My So-Called Life premiered August 25 1994 when I was two weeks shy of turning 12. I didn’t see this show until 3 years later and this was probably for the best as I didn’t need Angela Chase until that miserable summer. Despite its short length of only 18 episodes I have managed to spill a whole lot of personal/analytical/style observations and while I touched on what I cover below, the level of angst and introspection was not worthy of this show. To celebrate 20 years since the debut of MSCL I want to talk about why it meant so much to me when I first saw it. Please read the following in the style of an Angela Chase voiceover.
Being ignored for no particular reason is one of those awful teenage rite of passage that every girl in my class went through, it just so happened that mine occurred during the summer break. So I faced 6 weeks of not a whole lot going on. This was the summer of 1997, I was 14 years old and I have to admit that maybe I was to blame for some of this as I had recently changed friendship groups. At first there was mass acceptance and then like that I lost whatever factor had made them embrace me into their way cooler circle. My journal (which I no longer have, something I regret) entries at this time swayed between strained optimism where I pretended that everything was fine to more desperate pleas of insecurity.
Miserable real life friendship situation not withstanding something amazing did happen over this summer as I fell in love and felt completely understood by one person – enter Angela Chase and My So-Called Life. I didn’t see this show when it first aired in the UK the previous year; however it was part of the daytime TV schedule throughout this summer alongside Eerie, Indiana, The Secret World of Alex Mack and Sister, Sister. Those extreme feelings of teendom are hard to capture as everything means so much and nothing all at once; there’s the rush of discovery and then disillusionment. For me MSCL had all of the former and none of the latter.
I have another confession to make about this transitional period and that’s on the subject of best friends. The whole BFFs situation is full of so many fraught memories; will I ever have one? Is this person as those three capital letters scream going to be part of my life forever? Why do you have to label one person as ‘best?’ I actually still have some of these feelings today about this notion and the term “best friend” feels so loaded with preconceived ideas that it makes me dizzy. Clearly at this point I didn’t have a best friend, or really any friends (actually I had one very dear friend who went to another school, but during this summer she grew up all of a sudden and started drinking, smoking and dating and I was a year away from any of these things) and so fictional characters whether in books or on screen became the next best thing.
The ache you feel at 14 is hard to articulate, god knows I tried spilling my emotions in a way I thought you had to at this age. Journal writing really wasn’t my forte and it made me feel uncomfortable; half the time I was lying to myself both in my mind and on those journal pages. Step up Angela Chase and from her first introspective voiceover I knew I had found a heroine for a life; someone that understood who I was and what I was going through and it was a voice coming from my television.
Like Angela, at this point in my life I had never kissed a boy and it suddenly felt kind of ok that I hadn’t; I was no longer the biggest loser in the room. Everything about that period in your life is trying to do things so fast and worrying that you’ll be the last to experience all of these moments, as if being last is the worst thing in the world (hyperbole is the key tool to an adolescent mind). Suddenly there was this cool, pretty – but not in a typical popular girl Hollywood way, remember she does the best quiver cry face – and lost girl who was saying everything I was feeling. It’s also the first time I think I was honest in my journal as I overly emoted about how much I loved this show and this character. Jordan Catalano was an object of affection as he really does lean incredibly well, however it was Angela who had my heart.
Finding salvation in fiction lets us experience our own pain and fears through the gaze of someone else; as everything is heightened emotionally during adolescence the desire to be understood and find a connection can often take place in a world that has been created by another. It’s one reason why YA fiction thrives and can cause such strong visceral reactions. For some it is rooted in the supernatural, for me it was that girl in plaid with dyed red hair.
I also have to wonder how much this experience has affected the focus of my writing; The X-Files and E.R. were the first two shows that revealed just how much television can be, but My So-Called Life exposed something I had never felt before. So not only was my summer of misery saved by a TV show, my personal investment and interest in this format was probably enhanced by this experience.
More heartbreak followed when I found out that only 18 episodes of this show had been made and it was rather fitting that this intense love affair with this world and characters lasted for just one summer. Unlike most summer flings I managed to last the distance with this one and when I watched it again in the mid-2000s (and then for This Was TV) I found that my feelings were still strong and the connection is still very much alive.
Going back to school after the break was over wasn’t so terrible as it was someone else’s turn to get the silent treatment and soon we grew up beyond this petty and inexplicable tradition. The next summer was not one of abject loneliness and I had the kind of vacation that I previously thought existed only in fiction; one where you hang out, have fun and don’t feel bad about yourself. We had a time. Looking back I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t change a thing from the summer of ’97 as it really sucks to have such a low opinion of yourself. Instead I will say that I am incredibly grateful that Winnie Holzman created a show that made me feel like I wasn’t alone in huge mess of adolescent misery and that is the power of a well crafted story.