Claire Danes. Where do I begin? I mean that rhetorically, of course, because I know exactly where to begin: 1994.
Maybe it was the hair, dyed unnaturally but beautifully to the color an October leaf. Maybe it was the pouting lips that smiled and cried expertly. Maybe it was the flannel thrown around a young waist with all the carefully staged haphazard abandon of grunge. Maybe it was the fact that I was a loser prone to crushing on girls from afar, and I recognized some of that in Angela, the lovely protagonist of My So-Called Life, probably the finest TV show ever to be killed before its time.
Maybe it was my so-called hormones. It was probably hormones. Although I was not yet even thirteen, so maybe it was love.
Still trapped between the swirling social Scylla and Charybdis of middle school, I spent a lot of time imagining the better days that awaited in High School, a tantalizing Promised Land of school dances and driving at night and being wise and being reckless and maybe just maybe making out now and then (emphasis on now, please). My imagination was fantastical, and I hope you will forgive it. My So-Called Life opened up to me what I had to assume was a photorealistic portrayal of the American teenage experience, gingerly on its way to rescue me from childhood, a place I would spend much of my life trying to get back to.
But the 90s were a good time to be young, to feel like you were really going through all these hard things, and that maybe your peers and you were the first kids in the history of time to pioneer a way out. The 90s were happening, man. We felt like life was suddenly out in the open, in your face, asking hard questions and not giving a rip if the truth stung—maybe hoping that it stung, even. Come on—it’s the 90s we said. I mean, MTV thought that life was suddenly so real and so open that it warranted a show not about made up characters but about filming normal people living in a house, just to see what happened when people stopped being polite and started to get real. But actual reality can only entertain us for so long I guess, and soon enough the show became populated with prettier people and uglier personalities, and were I more jaded I would say something about reality TV imitating life, but I’m not quite there just yet.
That so-called “life” of the MTV’s The Real World is hardly recognizable, and sometimes it takes fiction to supply a worthwhile mirror of reality.
My Co-Called Life tried to keep it pretty real. It was sometimes about social issues—guns in school (remember when that was sort of a ridiculous idea), a friend who was gay, a friend who drank, a friend who was afraid of the pressures placed by parents to be exceptional. But it was sometimes about the little earthquakes we all reel from. It was about having big thoughts and only little words to put to them. It was about idealizing someone you wanted to be in love with, and finding out that crushes are simple and that people are complicated. It was about catching your parents in the act of being flawed. It was about things that I didn’t always understand, but things I could imagine understanding.
It was also about Claire Danes. My little heart was more than happy to tune in just to see her, and my little heart was also happy to see her return to the big screen later to play Juliet (life lesson: Claire Danes is not enough to save a kind of impotent attempt at the potent language and beauty of Shakespeare, but at the time I was, like, sure it was the definitive production and that my life was changed forever and that I would have traded every comic book, trading card and action figure I owned for a chance to lock lips with her at the Capulet’s ball). I have been happy to see her show up more recently in the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, in The Family Stone (one of my Christmas movie staples), and Terminator 3 which I only paid for because her name was on the poster and because any excuse to eat huge amounts of popcorn is a good one. I haven’t seen her in Homeland, but I think it’s a matter of time.
Time isn’t always kind to our favorite TV shows. This one’s been ranked highly on lists of great shows, but some–including TV Guide–felt it need to come down a notch or two on grounds that it doesn’t hold up any more. It’s dated, obviously, but it’s a time capsule—a relic of and about its context. It could have been worse, I think. We had to wait until at least episode six to hear even one “duh,” although it was followed closely by a “duh squared,” so it was worth the wait, believe me. The language, the fashion, the alternative rock soundtrack, the lack of people constantly glued to screens, it all makes it very clear that life is different now.
The haunts of our youth are probably best seen with greener eyes. I get this. But it’s kind of cool to revisit those places and hold them up against the context of now. As I did this, I had a moment of terror: I am only eight years away from being the same age as Angela’s parents. I am 17 years away from being Angela’s age. Um. What?
I’m…I’m like two of her put together plus two more years. Maybe you know for yourself how impossible this has to be, how all our yesterdays have lighted us to dusty adulthood.
I had a similar experience while watching the movie Boyhood earlier this year. I think I have a pretty youthful spirit, but as I watched the scene where the boys were at the unfinished house, having a party, drinking a beer and chucking the blade of a table saw into a wall, it was all I could do to keep myself from stomping right into the movie and asking them if they knew how safe they weren’t being. And then I would call all their parents, or drive them home myself, regaling them with tales of my own, more responsible youth.
And then I would barf all over myself out of loathing and disbelief that the title of that movie is moving unreachably further away from my own YOU ARE HERE arrow on the timeline.
I’m glad I got that shock out of the way before I started to re-watch My So-Called Life, because while I felt the tug of time, it didn’t pull me out of the story so much. Also because I watched the episodes on Hulu, I scored the added bonus of reading comments left by other nostalgic adventurers. Comments like this one, which is an actual quotation lifted directly from the comment section of episde 7 (“Why Jordan Can’t Read”):
“I am getting as sucked into this as much as the first time I watched it when I was 15. I always went for the lost puppy dog types that weren’t book smart. And the grunge look…I remember that so well. All the plaid and ill fitting clothing. Baby doll plaid dresses with clogs. It may have been ugly but now as a mom I’d take that anyday over the hoochie clothes girls wear today.”
Okay, kids—put the hoochie clothes and sawblades down, and just go do your homework, get desk jobs, look up and see that your hair is graying and thinning, feel your knee kind of hurt when you sit cross-legged for too long and know, with inevitable certainly, that the mermaids will not sing to you as you dare not eat a peach. Is that who we are? Who are we? Who were we? What happened?
To quote the stock-character super-teacher from episode 6 (The Substitute) who actually cares and changes the lives of all the students in English (that old story, but without Michelle Pfeiffer and Coolio), “good question.”
Who are we?
Watching My So-Called Life as a kid, I was unaware of so much greatness that was going on, including consistently scene-stealing performances from A. J. Langer, who plays Angela’s punky, spunky friend Rayanne Graff. I think I know now why I loved it so much. Instead of a chatty, witty, and charming leading character, Angela could be withdrawn, muddled, confused, confusing but trying in earnest to figure out one of the great questions I too was trying to solve: who am I?
The show is as much about surviving high school as it is about getting a foothold in the shifting sands of identity—perhaps the most treacherous hazard we face in those four years. And in many or most of the years afterward.
Who am I? Who are you? Who do we each become in order to meet somewhere in the middle?
I realize that not everyone is on the search for these answers; some of us live happily in the here and now details of life, and I am sometimes a little envious. I’m the sort of dude who always wants to gaze deeper, past the troublesome blur of the world until the magic 3-D image of a porpoise appears, or something. And I know the world isn’t a Magic Eye poster (thank god, because I kind of sucked at getting them to work), but I do know the somewhat magic feeling of catching a glimpse of a more beautiful thing that was waiting just beyond the mess.
The teenage wisdom of Angela Chase is full of those moments, and after revisiting the show for this week’s meditation on something I love, I have found some of my favorites.
“It just seems like, you agree to have a certain personality or something. For no reason. Just to make things easier for everyone. But when you think about it, I mean, how do you know it’s even you? And, I mean, this whole thing with yearbook – it’s like, everybody’s in this big hurry to make this book, to supposedly remember what happened. Because if you made a book of what really happened, it’d be a really upsetting book.”
“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. “
“People are always saying you should be yourself, like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster. Like you know what it is even. But every so often I’ll have, like, a moment, where just being myself in my life right where I am is, like, enough.”
I guess 17 years doesn’t reveal all the answers, but it makes the not knowing a little more bearable, as long as you turn up your stereo and jump around your room to Blister In the Sun.
See you at the World Happiness Dance. I’ll save you a song.