There are some TV shows that last for years and years, and when they finally go away, they’re barely missed. And then there is the phenomenon of the TV show that dies quickly but leaves an indelible mark. Ten years ago, ABC fielded such a show: My So-Called Life, produced by the thirtysomething team of Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, premiered on Thursday, August 25, 1994 — and was quickly reduced to ratings rubble by another new 8 p.m. series, NBC’s Friends. But in 19 sublime episodes, Life left a lasting pop-culture legacy. Not only did it launch the careers of Claire Danes and Jared Leto, it defined the modern family drama — and has influenced an entire generation of television writers. Says Greg Berlanti, the creator of The WB’s Everwood and Jack & Bobby, ”It’s the most painfully honest portrayal of adolescence ever on television.”
Created by writer-producer Winnie Holzman, My So-Called Life (now rerunning on The N) tells the story of a 15-year-old high school sophomore named Angela Chase (Danes). Having grown apart from her parents (Bess Armstrong and Tom Irwin), her good-girl best friend Sharon Cherski (Devon Odessa), and the brainiac boy next door with the huge crush, Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall), the angsty Angela finds herself bonding with troubled party girl Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer) and her closeted gay friend Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz). She’s also hopelessly hooked on Jordan Catalano (Leto), a soulful yet frustratingly monosyllabic dreamboat. Holzman took these stock types and made them complicated and real — you didn’t need to be a girl to feel Angela’s longing for Jordan, didn’t need to be gay to connect with Rickie’s coming-out journey.
”It had a tremendous impact on me,” says Berlanti. ”We reference the show at least once a week in the writers’ room here. . . When I think about My So-Called Life,” he adds, ”I think about that line in Star Wars, when Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Darth Vader, ‘If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.’ That’s exactly what happened here.”
And so we asked the actors and creators behind My So-Called Life to recount the show’s brief but lasting existence.
I. THESE KIDS TODAY
”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.” — Angela Chase
The origins of My So-Called Life date back to 1976, when Zwick and Herskovitz were writer-producers on the TV series Family. ”We found ourselves often confined to a more appropriate and decorous presentation of adolescence,” says Zwick. ”My So-Called Life is based on some unspoken vow to reexamine adolescence per our vision.” In the mid-’80s, the duo went on to create thirtysomething, where they met and employed Holzman. After ABC canceled thirtysomething in 1991, Zwick and Herskovitz sat down with Holzman to brainstorm a new show. Several concepts were discussed before Herskovitz suggested revisiting the subject of adolescence. Their shared ambition, says Holzman, was an ”uncensored” depiction of teenage life.