My So-Called Life

Remember My So Called Life? I didn’t. It was another one of those things I’d just heard about.

Seminal nineties series This Life had two very successful series and is in the hazy collective conscious as a cultstream classic. They had a woefully received tenth anniversary reunion special though, which may have gone some considerable way to undermining the magic of the original. A lot of the appeal of these widely popular ‘cult’ series [hence ‘cultstream’ see?] is that they are the first of there kind and, vitally, very much of their moment. When programmes in that style are imbedded in our cultural lexicon, refined and enhanced, they lose their vitality in hindsight. One of the downsides to endless satellite channels buying up entire back catalogues and inflicting our entire popcultural adolescences upon us again is that they can utterly undermine fond memories. Sometimes though, things really are as good as you remember, which is in many ways a vindication of your memory and your teenaged tastes.

*On a kind of related note- many received cinematic classics are really only good if you saw them when you were at the target age- then they retain their appeal for all time I think- if you don’t experience them till adulthood, you’ll never quite be on the wagon. Growing up as I did in a household with no video and not a great deal of cinema-going or television watching, I missed out on most of the childhood favourites (e.g. The Goonies, The Princess Bride, Time Bandits, The Santa Clause) I’ve yet to see the latter two, and Christmas films tend to provoke a disagreeable gastric reaction, but the others I have sought out in adulthood and watched my peers fixated with delight throughout. I just don’t see it. Home Alone however? Can’t get enough of that. Even Matilda provokes an indulgent reaction. It’s about being there at the time.

Back to the case in point. Being a journey[wo]man popculture maven, I have been acutely aware of my ignorance of the oft-cited nineties pillar of televisual achievement US network ABC’s My So Called Life. References are frequently made to one of the first teen dramas as we know them today, just a wee bit before my time. By like a decade. So a colleague of mine, of that cohort, recently lent me the complete So Called boxset and now I have finally filed the show in my mental catalogue. I was sort of expecting it to be Dead Like Me because the two have always been fairly inextricable in my mind, I suspect because of the similar phrasing of the titles and fonts on the DVD covers. This misguided expectation probably lent to the slight disappointment I felt at the pilot episode. It kind of followed a complete narrative arc and left the characters with nowhere obvious to go. Okay, that was just to get the show picked up; I get how American television works (more or less). Episode Two, was just kind of dead. I was expecting, I don’t know, some kind of secret brilliance that leads to the wistful reverence of 30-something bloggers.

My friend had warned me that it was very much ‘of its time’ and I was prepared to make allowance for that, but it just seemed like nothing was happening and there was a surprising amount of focus on protagonist Angela’s parents and their relationship. This immaculate American nuclear family and their middle class angst didn’t seem to be sufficient for a widespread reverence twenty years hence.

Then-Episode Three happens. Sheer televisual excellence. I was rapt. All the characters just came to life and I cared. Poor beautiful Ricky became more than a comedy sidekick, Angela’s relationship with him made her infinitely more sympathetic, Brian manned up (briefly). In short, caricatures and shallowly drawn characters breathed life, grew flesh and bone. From thereon I could see exactly the lasting appeal. The nineties-ness of it was just a layer of novelty for me. I missed one or two contemporary references (Buffalo Tom anyone?) and the idea of fifteen year olds lusting after Brad Pitt seems a little funny now, but most of the content and situations are surprisingly modern. Only the absence of pervading technology and the constant presence of truly awful fashion set it apart from something I might have seen in my teens.

The focus on the whole family, rather than just the kids, is also a little quant now. Poor old parents don’t get to be seen as people any more. It is a satisfyingly complete ensemble drama though. There’s very little about it that should have created a cult, rather than popular following, other than its brevity. I was grateful to have been forewarned of the abrupt ending or I think I would have felt quite bereft, as must have fans at the time. There is no obvious reason not to have let them at least finish out the series; in fact the writing had just had a resurgence of wit in the last few episodes. It is this tragic early demise that has cemented the legend of My So Called Life, which, had it followed the usual American tradition of slowly running into the ground, well past its natural shelf life, would have simply wound down into obscurity. I don’t think there are many programmes that manage to sustain past about three years. (Though some do have a fourth or fifth series return to greatness, so it isn’t a hard and fast rule.)

The more I think about it, the more I think a brief but bright light is the way into popculture legend Jimmy Dean. The Feted This Life a case in point, Queer As Folk (UK) which isn’t nearly as good as people remember it, nor is the actually abysmal Tipping the Velvet for that matter. But that controversial gayism will blur the critical faculties, on both sides of the fence. I believe present Doctor Who Matt Smith’s early work in Party Animals is part of that ilk, not least for the quality of its alumni: Andrew Buchan, Shelley Conn and Andrea Riseborough no less. The slightly more obscure offerings from my generation have to include Ghost Squad and an early digital/yoof effort from the Beeb Burn It, which I still remember fondly though no one I know ever watched it (likewise Bailey Kipper’s POV, but that’s for another day). Mel B was in it and everything and ole Lisa Faulkner. She is actually back on telly now, in that Ben Miller thing no one watches. What else was short-lived and long-vaunted? Comment below.

A word on the clothes in So Called. That word is ‘Seriously?!’ I mean, like, really? Did people really dress like that deliberately? I mean, I know they were getting over the eighties, but for reals. I wore some pretty baggy shit in the nineties, but I don’t remember it ever being that bad. Maybe in those days fashion was less transatlantic, or perhaps I was just too little/ unworldly to notice. It’s a minor but prevailing distraction from the action. It seems like it was pretty progressive to have an out, underage gay character in a family series back then, even if he never gets any love, but then ******spoilers****** he moves in with his English teacher and that teacher’s same sex partner and no one says anything about it? I suppose, had the series continued, there might have been some repercussions, but it doesn’t ring true.*****

So the fashions have not withstood the test of time. The music however, has aged as well as little Jared Leto. If there is a soundtrack to this series available, I am buying it. Even that corny song Jordan sings is better than most of the pap that charted last year. I do have a penchant for nineties indie and college rock and I don’t think it’s nostalgia because I wasn’t particularly exposed to it at the time. A quick search on We7 [which is shit now can I say. Sx] tells me that although there is a band and a number of tracks entitled ‘My So-Called Life’ it isn’t available as a soundtrack for me to legally listen to effective immediately. But We7 is rubbish for searching now, so I will look elsewhere soon, when I have more than 13% laptop battery.

The point I set out to make was- what if My So Called Life had a reunion now? A fifteen(ish) years on episode. Well it wouldn’t work at all would it? It would kill the magic, the beautiful mystery of leaving it hanging. Fanficers are still turning out endings for a series that went off air at the dawn of the first Clinton administration. Would it respect or do disservice to the loyal fans who keep the memory alive?What do you think? Would you like to see your favourite cut-down-in-its prime series ressurected or resolved? Sugar Rush kind of ended before it should have, but its moment has passed now, it’s too late to fix. Damn zeitgest eh?

Enough rambling. Happy New Year readers! Good night.

P.S. Google tells me there was a post-series book. I shall investigate further and get back to you. Sx

About Solo

It's all about film. Not movies. I also like to ramble on about popculture and very occasionally pass social commentary. One day I would like to have a job and rejoin society. The tools of my trade are pen, ink and an acerbic wit. Please beware of endemic sarcasm. View all posts by Solo

2 responses to “My So-Called Life

  • tashach

    I love that you wrote about this. It’s on my ‘to-watch’ list because of Claire Danes. I watched (ok ONE) episode of Homeland and I’m hooked and I do really like her, and she was in Stardust and you know I love a teen drama – have you checked out Felicity? The pink power ranger is in it!!! lend me the boxset!!!!!!

    • Solo

      She is good in it, but by no means the best character. Afraid I can’t lend you the boxset though- I have to return it to its rightful owner. If I see it in the sale I may well pick it up though.

      Quite a rambly post, I will come back and edit it, but glad you liked it 🙂 I have never heard of Felicity but the only Power Ranger I ever cared for was the yellow one. Which is uncharacteristic, cos I have very little time for yellow in my day to day life.

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