Rediscovering a classic: My So-Called Life

Megan Harding 24 October 2017

“So, I started hanging out with Rayanne Graff, just for fun. Just ‘cause it seemed like if I didn't, I would die, or something.” 

In 1994, with these painfully relatable words, ABC’s cult classic My So-Called Life first aired on TV, and in 2017, students like myself are still watching it. Maybe it has something to do with those first few opening lines, spoken by the young Claire Danes, which are at once knowingly self-aware yet representative of a large proportion of the teenage population, who approach their adolescence with a mixture of confusion and feigned attitude. 

In 1994, teen drama didn’t really exist as a TV genre. That is, until My So-Called Life appeared in the mainstream and issued in a new generation of TV watchers who could finally identify with characters put on screen: Angela Chase, a generally miserable yet likeable 15-year-old girl trying to fit in with a new and rebellious crowd; ‘bad girl’ best friend Rayanne, with a troubled home life; Ricky, their gay Puerto Rican friend with an equally turbulent relationship to his family; Brian, Angela’s oft-neglected and academic childhood friend, and Jordan, played by Jared Leto, the seemingly stereotypical dreamboat secretly struggling with dyslexia. Subtly, through the inversion of character tropes such as the ‘gay best friend’ and ‘the hot guy’, My So-Called Life established a new precedent for teen drama to actually create and write multidimensional characters with a number of traits and troubles. The Famous Five this friendship group is not; instead, My So-Called Life offers a moody but realistic, and always enjoyable, take on teenage life circa the mid-90s, complete with as many scrunchies, plaid shirts, indie rock concerts and synth music opening credits as that implies.

Nowadays, the teen TV show almost seems to have been overdone, with shows such as Riverdale retreading the old steps taken by One Tree Hill or The O.C: pregnancies, rivalry, deception and murder. In contrast, My So-Called Life treats teenagers as real people, and portray them as such: without condescension, without melodrama – just the life of Angela Chase; her friends, her school career, and her parents, who feature almost as heavily as the kids themselves. I’ve never felt as strong an emotional connection to any character from Pretty Little Liars or 90210 in the same way as I’ve felt sympathy and love towards the teens that dominate My So-Called Life, most thanks to Angela’s stream-of-consciousness narrative accompanying each episode. She offers us both pearls of wisdom and hilariously naive teenage commentary in equal measure, and at times felt uncomfortably, yet reassuringly, similar to thoughts I’d had as a younger teen. 

Unfortunately, network officials didn’t find this a valid reason to keep My So-Called Life on air when its ratings began to drop, and the show was cancelled in 1995, sparking the first online petition of outrage to try and win it back. Though the petition failed, and My So-Called Life ended on a frustratingly vague cliffhanger with no chance to be developed in a second season, it has since gained a deserved cult following. Maybe it’s Claire Danes’ stunningly understated performance as Angela, in which we can all see a bit of ourselves as angsty 15-year-olds. Maybe it’s the emphasis on friendships and family, which are just as poignant in 2017 when I, a teen from a totally different generation, sat down to watch it. Maybe it’s the fact that the writers clearly saw the characters as people and not tropes of what ‘teenagers’ should be. And because of this, I am eternally grateful that My So-Called Life was given even one season to take a breath and portray teens in a new, much more recognisable light. It can’t really be said better than Angela Chase herself, so it’s her words that I’ll leave you with.

“People always say how you should be yourself – like ‘yourself’ is this definite thing. Like a toaster, or something. Like you know what it is, even. But every so often, I’ll have a moment. Where just being myself, in my life, right where I am, is like, enough.”