I haven't been a teenager in awhile; chances are, you haven't, either. And while those drifting through their late twenties and entering their thirties, forties, and beyond may have a vague feeling of dread when recalling particularly tumultuous moments from high school, the real sting of being that age, fortunately, manages to fade with time. Because of that, seeing those angsty high school years depicted onscreen can seem schmaltzy -- both overwrought and overacted, a bit embarrassing to observe. This is good, because watching 15 year-olds melt down over false rumors and the general unfairness of life and not feeling the same way means that one's own coping skills have evolved over the years. Basically, dealing with adult life without having some semblance of a cultivated protective shield would mean a lot more crying in bathroom stalls on a regular basis.
Here's the thing, though: while there are plenty of poorly-written teen melodramas that, at their best, are camp classics, the ones that get things right live on forever. This is mostly because their focus is reminding viewers that it is not merely a gigantic pain in the ass to be a teenager, but an emotional travesty, too. Which is one of the reasons that those slouching towards middle age tend to sit up very straight at the mention of one particular show that captured the essence of high school in the mid-90s.
Aside from the hunkiness of young Jared Leto, My So-Called Life made a cultural impact because of how it chose to address teenage concerns: in order of importance to teens. Overall, it was significantly better-written than its counterparts, especially when it came to dealing with The Big Issues. Alcohol didn't get you killed the first time you drank it; it just got you into scrapes where you were dragging your too-drunk friend out of harm's way, then petting her head while she threw up on your shoes. Your gay friend got kicked out of his house, but didn't compromise his identity, commit suicide, or live as a eunuch as a result. And both the brooding, bad boy object of desire and the "nice" boy-next-door were in possession of testosterone-y teen flaws that made them each annoying in their own special way, though surely, one hopes, they would eventually work these out after a couple of serious relationships (your own grown-up dating experiences may tell a different story).
It's great that My So-Called Life took a more mature (and realistic) approach to hot-button issues; the third episode of the first season tackles bullying of gay teens and reasons one might bring a gun to school (remember, this is a pre-Columbine world). But even while expertly handling touchy subjects and minor creative issues like writing teen proper dialogue, the series focal point was this: a preternatural understanding of the essence of being in high school. Which is a perpetually-elevated level of drama, with opportunities to emote embedded in every social interaction and conversation.
And while you may find yourself praising the series for its edginess, or applauding the fact that, along with the works of S.E. Hinton, it's one of the few pieces of entertainment that addresses issues of class in the tumultuous world of teen angst, let's be real for a second: what's really happening while you're watching My So-Called Life is that somewhere inside of you, the last vestige of who you were at 16 is recognizing itself onscreen and reacting, albeit in a muted fashion. And that's what makes this show so special when paired with other takes on teendom; its ability to accurately portray the small emotional battles of high school, not just the bigger issues which are perennially ripe for the picking. And in the process, it drags out whatever slivers of teen angst may still be embedded in there somewhere.
Whitney Weiss lives in Buenos Aires, where she DJs, throws a party called Father Figures, and is one-half of a band that bridges the gap between Snap! and Quad City DJs. If you want to hear what she's up to, you should visit soundcloud.com/djwhitneyweiss.