MY SO-CALLED LIFE As We Knew It

mscl200.jpg“This life has been a test. If this had been an actual life, you would have received actual instructions on where to go and what to do.”

One weekend in 1996, I was innocently channel-surfing past MTV and stumbled upon the beginning of a My So-Called Life marathon. Ten hours and ten amazing episodes later, I emerged from my television-induced trance, thoroughly enamored with Winnie Holzman’s portrait of flannel-clad adolescence.

“I’m in love,” Claire Danes’ Angela Chase narrates wistfully in the pilot. “His name is Jordan Catalano. He was left back. Twice. Once I almost touched his shoulder in the middle of a pop quiz.” With those words, a little piece of television history was made. Angela’s infatuation with Jordan is nothing at all like love, but it embodies perfectly the emotional pathology of a teen stuttering and stumbling awkwardly toward adulthood.

All the catastrophes of growing up, from the betrayal of a best friend to the appearance of an ill-timed zit, are felt deeply by the characters, and handled with unfailing sensitivity by the writers. Yet the show itself never degenerates into the navel-gazing melodrama of its protagonists. When Angela describes Anne Frank as lucky because “she was trapped in an attic for three years with a guy she really liked,” the writers are gently mocking her lopsided view of the world even as they’re reminding us about that innocent, forgotten part of ourselves that was once so in love with the notion of love that we might have agreed with her.

The show’s nuanced depiction of adolescent (and parental) angst was not only achingly real, but far ahead of its time—the heartbreaking journey of gay teen Rickie (whose on-screen struggles sadly mirrored the real-life experiences of actor Wilson Cruz) was groundbreaking television when it debuted in 1994. My So-Called Life was the artistic forebear of all the greatest teen-centric television that followed, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Freaks and Geeks and Veronica Mars, to today’s Friday Night Lights and Aliens in America.

Ever since the MTV reruns stopped in 1997, the show has been lost to most of us, but not forgotten. A short production run of DVDs released 2002—and selling on the second-hand market for almost as much as scalped Hannah Montana tickets—failed to satisfy consumer demand.

But now, with tomorrow’s long-awaited new DVD release from Shout! Factory, My So-Called Life will once more be available to the masses. The new set features such goodies as audio commentaries, highlights from the 1995 Museum of Television & Radio panel, and a deluxe 36-page book full of cast photos and liner notes from Winnie Holzman, Joss Whedon, Janeane Garofalo, and Michele Byers.

“I am telling you, we had a time,” Angela’s friend Rayanne declares at the end of the pilot. “Didn’t we? Didn’t we have a time?”

“We did,” Angela agrees happily. “We had a time.”

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