Rewatching 'My So-Called Life' Was Actually Really Hard

by Jen Selk

 Image via  Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

There was just something about My So-Called Life (MSCL). After its premiere in the late summer of 1994, the teen drama ran for only 19 episodes before getting the axe from ABC, but it has lingered long in the public consciousness. As the 20th anniversary rolled around in 2014, loving think pieces popped up everywhere from The AV Club to Vanity Fair. In a piece for Vulture, writer Denise Martin opened with the line, "Almost two decades after ABC cancelled My So-Called Life, the pain is still exquisite."

It was. It is.

As a teenager, literally nothing mattered to me more than MSCL. In the spring of 1994, I had written an angsty story I titled, "Me and My Life," hand-printed on sheets of loose-leaf paper and tucked into the pages of my journal, so the title of this new TV series caught my attention. I vividly remember seeing an ad for it in Seventeen magazine that summer and hoping my family would be home from the cottage in time for me to catch the first episode. (We weren't.) So I tuned in late, and inadvertently entered into a situation where I wasn't able to see how it all began until it was already over.

Following the cancellation, I caught the pilot as a rerun, and the effect was overwhelming. It was magical to have one more episode left, when no one else did. It felt like an exclusive prequel. I sat down to watch with a belly full of adrenaline. When Jordan called out Angela's name as she was being bundled into the police car, I gasped aloud. And when it was over, I locked my bedroom door and cried real tears by the light of an atmospheric Dollar Store candle.

With a teenager's drive to make a difference, I participated in "Operation Life Support," one of the first save-our-show campaigns. I entered early-web chat rooms under the auto-generated handle "bk922" to discuss what could be done. The answer, sadly, was nothing. So I recorded every episode as the series reran in the spring of 1995, snapped the little plastic tabs off the VHS tapes so that they couldn't be taped over, and labelled and displayed the collection as if it were a purchased box set. And I watched it. Over and over again.

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MSCL went out way too soon. On that point, it feels like everyone is in agreement. It was a brilliant show, as deft with painfully realistic teen angst as it was with just-under-the-surface marital strife. It was funny, but not in the harsh way that later, similar shows like Freaks and Geeks were. It was empathetic. It was beautiful. And because it was cancelled so prematurely, it exists now as perfect time capsule, unmarred by even a slightly-less-perfect sophomore season. As Angela observes in "Halloween" (one of the series' odder episodes), "When someone dies young, it's like they stay that way forever." That is true for this show.

It hasn't been true for me. 22 years ago feels like a long time, and I think I've changed since my teen heart broke over Angela and Jordan Catalano. Could the show hold up to yet another viewing? Does an ember of my teen self still glow in my heart, or has MSCL become nothing more than a bit of nostalgia — something to smile at from a distance, with sympathy, rather than empathy? I had to rewatch to be sure.

I did, and the answer is both yes and no.

Initially, I envisioned this piece as an episode-by-episode breakdown (best lines, cheesiest moments, fashion critiques). It was going to be so funny. But after sitting down and actually re-experiencing the show's arc, that plan feels trite. MSCL is not what it was, but it is worth more than a list. And though there is something funny about the melodrama of it all, it doesn't seem right to make fun.

My rewatch has been a veritable rollercoaster. I've cringed, I've laughed, and most of all, I've felt like crying, both at the show's legitimately touching moments, and at the deep sense of loss I feel now, remembering how much I used to relate to Angela. I felt what she felt so viscerally that at times it seemed like she was me. It was like Winnie Holtzman had stolen my diary. And I'm a little sad because that's all over. Angela is who she always was. She is painfully naive, unthinking and, in many ways, spoiled. And she is forever young, while I am not. In one of the series most memorable moments, Jordan pins her against a chain link fence (more rapey than romantic, I see now) and asks, "Why are you like this?" The answer isn't the mystery I thought it was. She's 15 years old. That's why. And not only will I never be that age again, I'll never get a chance to fix all the ways I fucked it up when I was.

In 1994/1995, the awkward, frequently-stalled romance between Angela and Jordan Catalano felt like the only thing that mattered about MSCL. Everything else was background. I see things differently now. It is the other relationships, and friendships in particular — Angela's abandonment of former BFF Sharon in favor of Rayanne and Rickie — and the subsequent fracture of those friendships as well, that truly matter. Friendship is the show's still-beating heart, and Angela, I'm sorry to say, was a shitty friend. She made so many mistakes... I made so many mistakes.

Two scenes, in particular, stand out now. Angela and Sharon's confrontation in the girls' bathroom in the pilot, with Sharon asking Angela why she'd been ditched, is the first:

"So you just drop your oldest friend for no reason?" Sharon asks. "I mean, just tell me what I did." I was never a huge Sharon fan, but I want to cry for her now. What a terrible thing to go through.

And later, near the end of the series, there is a scene between Angela and Rayanne, ostensibly a reading of a scene from Thornton Wilder's Our Town, with Rayanne playing Emily and Angela reading Mrs. Webb. "Were you happy?" Angela asks, Claire Danes' chin trembling and voice breaking in that preternaturally believable way she has. Rayanne smiles a little, holds back her own tears, and steadies her voice before answering, "No." It's incredible, really — maybe the strongest, most heartbreaking scene in the series.

My most-recently rewatch of MSCL was almost too raw. I enjoyed it, but it hurt. Remember in the pilot, that repeated phrase, "You’re so beautiful, it hurts to look at you"? That's what it's been like. It turns out that an ember of my teen self not only glows in my heart, it burns. I'm not Angela anymore, but I was. And her selfishness, her self-consciousness, her many errors, feel both tragic and deeply embarrassing.

So in the end, I guess the show does hold up. Maybe even a little too well.

 

Jen Selk is a former journalist, occasional editor, and current hag. You can find her on Twitter at @jenselk.