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Angela's World

1.1. Introduction: Standing Up For Angela

"Nothing about this show has been normal -- or easy." -- Bess Armstrong

The "my" in "My So-Called Life" belongs to Angela Chase, a 15-year-old high school sophomore at the fictitious Liberty High School in the equally fictitious Pittsburgh suburb of Three Rivers, Pennsylvania. We nearly never met Angela, now we may lose her, and between nearly-never-was and may-never-be-again, we fell utterly in love. "Fighting for Life" tries to explain what we fell in love with, and understand why we fell in love -- as if such a thing can ever be explained or understood.

The pilot episode of "My So-Called Life" was filmed some two years before it would find a spot in a network's prime-time schedule. "My So-Called Life" was a "difficult" show because it told the story of a teenager, but the telling of the story was decidedly adult. One network (CBS) balked. A second network (ABC) could not find a suitable place in its prime-time schedule. However, in the following season, 1994, ABC aired "My So-Called Life."

"My So-Called Life" was on the air -- barely.

While ABC gave us Angela, for which it deserves credit, the network treated her like a disfavored stepdaughter. Mainly because the time slot was available, "My So-Called Life" aired on Thursdays from 7:00-8:00 p.m.(CST) -- a time slot known in the television industry as "Pork Chop Hill." "My So-Called Life" aired for the first time on August 26, 1994, two weeks before the much- publicized week of season premieres in September. "My So-Called Life" was routinely preempted in favor of "Matlock" and one-time specials. While two competing sitcoms finished among or near the top ten most-watched shows, "My So-Called Life" performed dismally, consistently one of the least-watched shows on television. A single showing on a Tuesday night showed a modest improvement in ratings, but not enough to persuade ABC to make a permanent move. Many would-be viewers and a small number of critics dismissed Angela and her world as "teenage angst," but it became apparent to those who did watch that "My So-Called Life" was special. Carefully written, extraordinarily acted, "My So-Called Life" challenged its viewers with undercurrents of meaning played out in dialogue, music, and cinematography. We became involved. We began to care, deeply, because Angela was "like, real, with flaws." In Angela's world we saw ourselves and people we loved -- or wanted to love. In Angela's struggle to find herself, we found our own struggle. In Angela's world, we rediscovered the wonder, the pain, and the passion of our own.

By October, it was apparent that "My So-Called Life" was in trouble, not from lack of content or originality, but from poor Nielsen ratings, the measure of a program's profitability for its network, and ultimately, its sponsors. Accordingly, ABC decided to place "My So-Called Life" on "hiatus," the place television shows are sent to die. Clearly, if "My So-Called Life" was to survive, something had to be done.

On November 30, 1994, something was done by a viewer named Steve Joyner, a 27-year-old author from San Francisco. Needing to find others like himself, whose lives had been divided (into watching "My So-Called Life" and not watching "My So-Called Life"), Steve turned to the emerging on-line community, the realm of America OnLine, CompuServe, Prodigy and others; the universe of cyberspace, the Internet and the World Wide Web. And there we were, a group whose diversity in age, gender, background, and professions far exceeded what one might expect, given the common interest that brought us together. We talked to each other about the show. We talked about ourselves. We wrote letters to ABC asking it to give "My So-Called Life" another chance. We told anyone who would listen about "My So-Called Life."

I was among this group, and at one point I asked, who would stand up for Angela if she was in real trouble. It was a topic for discussion among the on-liners, but it had a deeper meaning. The "real" trouble that Angela was in was the likelihood that she would cease to exist after just 19 episodes. Thus, the question was meant as a call to others to help carry the message that we wanted "My So-Called Life" to stay on the air. The call was answered. Steve marshaled the on-line devotees of "My So-Called Life" into a group he called "Operation (So-Called) Life Support" ("OLS"). On January 26, 1995, the same date that "My So-Called Life" aired for the last time on ABC, OLS ran an open letter, written by Steve, myself and others, to ABC and its President of Entertainment, Ted Harbert. The letter spoke a truth that we of OLS knew to be self-evident:

"My So-Called Life" is the most provocative, intelligent and heartfelt television drama of the 1994 season.... The response ["My So-Called Life"] evokes from its followers is not inexplicable. It is the response that intellectual challenge evokes in our minds. It is the response that all art evokes in the human heart. It is the response which transcends Nielsen ratings and the "bottom line."


Nevertheless, after the last episode aired, "My So-Called Life" was relegated to hiatus. But the last episode of "My So-Called Life" had a title that seemed to speak to OLS and the on-line devoted: "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities." Our dream of seeing "My So-Called Life" for a second season carried the responsibility of telling ABC we were out here. We were the ones who had to stand up for Angela.

And we have: during hiatus, OLS and the on-line community generated and maintained interest in "My So-Called Life." If other shows have gone on hiatus to die, there was a sense that "My So-Called Life" had gone on hiatus to reload. Insiders say ABC has received over 150,000 letters about "My So-Called Life." If, as they say, ABC considers each letter to represent 1,000 viewers, "My So-Called Life" has been, or could be, watched by half the people in the United States. The message has been, and continues to be, sent. We have not failed. If "My So-Called Life" is not renewed for a second season, the failure will not be ours, but ABC's. We stood up for Angela.

"May Day," 1995.

© Copyright 1997 William E. Blais.
All Rights Reserved.

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“And, you know, with your hair like that? It hurts to look at you.”

Rayanne Graff, Episode 1: "My So-Called Life (Pilot)"