How My So-Called Life changed teen drama

20 years since its US debut, Carley salutes the ways the short-lived but brilliant My So-Called Life changed teen drama for the better...

There are a few things I remember clearly about the summer of 1995. Firstly there was the incessant repeating of the Seal and U2 music videos for Batman Forever, then there was going to the cinema to watch Clueless (hands down the best teen comedy of the decade) and lastly on the 26th of July (lucky Americans got there a year earlier – twenty years ago today on the 25th of August 1994) there was meeting Angela Chase for the very first time.

It’s hard to explain how important My So-Called Life was to a generation of teenage girls across the world. Here was a leading character who was in many ways just like us – she wasn’t the most popular girl in school and her friends were not even on the outskirts of the popular clique, and she faced the same issues and problems of growing up as we did. She even dressed like us (I miss the flannel shirt/Doc Martin combo) and for a short but brilliant season we followed her through one of the most formative years of her life. I could argue that the show should have gone on, that it was cancelled too soon and dammit I really wanted to know what was going to happen after Angela found out who really wrote that letter, but a better tribute is to trace the influence it continues to have on teen drama today.

Before 1990, teen drama as it would be considered now wasn’t really an established genre. The closest thing you could find to anything resembling it was Degrassi Junior High, Grange Hill or Press Gang, which dealt with ‘real’ issues of drugs, pregnancy, bullying etc., but in some ways felt more public service than all-involving drama. Then there was The Wonder Years, which, although a fantastic show, was a nostalgic look at a decade most of its viewers hadn’t lived through. It was great, but it wasn’t about us.

There were plenty of sitcoms filled with teens and every now and again they dealt with a ‘real’ issue – I’m sure nobody could forget Jessie’s caffeine pill addiction in Saved By The Bell or Jake’s brush with smoking in California Dreams – but unless it was a ‘very special episode’ of Blossom the shows were mostly played for laughs, after all surely that was all this viewing group wanted.

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This all changed in 1990 when Beverly Hills 90210 came to the air. Although created by soap mastermind himself Aaron Spelling, 90210 basically created the genre of teen drama. The characters were rich and popular and offered an hour’s worth of escapism for its viewers, as well as looking at the likes of AIDS, teen pregnancy, suicide, sex, drug abuse, adoption and mental health. Serious issues were all dealt with, but they were also pretty much wrapped up by the end of each episode, never really to be heard about again. As 90210 began its descent into more ludicrous soapy territory a new breed of show was beginning to emerge, and leading the pack was My So-Called Life.

From the first episode, you knew something was fresh about this series. The characters were based in reality, they didn’t learn something at the end of each episode and issues were never neatly tied up in a bow. There were running themes – Angela trying to discover who she really was (where we all not doing that at fifteen?), Rickie coming to terms with his sexuality, Rayanne dealing with not only her substance abuse issues but her complex relationship with her mother, Jordan’s learning disability, Graham and Patty’s relationship… all were important issues that were never resolved within the series but rather were developed as stories running parallel together to give the series its heart. After all, those strands made you care and relate to these characters in a way 90210 never really could.

It also really helped that the characters seemed so normal in comparison to their other TV peers. They weren’t driving around in sports cars, hanging out on the beach in the brilliant sunshine playing volleyball, shopping for designer goods and wearing the latest fashions, which would be a stretch for the majority of Americans, let alone teens living in the rainy UK. But set in suburban Pennsylvania, there was something more raw and relatable to the cast’s surroundings. The teenage characters didn’t all hang out in a diner, for instance (in fact the first episode features teens hanging out in a parking lot, sound familiar to anyone?). The fact that the show itself wasn’t written exclusively for teens helped with the natural and un-condescending tone of the scripts, which is why, even though it was only a season long, My So-Called Life consistently makes it way onto Greatest TV Shows of All Time lists.

After the season ended and the good fight against cancellation was lost, all was not as gloomy as first thought, as My So-Called Life’s impact was felt across TV land with the springing up of more teen dramas that took its lead when it came to storytelling and characterisation. The first great prime example of this was Party Of Five.

Although it has started around the same time as My So-Called Life, the first season, rightly, focused on setting up the story of the Salingers and their situation. Death was of course the main issue being dealt with but from season two onwards more issues came into play that ran through not only episodes but entire seasons. If Party Of Five was a good show before My So-Called Life came along, it became a much better one after.

Then came Dawson’s CreekSkins, The Secret Life Of The American Teenager, Felicity, Gilmore Girls and One Tree Hill to name but a few, all of them tapping into the foundations that had been laid by Winnie Holzman’s series. Although many of them didn’t push through the door My So-Called Life opened completely, they probably wouldn’t have been able to push so hard if it hadn’t been there is the first place. It seems rather poetic that The WB, the home of teen television, began broadcasting just two weeks from the end of My So-Called Life’s run.

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My favourite of all influences though, is in the character of Lindsay Weir from another terminally unlucky but brilliant show, Freaks And Geeks. Angela Chase is pumping through Lindsay’s DNA (the great student who suddenly changes her life and friends to find out who she is rings more than a few bells) and although there were just as many hilarious moments as serious ones, Freaks And Geeks really showcased how brilliant the genre My So-Called Life help build really was.

My So-Called Life had one perfect season run that most shows would be envious of. Twenty years on we’re still talking about it and upon numerous viewings it still holds up as well today as it did then, but its real impact has been on the way we view teen drama today, unwilling to shy away from hard topics and characters who resonate with their viewers in ways that couldn’t have been imagined a couple of decades ago.

Coming up tomorrow, My So-Called Life: where are they now? And on Wednesday, our look-back at the show’s impressive first episode. 

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