Perhaps My So-Called Life was just too good to live, like someone out of that old Billy Joel song where only the good die young, or something like that. Teen dramedy My So-Called Life only lasted for 19 episodes on the ABC television network, airing between August 1994, and January 1995. It was hip, a bit snarky, and a relatively accurate barometer of the times from which it was produced. If you listened closely, you could detect a perfectly alternative soundtrack, where there was room for everyone from Madder Rose and Archers of Loaf to Sonic Youth and the Afghan Whigs. Since this was the 90’s, I suppose that songs by The Cranberries and Toad the Wet Sprocket were obligatory. However, to balance out these injustices, the show did have Juliana Hatfield appear as an angel in the Christmas episode, so all was not lost.
My So-Called Life was also the first time that America got to fall in love with Clare Danes, before she went on to an eclectic movie career (Me and Orson Welles, The Hours, Polish Wedding, Terminator 3), and before she began kicking our asses and taking our names as Carrie Mathison in HBO’s critically acclaimed Homeland. My So-Called Life also gave us our first glimpse of Jared Leto before he became an unpredictable sort of Crispin Glover performance art type, showing up in Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream, and American Psycho one minute, and then playing guitar with his band 30 Seconds to Mars the next. Jared Leto also took upon himself the thankless challenge of playing John Lennon’s killer Mark David Chapman in 2007’s Chapter 27. Leto gained 62 pounds for the role, a reversal of his previously losing 27 pounds for Requiem for a Dream. Naturally, the subject of humanizing Mark David Chapman was an unpopular decision among critics and moviegoers alike, provoking similar vehemently negative responses as those received by The Shield’s Michael Chiklis when he played the ghost of John Belushi in Wired.
Considering what a cultural touchstone My So-Called Life is considered today, it is hard to believe that it was cancelled after a single season for not only having low ratings, but for being ABC’s lowest rated show of its 1994-95 season. Not just the lowest in its time slot, mind you, but continuously, weekly, and without fail, the lowest ratings of the season. The show averaged 10-12 million viewers an episode, which may seem like a lot, but it was also up against NBC’s Mad About You and Friends, each averaging roughly 21 million viewers, on Thursday night’s “Must See TV”. ABC’s then head of programming Ted Harbert blamed My So-Called Life’s 8 pm time slot, complaining that “Not every show gets the time period it wants or deserves. It pains me to no end. I'm trying to solve that.” Interesting analysis coming from the man in charge of programming. When asked about moving the show to a better time slot, he reasoned that it would be unwise to move NYPD Blue or Home Improvement around, because he needs to “keep his job,” and also that “the news department controls Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday night,” so, apparently, ABC’s head of programming had his hands tied. Lol.
My So-Called Life producer Marshall Herskovitz, however, blamed the shows 16-year-old star Clare Danes for its demise, claiming that it was her “lack of desire to come back” that ruined any chance of the show returning from hiatus. Herskovitz further lamented that the actress’s agents went directly to the network and said she did not want to return to the show, an act that the producer found “very destructive -- in fact, potentially actionable -- because it had the effect obviously of hurting our chances of renewal.” For her part, the 16-year-old Danes refuted this demeaning characterization by replying, “The truth is, My So-Called Life was a tumultuous saga from the get-go. It was delayed a year. It was at the bottom of the ratings. I loved the show, but I won't take responsibility for ABC's not picking it up. It had nothing to do with my so-called movie career. I really don't know where all this is coming from, but it's hurtful. As far as I'm concerned, I wish ABC had cared as much then as they say they do now! It's all about money and ratings, and I wish the people who loved the show, and who miss it, could get that.” Besides, Danes was legally under contract to ABC. It is hard to believe that a 16-year-old girl could hold the enormous ABC entertainment conglomerate hostage, or decide the fate of the entire show, considering that she had only been there for a year.
Like any great teen oriented dramedy, from, say, Gilmore Girls to Glee, and I guess we can add Bunheads to that list now, there are always personal and social issues that must be confronted in order for lessons to be learned and the status quo to be maintained. Part of what makes My So-Called Life so refreshing is that the teenage characters seem to behave as actual teenagers do, and the adults aren’t idealized or demonized the way they usually are in these situations. Perhaps it has something to do with that portrait of a smiling President Clinton on the principal’s wall that lets everyone know that things are gonna be alright, and hey, maybe adults really aren’t all that bad. Look at dad, cooking with cilantro and being all progressive. And look at Rayeanne’s mom, lighting up a butt on the schoolyard steps just after a sign in the school’s hallway warned that “Smoking Kills.” That’s awesome! And then she talks about sex with Angela’s mom, like she’s encouraging it! Unbelievable. I love this show.
The “Gossip and Guns” episode of My So-Called Life is bursting with serious teen issues that were as relevant in 1994 as they are today, which says something about, as one character puts it, “the times we live in,” meaning, of course, that they never really change. Bullying, violence, teenage sex, Aids, homosexuality, masculinity, isolation, alienation, gossip…it seems remarkable that “Gossip and Guns” was exploring the, unfortunately, always timely gun control debate almost 20 years ago. A student’s gun misfires in a school hallway, serious concern ensues, and reason seems to prevail. Even the guy with the Michael Stipe haircut gets to offer his assessment and have his spot in the sun. My So-Called Life proved that a teen focused show didn’t need to talk down to anyone in order to be entertaining, or to provoke debate. It also showed that it is possible to portray kids as they really are, choosing for themselves what they want to believe.
“My So-Called Life”
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.