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Teen drama still has impact 10 years after cancellation

Teen drama still has impact 10 years after cancellation

March 26, 2004

By MANUEL MENDOZA / The Dallas Morning News

Ted Harbert hangs a My So-Called Life poster in his office, but he says it's not to remind him of a great show he brought to the air. Instead, the former ABC Entertainment president doesn't want to forget that he canceled the drama series after less than a season.

"It's one of several things I call my humbling pieces, the things that remind me of how easy it is to screw up and let good television get away from you," he says in a phone interview. "There are plenty of mitigating reasons why My So-Called Life got canceled, but to me all of them are worthless. I still carry around a decent amount of guilt."

That kind of angst fits perfectly with the theme of the series, which in its 19 episodes explored the world of adolescents with brutal honesty, free of easy resolutions.

Lead character Angela Chase ? a 15-year-old played by Claire Danes, who was the same age ? observes puberty with confusion, despair and occasionally joy. When the audience met her, she was in the midst of changing friends, hair color and her outlook on life ? a tentative brand of rebellion probably more common than the all-out version normally depicted onscreen.

Approaching its 10th anniversary this summer, My So-Called Life lives on with its loyal fan base, including TV executives, and keeps finding new audiences. This week, it begins re-airing on The N, an evening programming block for "tweens" and teens on the Nickelodeon offshoot, Noggin (available on digital cable and satellite TV). MTV also reran the show a year after it was canceled in 1995. And in 2002, the series was released in a five-DVD box set.

Network television has changed dramatically since My So-Called Life premiered on Aug. 25, 1994, in the midst of what has come to be called the Second Golden Age of Television because of the number of first-rate dramas that were being produced at the time. The size of the audience for traditional broadcasters has since plummeted as the big guys continue to lose ground to cable. And in many ways the landscape has become safer ? even before Janet Jackson bared a breast on national TV ? if also more coarse with the advent of reality shows.

"Our culture is more comfortable watching teens handed easy lessons that they can solve at the end of the episode, like 'don't do drugs,' 'don't have premarital sex,' 'don't carry guns to school,' " says Timothy Shary, assistant professor of screen studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

"Or they're so crazy and weird, we don't know what to do with them. We let them run rampant. But if we're going to take them seriously, that means a lot of responsibility. That means dealing with them at their level."

The discomfort caused by My So-Called Life is key to what makes it brilliant. Mr. Harbert says he recently showed the pilot to his 14-year-old daughter, who liked it, but "It might be too real," she told him.

"It made it a very difficult viewing experience for adults and especially network management," he says. "It confronted all your own deficiencies as a parent, as a husband or wife, and if you expose that stuff in a raw fashion, it makes people uncomfortable. Television that is trouble will often have enemies inside the camp that say, 'We don't need this, and it's not worth the time to see if the investment is going to pay off.' "

Today, My So-Called Life would be a hit ? if it got on the air in the first place and found a similar audience. Its average ratings of just under 9.9 million viewers would put it in front of Fox's "hit" soap The O.C. by 600,000 viewers and with similar demographics, which is what really counts with advertisers.

But My So-Called Life was ahead of its time and remains so. Teen audiences were still undervalued in the mid-'90s.

Mr. Harbert remembers the spring 1995 scheduling meeting when he was deciding whether to renew the series for fall. He had statistics that showed that 67 percent of 15- and 16-year-old girls watching television were tuned in to My So-Called Life during its difficult Thursday time slot opposite Friends and Mad About You. But advertisers would pay only $50,000 a spot for an audience so dominated by young viewers.

"Three years later, Dawson's Creek was getting $250,000," he says.

It took the 1997 blockbuster Titanic and its repeat girl audience to make advertisers realize the importance of the market. Dawson's Creek premiered in January 1998, a month after Titanic was released, and the fledgling WB network was able to build a lucrative schedule around girl-friendly shows.

"All of a sudden, teen girls were trendsetters," Mr. Harbert says. "If they loved something, then everyone paid attention. If we had been on two years later, we would've been on for five years."


Unlike Dawson's Creek, which was more of a traditional soap like Beverly Hills, 90210, and The O.C., which is groundbreaking in a crowd-pleasing way, My So-Called Life is in-your-face about the dark realities of adolescent life but without any lurid appeal. The writing is nuanced, pushing the envelope by simply being more truthful than your average network series.

"All we do is try to tell the truth and then discover that it hasn't been done before. It's always amazing to us," executive producer Marshall Herskovitz ? who with Edward Zwick was also behind thirtysomething and later the family drama Once and Again ? said in an interview just before My So-Called Life hit the air. "We work so much from the inside of our stories that we just tell them the way we want to tell them and then find out whether we're in trouble or not."

That meant essaying Angela's irrational crush on Jordan Catalano, played by Jared Leto, on her terms. "He's always closing his eyes, like it hurts to look at things," she says in one of the frequent voice-overs that frame the plots.

The producers and series creator Winnie Holzman also detail Angela's seesawing relationship with her parents ("The sad truth is, my breasts have come between us," she says of her dad); her rejection of her oldest friend, Sharon, who herself has to deal with the idea that her boyfriend is objectifying her; the drug and alcohol problems of Angela's new friend Rayanne, who isn't portrayed as a one-dimensional bad girl or even a bad girl with a heart of gold.

In one of the show's most moving story lines, Angela and Rayanne's semicloseted gay friend Rickie (first seen applying mascara with them in the girls' bathroom at school) is kicked out of his house, paralleling a real event in the life of actor Wilson Cruz.

The Chases weigh taking Rickie in, but he winds up sleeping in an abandoned building with other young castoffs. There he meets a girl played by the pop singer Juliana Hatfield, who acts as a warning sign. Angela leaves her house to rescue him, panicking her family. They are all finally reunited in church in a long sequence without dialogue. No one has to say anything.

Such nonjudgmental narratives distinguish My So-Called Life from current lessons-learned dramas such as 7th Heaven or the plethora of police procedurals that aim to assure us the authorities have our best interests at heart and the technological wherewithal to solve it all.

It was part of the era of Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure, Picket Fences, Homicide: Life on the Street and other unconventional series that took risks and still managed to see the light of day. That may well be an era that has permanently passed.

My So-Called Life 7 p.m. Fridays, The N block of Noggin network (digital cable and satellite). Starring Bess Armstrong, Wilson Cruz, Claire Danes, Devon Gummersall, A.J. Langer, Jared Leto, Devon Odessa, Lisa Wilhoit, Tom Irwin. Created by Winnie Holzman. 1 hr.


My So-Called Life launched several acting careers, most notably that of Claire Danes, though she has yet to land a breakout role. Here's a look at some of the regulars and what they've been up to since the show was canceled in 1995.

Manuel Mendoza

CLAIRE DANES Played: Angela Chase, the sensitive, self-conscious adolescent at the center of the action Best role since: Sookie Sapperstein in Igby Goes Down (2002) Also seen in: How to Make an American Quilt (1995); To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday (1996); Romeo+ Juliet (1996); U Turn (1997); The Mod Squad (1999); The Hours (2002); Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) Next up: Two lead roles ? Shopgirl, opposite Steve Martin in his adaptation of his own novel, and Jodie Foster's period piece Flora Plum as a poverty-stricken girl who joins the circus

JARED LETO Played: Jordan Catalano, the heartthrob and apple of Angela's eye Best role since: Harry Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream (2000) Also seen in: How to Make an American Quilt (1995); Prefontaine (1997); Fight Club (1999); Girl, Interrupted (1999); American Psycho (2000); Panic Room (2002) Next up: Alexander, Oliver Stone's historical drama, as Hephaestion

A.J. LANGER Played: Rayanne Graff, the wild girl who becomes Angela's best friend Best role since: Annie Bernstein Flynn, the free-spirited sister in the NBC comedy series Three Sisters (2001-02) Also seen in: Escape from L.A. (1996); Meet the Deedles (1998); It's Like, You Know (1999-2000)

WILSON CRUZ Played: Rickie Vasquez, Rayanne's best friend, a gay teen with family problems Best role since : Angel in the Broadway and Los Angeles productions of Rent (1997-98) Also seen in: Nixon (1995); Johns (1996); Joyride (1996); All Over Me (1997); Party of Five (1999-2000); Party Monster (2003)

DEVON GUMMERSALL Played: Brian Krakow, nerdy neighbor with a crush on Angela Best role since: Zach, the "Pink Guy" in Felicity (1998) Also seen in: Independence Day (1996); Relativity (1996-97); Dick (1999); The Fugitive (2000); The Anarchist Cookbook (2002); The L Word (2004) Next up: Dead & Breakfast, a horror flick

BESS ARMSTRONG Played: Patty Chase, Angela's high-strung mother Best role since: Diamond Men (2000) Also seen in: That Darn Cat (1997); That Was Then (2002)

TOM IRWIN Played: Graham Chase, Angela's drifting yet understanding father Best roles since: Several productions at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where he is a member of the ensemble Also seen in: The Haunting (1999); 21 Grams (2003); Exposed (2003)

Copyright The Dallas Morning News

“Do we have to keep talking about religion? It's Christmas.”

Danielle Chase, Episode 15: "So-Called Angels"