Friday, September 25, 2009

My So Called Life

I’d argue, and have multiple times, that the biggest story in cinema this decade is the change in production standards and quality on TV. The buzz word is always “it’s more like a movie than a TV show,” which raises the question, what is a TV show anyway? Well, if you go back and watch shows from before shows like The Sopranos and 24 redefined what a TV show looked and felt like, you can find out what that criticism refers to. And, that can make it hard to appreciate shows that are as little as ten or fifteen years old.

My So Called Life is one of those shows I’ve always heard was great, and recently I decided it was time to check it out. Watching it, the first thing that strikes you is the fact that the early 90s were a nadir for fashion. Strange looking baggy flannel clothes cover everyone, and if it’s not those ugly looking muted colors, it’s popping neon day-glo, the holdover influence of the 80s merging with the low key aesthetic of the grunge years. But, the production style also feels like TV used to, recalling early episodes of Buffy, a show that depicted high school life at a similar time, though obviously with a different tone.

That’s not to say that there aren’t things that are timeless about the show. I think part of the reason that shows set at high school are so compelling, even to people who graduated a long time ago, is that high school is one of the few universal experiences. Colleges vary widely, jobs vary widely, but every high school has commonalities, and because the archetypal roles that people play are so culturally prominent, I think people use those archetypes to define themselves. So, you perceive yourself in the context of being either the ‘popular’ kid or the ‘geek’ or whatever other role. They’re identities that you can draw from in figuring out who you are.

Angela is set up in the same kind of identity crisis we see Lindsay Weir going through at the beginning of Freaks and Geeks, torn between her old friends, who were good, smart girls, and her edgier new friends. It’s a good place to start a show, but I think it can be hard to appreciate MSCL now, after seeing a show like Freaks and Geeks, which very much expands on the basic themes we see here.

My biggest issue with the show is the fact that the really compelling part of the show is Angela, and the relationships between her and her friends. But, partially due to the challenge of working with underage actors, huge amounts of screentime each episode are spent with Angela’s parents. Graham is an interesting character, but ultimately they’re just not as interesting as the kids, and it feels like a chore to sit through story after story where they go through the same conflicts and resolve them in the same manner. I don’t think it would have been better to have false drama, as in the teased at affair subplot in the first couple of episodes, but for the amount of screentime devoted to those characters, they don’t bring that much to the show.

And, because we spend so much time with them, it sometimes feels like Angela isn’t really that developed. I love the voiceovers she has, how they’re so dramatic, but true at the same time, casting her small-scale personal struggles as Earth shaking drama. But, because we didn’t spend as much time with her as I think we should have, she didn’t have the depth that the best TV characters do, and I felt some distance from her, when the whole point of the show seemed to be to draw you into her world. It feels almost disingenuous to have her voiceover guide the show, and then spend so much time away from her.

I think Claire Danes was amazing in the role, probably part of the reason that it’s been tough for her to transition to being an adult actress, but I do feel like Angela remained something of an absent center. Take Brian Krakow’s crush on her, I feel like I knew more about him and his motivations than I did about Angela. I totally understand why he had feelings for her, but at the same time, he thought she was pretty and somewhat accessible to him being his neighbor. But, shouldn’t we understand her on a deeper level than that? Maybe the idea was that her identity was in question and she doesn’t know who she is, so we don’t either, but I wanted more time with the character throughout.

I think the great success of Freaks and Geeks was the way it built a fully realized world within the school, and cast its net wide over a deep ensemble cast. The characters here are developed to some extent, but generally feel defined by one characteristic. They evolve in some ways, but don’t feel as deep or developed as the best TV characters. But, I think that part of that is attributable to the climate in which the show was produced, TV just didn’t go as deep back then, and it took shows like The Sopranos and Freaks and Geeks to break ground.

That’s not to say the show wasn’t successful. The things that linger are well realized moments that capture very real emotion. The stereotypical mindset of the teenager is to turn small scale personal events into earth shaking crises, and that’s what a TV show has to do as well. It can be done through metaphor, like Buffy did, or simply by building up your affection for certain characters. Angela’s crush on Jordan becomes her primary focus in life, so having him make a pass at her in his car, spinning her dream into harsh reality is essentially a collapse of this entire fantasy life she’s built up in her head. It’s a devastating collision of imagination and reality that works really well in the moment.

“Life of Brian” features a similarly effective conundrum, where we see Angela subconsciously sabotage Brian’s potential relationship with Delia, because she always wants to have Brian there as a backup potential relationship. If Brian gets together with someone, shortly after Sharon did, both people she considers below her on the social food chain, what does it say about her? So, she exploits the hold she has over Brian to make him do something stupid, even as he realizes that he’s doing Angela’s bidding and making a mistake. The episode ends with the two of them talking about how dances are always stupid, connected only by their negativity while Delia and Ricky have a great time.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the show. I had some issues with it, but on the whole, it felt real and emotionally relatable. I think it’s the kind of show that had more of an impact at the time because it aired at a time when TV just wasn’t doing stuff like this. Now, it’s more common, so it’s still a good show, but more recognizable as groundbreaking than as perhaps a truly standout series.

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