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‘My So-Called Life’ 20th Anniversary: Why It Still Gets You Like No One Else Does, 20 Years Later

ABC

20 years ago, ‘My So-Called Life’ thrashed and pouted its way onto television screens — an antidote for the deadly case of the warm and fuzzies we were collectively suffering from all those family sitcoms and all those pleasant lessons they taught us in 30-minute spurts each week.  It was a show for everyone: for the angst-ridden and misunderstood teens, for the tweens emerging into what we now call “all of the feels,” and for the parents trying to reconcile their struggles with the struggles of their own children. It was the first series to portray teenage life with such brilliant, shaded honesty, that showed us that our youth wasn’t disaffected, but deeply, terribly affected. 20 years later, ‘My So-Called Life’ still resonates; whether you’re 28 or 15, you can see yourself painfully reflected in Angela Chase’s insecurities and heartaches.

I was too young for ‘My So-Called Life’ when it debuted on ABC in 1994. I was only nine years-old, but I watched it avidly, transfixed by this series that was unlike anything I had seen before — it wasn’t an afterschool special, eager to patronize me and warn me of the dangers of smoking pot and giving into peer pressure. It was speaking a language to which even I, at the age of nine, could relate.

As I emerged into my tween years and the series had been tragically canceled, ‘My So-Called Life’ was a regular fixture on my television thanks to reruns on MTV. It was a show to which any kid could relate: we all had wild friends like Rayanne Graff (whose mom was cooler than our own); we all had that impossible crush on a guy like Jordan Catalano, whom we placed on a pedestal where he certainly did not belong; we all had an intelligent and sweet Brian Krakow longing for us down every hallway — the right boy at the wrong time; we all had those friends like Sharon Cherski whom we’d left behind when we joined a new crowd, but whom we still had to awkwardly face every day — pretending like that entire friendship and the secret world and language we’d created never existed and meant nothing. Angela said it best, as she always did: “What I like, dread, is when people who know you in completely different ways end up in the same area. And you have to develop this, like, combination you on the spot.”

"Though it was draped in every square inch of flannel available in 1994, ‘My So-Called Life’ remains just as relevant now as it was then."

And that’s where ‘My So-Called Life’ had the secret ingredient every other show about teenage life was lacking: the agelessness of insecurity. What no one tells you when you’re younger is that that painful inner monologue never quiets down, and all that really changes between the time you leave high school and become an adult is that you have a job to work and bills to pay. You never stop doubting yourself. You never stop feeling those awkward cringes that make you want to collapse in on yourself like a camping chair.

When Angela inherits a pair of tickets to see the Grateful Dead, she takes them out in the middle of class, waving them around in front of Jordan Catalano’s face without any conversational segue. How else is she going to bring it up? “Tickets,” she says, “for the Grateful Dead concert. Not that I like the Grateful Dead that much, but…” She trails off and her inner monologue picks up: “You know how sometimes the last sentence you said, like, echoes in your brain, and it just keeps sounding stupider? And you have to say something else just to make it stop?” To 15 year-old Angela Chase, this observation feels revelatory, to 28 year-old me, it feels like an enduring, merciless part of life.

By including Angela’s parents (and to a lesser extent, Rayanne’s and Sharon’s mothers), the show facilitates a conduit between teenage life and adulthood. We see Angela’s strife through the eyes of her parents and vice versa, while also witnessing their struggles separately — because that’s how this life works. We see how those flashes of insecurity never truly fade away in the way Angela’s mother tries to connect with her daughter and her husband, showing us how maintaining these relationships with the people you think you know best never stops being the hardest part of your day.

And then there’s Jordan Catalano — the slippery slope of first love and first heartache, that infatuation so powerful that drives you to believe that you could never love anyone else. And those boys are always the worst. Jordan, who refuses to acknowledge Angela in front of his friends and only makes out with her in a boiler room. Jordan, who isn’t entirely literate and isn’t smart enough for Angela, who tells her — to her face — that he isn’t that into her as if this will erase the embarrassment of the rumors circulating that they hooked up in his car; but whose face is he trying to save?

Fed up with their arrangement and Jordan’s refusal to treat her as anything resembling a human being, Angela confronts him in the boiler room:

Angela: “Why are you like this?”

Jordan: “Like what?”

Angela: “Like how you are.”

Jordan: “So leave!”

And just like that, ‘My So-Called Life’ succinctly nails every break-up in history.

Maybe the show was too honest and real to last — the closest thing we’ve had since is ‘Friday Night Lights,’ but that had the surface hook of football to reel unlikely viewers in, and a built-in fanbase thanks to a book and a film. Other shows have come close over the years, but nothing has quite captured the poignancy of ‘My So-Called Life,’ a show that wasn’t afraid to have Brian Krakow’s inner monologue express on network television, “Finally, an erection from actual physical contact.”

And although it was draped in every square inch of flannel available in 1994, ‘My So-Called Life’ remains just as relevant now as it was then — save for the pervasiveness of social media. Though it’s easy to imagine Angela Chase tweeting about how much she wants to stab her mother, or Rayanne inviting everyone to her party on Facebook, or people making a meme out of the persistent absence of Tino.

But perhaps that very lack of technology has also allowed the show to be so timeless, and with trends as cyclical as they are, you can watch ‘My So-Called Life’ now and little has changed between Angela’s flannel dresses and combat boots and the stuff I wear out to a dive bar. I see myself not just in her appearance or the way she ponders existential dilemmas like how a person should be, but in the agelessness of her self-doubt and despair, in that insecurity that’s just as timeless as a good flannel jacket.

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