My So-Called Life was doomed to fail. It was a drama about a teenage girl that wasn't obsessed with the typical things we are told teen girls are overwashed in, like clothing, makeup or boys (well, okay... ONE particular boy)! But this show, in a mere nineteen episodes, managed to run the gamut of topics that all families with kids attending high school in the 1990s were dealing with, and the way the program dealt with these situations was nothing short of perfection.
The Chase family, a mother, father and two daughters in a tree lined suburb of Pittsburgh, PA, are the focus, and Angela is the POV we're seeing the whole thing through (for the most part), as she narrates the story in voiceovers that are both appropriate to her age and yet wise beyond her years. We first meet her at a crossroads: her childhood girlfriend, Sharon is now "not cool enough" for her anymore and she takes up with a wild new pal, Rayanne, and Rayanne's male friend, Rickie where the three of them collectively spend a fair amount of time hanging out in the girl's bathroom at school, swapping mascara pencils and gossiping about the day's events. Right away, the viewer sees this isn't a "typical" teevee take on high school life! Meanwhile, Angela has taken a shine to Jordan, a hunky but reticent classmate that Rayanne and Rickie also both seem enamored over, and that provides a chunk of the drama for her.
But, there were plenty of issues for everyone to go around. Angela also had to deal with the boy next door, Brian, who was the class geek (which show viewers know isn't a fair description for him). Brian (anagram for "Brain") clearly has a thing for Angela ("Angel"), though he might not even be aware of that as the series gets started.
Meanwhile, Graham, Angela's dad, is toying with the idea of an affair, when not considering starting his own business: a restaurant, since he's a chef. Her mom, Patty, has issues because she never knew her birth parents, and gets her obsessive-compulsions from her adoptive mother. Angela's sister Danielle deals with "not being old enough" to participate in a lot of the things her older sib seems steeped in, and that causes strife. Rayanne's mom is an overly permissive sort who allows her daughter to drink alcohol and have parties, which certainly affects Rayanne in notable ways. Rickie is coming to terms with his own sexual identity, and with a dark secret at home. And Jordan's issues are with schoolwork, and with his rock band, Frozen Embryos.
But... what about Tino?
If you only know one fact about this program, know this. My So-Called Life had a cast of characters unlike any in television. You could never pigeonhole any one of them as "good" or "bad," as you saw the three dimensional qualities they all had. That included the narrator, Angela herself! At some point during the 19 hours, you got to see each and every one of these people as a villain, a hero, a fool, but always as a human. To me, that was the true magic of the series. Even characters as minor as a substitute teacher, a principal or a hotelier got this same kind of treatment and I don't think I have ever seen a program, before or since, that has been as even-handed with all of its players as MS-CL was.
Kudos to series creator Winnie Holzman, for making Angela thoughtful, confused and endearing and to Claire Danes who breathed life into the character; to Bess Armstrong, who played Patty so perfectly perfect, though Patty herself managed never to be so; to Devon Odessa and Lisa Wilhoit, who had the thankless roles of the "former" friend and the "annoying" kid sis and both had to make their roles believable and palatable and they both did so, brilliantly; to A.J. Langer, who had most people convinced she actually was Rayanne; to Devon Gummersall, who was literally genius in his role; to Wilson Cruz, who probably had the biggest emotional arc and most challenging acting job of anyone on the show; to Jared Leto who took the bits of dialog he got and made every word count; and to Tom Irwin who was equal parts strong and fragile as the patriarch of the program. Collectively, they were an amazing company.
It's tragic and beautiful that there was only one season of this program. Sure, fans would have loved a second year to find out what might have happened after episode 19, but in a way, perhaps that would have ruined the perception we had; the mystique might have vanished. Still, Angela lives on with her classmates, her family, her situations and just a little bit of magic sprinkled where it completely fit, and that's why My So-Called Life will remain a true television treasure.
If you have never seen this series, I almost envy you in that you have an unexpected joy waiting for you to view. And if you have, you already know and understand everything I've said here. As far as a TV teen drama... no! As far as ANY television drama is concerned: being smart, focused, telling and true, there was none better, and there may never be.