My So-Called Life, Complete Series - DVD review
Say what you will about My So-Called Life: It was a pivotal show in American TV History. Although it was canceled after only two years and 19 episodes, when MTV picked it up and began showing it round the clock, it acquired a cult following that keeps it resonant even today.
However, even though My So-Called Life (MSCL) endures on the strength of its own merits -- Its writing, direction, its attractive cast and great acting -- it also exists on a continuum. My So-Called Life is the stepdaughter of Thirtysomething, the cousin of Relativity, the aunt of Once and Again, and the grandmother of Brothers and Sisters. Not only are all of these shows character-driven rather than plot-driven, they all deal with the drama of minutiae: Daily life, the small moments, the inner dialectic of family life are their focal points.
And it is not a coincidence: Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick have had a hand in influencing all of these shows, whether from a producing standpoint (of all of the shows except Brothers and Sisters) or from influencing other producers: Ken Olin, of Thirtysomething fame has brought the Herskovitz/Zwick sensibility to Brothers and Sisters, along with his son, Clint, who writes for the show; his wife Patty Wettig, who acted on Thirty-Something too, and his daughter, Roxy Olin,who performed a small role.
It is clear from the box set, the DVD that incorporates every episode of the series, a booklet developed by Winnie Holzman with pictures and behind-the-scenes tidbits, and the extensive number of interviews with everyone involved with the show that MSCL is still a show that lives in the hearts of its creators. In fact, the only "extra" on the DVD that I could have hoped for would have been a gag reel, because I love gag reels.
At first, I wasn't very excited about the interview listings, which are labeled simply, "Interview with Claire Danes and Winnie Holzman," or "The Friends," or "The Music." However, these simple depictions bely the level and quality of the interviews. Not only does Claire Danes appear on nearly every set of interviews, because she was the show's star and lead character, Angela Chase, whose so-called life we are talking about, but they also managed to talk to every single other major character except Jared Leto. This is a show that ended 12 years ago. For them to be able to garner the participation of all of those participants, including director Scott Winant and W.G. "Snuffy" Warden, who also did the music for Thirtysomething, is quite remarkable.
I was particularly impressed by Danes' involvement in the interviews because she was extremely intelligent, articulate, forthcoming, and funny. She has gone on to be the biggest star, so she could have played a minimal role in promoting the DVD, but she was there front and center. That speaks volumes to me -- more even than what she said -- of what the experience must have meant (and continues to mean) for her.
Several things struck me about the interviews. I reviewed the DVD for Season One of Brothers and Sisters, and I complained a bit that the interviews were really just like a huge commercial for the show. I didn't really feel like I got much except, "Wow, we really love this show! And it's awesome!" over and over again. We got more from the MSCL interviews. I don't want to give too much away, but we got little snippets: Devon Odessa (Sharon) and Claire Danes (Angela Chase) are still best friends in real life. Danes still gets together with Bess Armstrong (Patty Chase, Angela's mother) annually for Thanksgiving. Devon Odessa (Sharon) and A.J. Langer (Rayanne) didn't get a long in real life, either.
Claire Danes was almost not cast as the lead on the show: She was only thirteen years old when the pilot aired. As a minor, she could only work five hours per day, so some of the show's creators argued for another young starlet to play the role: Alicia Silverstone was sixteen years old and emancipated, so she could work as an adult. But because they wanted Danes so badly, because they felt that the show could not go forward without this young, unknown, they re-thought their concept of the show and made it more ensemble, including more of her family and friends.
Wilson Cruz, who was an openly gay teenager at the time, played the first ever openly gay character on network television -- and a teenager to boot. Devon Gummersall insists that he was not as nerdy as Brian Krakow, but I find that extremely hard to believe: Devon Gummersall WAS Brian Krakow. And sadly, he is not as cute now as he was as a teen, but hey, who is? Well, Claire Danes is...
Winnie Holzman appears on the DVD extensively as well. If MSCL belongs to anyone besides Claire Danes, it is Winnie Holzman, who wrote the show. It wasn't even her baby at the beginning: Zwick and Herskovitz were interested in exploring the point of view of a teenage girl, and approached Holzman to begin writing for them. She says she didn't really do any research for the show: She just plunged the depths of her own experience as a teenager. Clearly, those experiences have a universal component to them that resonate even today.
I think one of the reasons the show is so appealing is that you are either going through it right now, or you have been permanently shaped by your experience of being a teenager. It's inescapable: If we live to adulthood, we all go through it, some of us emerging more unscathed than others. Teen angst is the one thing that most of us share: Not all of us go to college; careers and relationships are certainly very different across the board of adulthood. But most of us have had to endure the humiliations and daily trauma of high school.
There are more extras -- some of the episodes have commentary from Holzman, Danes, and others. Considering how much DVD collections for a single season of a television show cost, I cannot believe what a great bargain this complete set is. And I think of it as owning a small cornerstone of TV history.