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October 10, 2015

Gone Too Soon: My So-Called Life

by Jason Hughes, posted Aug 31st 2009 2:40PM
My So-Called Life
With the news coming down this week that MTV is adapting the UK's teen sensation Skins for American audiences, it became obvious which show I was going to do next for this column. The thing about Skins that works so well is that it rings of authenticity, which is rare in teen programming. It also features teenagers who are truly acting their age; no old dudes with male pattern baldness pretending to be high school sophomores.

We've seen all this before. A long time ago, before The WB and UPN built programming models for teen audiences, there was a little show on ABC that nobody really knew what to do with. My So-Called Life tackled teen issues, not in "a very special episode" way, but in a raw, unfiltered way. It was wonderful.

What was it?
[Spoilers Ahead!] Angela Chase was an ordinary kid trying to find herself. She decided that it was time to dump her childhood friends, straight-laced Sharon and geeky Brian, and move on to far more interesting and "grown up" friends, Rayanne and Rickie. Rayanne had sex and Rickie was gay!

The show dealt with Angela's struggles between who she thought she wanted to be, and who she really was inside. Add to that the brooding, handsome bad boy she was desperately in teenage love with and you've already got enough to fill a teen drama.

My So-Called Life - The Chase FamilyMy So-Called Life took it even further, fleshing out Angela's parents as well. Her mother was the breadwinner, leaving her father feeling a little out of sorts. The show dealt with serious issues throughout it's short run like homosexuality, drugs and alcohol, violence, adultery, abuse and more. It was real life in an era when life on television was generally sugar-coated.

Why did it have to go?
My So-Called Life suffered low ratings; it was facing the heart of NBC's Thursday night line-up. But it had an incredibly strong and faithful following among the teen set. In 1994, nobody was programming network television for a youthful audience. It wasn't until The WB and UPN formed, ironically a couple weeks before My So-Called Life ended, that a network finally saw the value in developing television authentically for teenagers.

ABC was considering renewing the show. In its short 19-episode run it generated tremendous press and outstanding reviews. That's the kind of show you nurture. There was one problem, though: Claire Danes was kind of thinking she was done with television.

The silver screen was calling, and Danes wasn't interested in a second season. Now, there were contracts and all of that, but ABC saw a show with poor ratings and a star who wanted to move on. Why fight to keep her, only to have to probably fight her again for a third season if the show found success?

How do I find out what happens next?
The network was sounding positive, critics loved it and nobody knew that Danes didn't want to come back. The writers felt confident that all this good will would translate into a renewal so the final episode ended on a cliffhanger.

Claire Danes & Jared LetoAngela pined for bad boy Jordan, built him up in her mind, got with him, and found out he was a bit of a tool. A beautiful letter he'd written helped to make amends. Only he didn't write it. Brian, the nerdy friend who'd loved Angela for as long as he'd been able to love, did. When she found this out, the two shared an almost intimate moment. In the end, though, she left with Jordan.

I can't find any indications that creator Winnie Holzman planned things out beyond this point. The writing was on the wall, and Holzman's heart wasn't in it any more. What happens next is left to our imagination.

Where did the cast wind up?
  • Claire Danes (Angela Chase) went on to star in a whole slew of other films. She remains in demand and is one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation.
  • A.J. Langer (Rayanne Graff) continues in television, with roles on Brooklyn South, Three Sisters and most recently Eyes.
  • Wilson Cruz (Rickie Vasquez) is an advocate in the LGBT community for young people, especially of color. He continues to act in small roles all over.
  • Devon Gumemersall (Brian Krakow)went on to several recurring roles on various television series like Felicity, and Roswell, and makes guest appearances on virtually every show on the air.
  • Jared Leto (Jordan Catalano) moved on to major films like The Thin Red Line and Fight Club, and continues acting. He also formed a band with his brother, 30 Seconds to Mars, whose third album is due out sometime this year.
  • Tom Irwin (Graham Chase) has remained active in television and movies; he can currently be seen as Father John Hanadarko on Saving Grace.
  • Lisa Wilhoit (Danielle Chase) appears all over television, but perhaps her most prominent recurring role right now is as the voice of Connie D'Amico, the most popular girl in school and a constant thorn in Meg's side, on Family Guy.
  • Mary Kay Place (Camille Cherski) worked through various guest roles before landing the role of Adaleen Grant on HBO's Big Love.
  • Jeff Perry (Richard Katimski) also works the guest role circuit, along with a recurring role as Meredith's father, Thatcher Grey, on Grey's Anatomy.
  • The rest of the cast can be seen in various guest roles and voice-over work ... or nowhere.

Who cares?
This was one of the first shows to develop a huge internet cult following. The fan-site MSCL.com continues to follow the lives and careers of its cast, as well as offering updates about anything to do with the show.

My So-Called Life is one of the most fondly remembered shows of all time. It constantly ranks high on "best of" lists and is considered by many to be the inspiration for the majority of teen-centric programming on network television since.

When can I see it?
As we reported earlier this month, Hulu is now streaming all 19 episodes any time you want to see it. How about now? Just like last week, I'll get you started:

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It just such a shame that it ended so abruptly. This show (unwittingly?) captured the spirit of a very special generation. It's too bad that there are no more episodes to showcase the what it was like to be a teen back then--coming of age on the cusp of a cultural revolution that included the advent of the Internet, the emergence of a new era in civil rights, and the palpable sense of disillusionment that was a result of all the new awakenings that were happening at the time.

July 13 2011 at 7:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Stuart Ian Burns

Ah, the old fan-generated myth of Claire Danes wanting to leave MSCL and make films being half the reason for its cancellation. That began on ye olde fan discussion boards online in the mid-90s as reason why the show was cancelled.

When asked Danes said that she wanted to stay with the show, and the creators refute that as having nothing to do with the cause for its cancellation. It was the network all the way on this one.

Danes going into films was a result of the cancellation and not the cause.

September 02 2009 at 4:30 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Stuart Ian Burns's comment
Jason Hughes

There's a lot of evidence to support that it was a factor in the network deciding to not go forward, as I indicated. This Entertainment Weekly interview with the cast and creators talks about it as well, and if they said it, it's definitely more than just the fans: http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,692296_4,00.html

September 02 2009 at 8:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"gone too soon" was ironically the title of a michael jackson tune. we can say the same for the other ill fated shows that come and gone.

September 01 2009 at 8:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mary's comment
Jason Hughes

Actually, the title is a nod to the late, great King of Pop. I conceived the idea of these in-depth looks in the wake of his death.

September 01 2009 at 9:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Claire Danes is "one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation?" LOL! MSCL was a great show, but Danes is nothing special. Sweet girl, decent actress...hardly acclaimed, even after "Stardust" and "Shopgirl."

September 01 2009 at 3:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Joe's comment

Yes, this is a reply to a post that is well over 2 years old, but worthy of an update.

Considering her recent work with "Temple Grandin" and "Homeland," Danes is "one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation." In 2009, this was a stretch but not now.

I've always considered her to be very special.

January 18 2012 at 3:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I agree that this show was pulled before its time. In fact, I featured it on my own blog back in June (http://www.thetalkingbox.com/2009/06/my-so-called-life.html), with many of the same points made regarding the show's premise and demise. One thing I disagree with, however, is the comment about tackling teen issues NOT in "a very special episode" way. I think that the plots were really just one "very special episode" after another...

August 31 2009 at 3:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I was 15 when this show came out, and I was totally obsessed. What I thought you all might think was funny was a thought that occured to me when I was reading this article. I am now 30. That means Angela Chase would be 30 this year too. CRAZY.

August 31 2009 at 3:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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