going round that Angela and Jordan have actually slept together, and Angela is horrified to find herself the object of gossip. Patti d'Arbanville (billed as d'Arbanville-Quinn) makes her first appearance as Rayanne's mother.
Father Figures (47:33)
Angela and her father fall out, and even tickets to a Grateful Dead gig in town don’t change matters. Meanwhile, Patty has to sort out her own father’s affairs when the IRS call. Winne Holzman’s script has some sharp lines, but this isn’t the most memorable episode of the series. Paul Dooley guests as Patty’s father.
The Zit (47:08)
There’s a list going round at school, and Sharon is upset at being named “Best Hooters”. Rayanne, on the other hand, is delighted at “Most Slut Potential”. Angela, meanwhile, has a zit. And Patty wants her to take part again in the Annual Mother-Daughter Fashion Show.
The Substitute (47:56)
In which My So-Called Life takes on Dead Poet’s Society. Vic Racine (Roger Rees) comes in as a substitute English teacher and shakes things up. He doesn’t last long at the school, but his influence on Angela and Jordan endures. A fine episode, and Rees’s guest role makes a strong impression, despite an American accent that sounds wobbly to these British ears.
Why Jordan Can’t Read (47:10)
Angela has always been attracted to Jordan – a thread that runs throughout the series – but they become closer when she becomes aware of his dyslexia. Meanwhile Patty wonders if she’s pregnant.
Strangers in the House (48:05)
Sharon’s dad has a heart attack, which is particularly unsettling to Graham, as he’s the same age and nowhere near as fit. Sharon and Angela have been friends since childhood but have drifted apart of late, and the crisis gives them a chance to repair their friendship. One of the more moving episodes, which gives Devon Odessa a chance to shine as Sharon.
Even in its short run, My So-Called Life took quite a few opportunities to experiment with its own premise, this being one of two episodes to incorporate fantasy elements. On Halloween night, Angela finds herself transported back to 1963, and meets a mysterious boy who died that night.
Other People’s Mothers (47:24)
Rayanne goes completely off the rails in this one. She throws a party while her mother is out, resulting in extreme drunkenness and an accidental overdose. When Angela calls for Patty’s help in the crisis, they reach an understanding. A gutwrenching episode, that was broadcast with a helpline number after its first British TV transmission. Barbara Bain guests as Patty’s mother. The director is Claudia Weill, who made two good theatrical films (Girlfriends and It’s My Turn) in the Seventies, but has worked for TV ever since.
Life of Brian (48:09)
Another “experimental” episode. This time the viewpoint and voiceover are Brian’s and we get to see inside his world. He has an unrequited crush on Angela, not realising that new girl Delia has a crush on him. Meanwhile, Graham, out of a job, starts cookery classes. Senta Moses’s first appearance as Delia.
Jordan is playing it cool with regards to his relationship with Angela. Meanwhile, a new teacher, Mr Katimski, persuades Rickie to join drama classes. The first appearances of Jeff Perry as Mr Katimski and Lisa Waltz as Hallie Lowenthal.
The pressure is on both Angela and Graham this week. Angela has to decide whether or not to sleep with Jordan. Hallie has a proposition for Graham: to go into the restaurant business with her.
On the Wagon (47:55)
Rayanne has been clean and sober for thirty-three days. She joins Jordan’s band as a singer when the original one pulls out, but a disastrous first gig drives her back to the bottle. Jeff Perry doesn’t appear as Mr Katimski, but directs the episode instead. Cult-movie watchers will notice a guest appearance from Mary Woronov, a long way from her work with Andy Warhol.
So-Called Angels (48:46)
The Christmas episode, and another one with fantasy elements. Rickie, after several beatings, has left home. Angela’s search for her friend leads her to a group of runaway kids led by Joy (Juliana Hatfield) who us not all she appears to be. Trivia point: this is the only episode apart from the pilot not to feature the opening credits sequence.
New Year comes, and all the main characters make and break their resolutions. Rickie is still trying to find a home, and finds help from Mr Katimski.
Jordan and Rayanne have a one-night stand, to Angela’s disgust. She announces that she is finally over Jordan, and starts flirting with Corey – whom Rickie has his eyes on.
This episode plays as classic farce. Camille buys Patty a pair of handcuffs to spice up her marriage, but when Patty and Graham go away for the weekend, they leave them behind…but not the key. Then Rayanne finds the handcuffs... Danielle, a character largely used as comic relief throughout the series, gets the opening voiceover this time round. This was the episode Channel 4 didn’t show first time round, due to the erotic implications of handcuffs being unsuitable for a 6pm timeslot. Another culty guest star in the shape of Jack (Eraserhead) Nance.
In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (47:14)
Jordan asks Brian to help out in writing a letter to win Angela back…with better results than expected. As the series ends there are turning points in the relationships of Sharon and Rayanne, Rickie and Delia. But we end with Angela and Jordan, and Brian’s unrequited love for her, which remains unrequited in a bittersweet final scene.
My So-Called Life has a complex history on DVD. BMG released a disc containing the first three episodes in June 2000, but further discs did not materialise. (The series has never been released on video or DVD in the UK.) Following an online petition, a company called Another Universe contracted to release the entire series as a five-disc limited-edition box set. The story of Another Universe’s involvement has been widely reported on the Internet, and I won’t repeat it here – suffice to say that, after many delays, the box set was released, and also became generally available via normal online retailers in November 2002. The version of Disc One reviewed here is the original release, which differs slightly from the box-set version of the disc. All the discs are Region 0.
One of the paradoxes of watching TV material, especially older TV material, on DVD, is that present-day home cinema set-ups are of a higher specification than the equipment the programmes were intended to be watched on. (This is not the case with cinema releases on DVD, of course.) In judging the DVD transfer, I will say that the picture quality looks much better on lower-spec equipment, even a 28” widescreen TV. Watching the discs on a PC monitor, the picture looks flat, with dullish colours, some artefacting and none-too-good shadow detail. Some of this is intentional, of course: My So-Called Life has always had a slightly soft, desaturated look, which made a change when so much TV material is overlit. The pilot episode seems to have suffered a little in storage, being noticeably softer and more faded than the later ones. The aspect ratio is 4:3, which you would expect from a product of the pre-widescreen TV era.
The soundtrack is more problematic. It has been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1. In the pilot this becomes overbearing in places, emphasising the music and some rather cluttered surround effects. In places, the music even becomes distorted. This is less of a problem in the later episodes, though, with the 5.1 track much more balanced. There is an alternative 2.0 Stereo track, which some may prefer: it’s certainly more faithful to the way the series originally sounded. Each episode has its own scene-access menu (accessible from the main menu), with five chapter stops and a “play episode” option.
The original release had no subtitles, but fortunately this has been corrected for the box set. There are no extras in the box set, though the first release featured previews of what would have been Discs Two and Three, with three episodes each. The original first disc also included a page of DVD credits. Another Universe did offer a bonus disc of extras, but as yet (May 2004) they have not appeared. If they do, I will update this review accordingly. In the meantime, we have the episodes, all nineteen of them, as a souvenir of one of the great TV series of the 1990s.