Friday, February 29, 2008

My So-Called Life

I've always been curious about My So-Called Life. The television series gave Claire Danes her first big role and it received a heap of critical praise for its realistic depiction of the lives of teenagers. But the show apparently never found an audience and was canceled after the first season. Until the advent of DVDs, and the release of practically every television program that ever aired, you couldn't watch My So-Called Life. It acquired an almost cult-like status.

My curiosity about the show was piqued even further when I realized that one of the creative forces behind the series was none other than Winnie Holzman, the woman who wrote the book for the wildly popular musical Wicked (a Gratuitous Violins favorite). In my eyes, that just about makes Ms. Holzman a goddess.

So I was eager to plunge into some of her other work, to see, perhaps, whether I could discern the faintest glimmers of Wicked's cast of teenage characters in Holzman's earlier attempt at bringing the anxieties of adolescence to life. (Holzman also wrote for other television series, including The Wonder Years and thirtysomething.)

The 19 episodes of My So-Called Life aired from 1994-1995 on ABC. The series starred a red-haired Claire Danes as 15-year-old Angela Chase, going through all of the trials and tribulations of being a teenager. In some ways it's a typical series - Angela is beginning to distance herself from her parents, she has a pesky younger sister (Lisa Wilhoit), a geeky next-door neighbor whom she can't stand (Devon Gummersall), a new set of friends who don't quite meet with parental approval (A.J. Langer and Wilson Cruz) and a boy she has a crush on, (Jared Leto).

The show, which takes place in a fictional suburb of Pittsburgh, is more serious and realistic than the usual teenage fare. It's absorbing and well-done, but I can see why it wouldn't be everyone's taste. There's a dark, almost gloomy tone to My So-Called Life. Its depiction of issues such as adultery, drug and alcohol abuse, homophobia, school violence, censorship and homelessness make it vastly different from series that portrayed adolescence in a more fun-filled, nostalgic light. This is not Happy Days or Beverly Hills, 90210.

Danes is wonderful in the series. She's blossoming right before her parents' (and our) eyes into a beautiful young woman, but she's still very much the moody, insecure teenager, fighting with her parents, trying to act grown up, trying to attract the attention of a boy she likes, taking risks she shouldn't be taking.

Her parents, played by Tom Irwin and Bess Armstrong, don't always understand what their eldest daughter is feeling, but they know that something is changing. There's a scene where Irwin sees Danes coming out of the shower draped in a towel and tells Armstrong that she shouldn't be parading around the house like that. We kind of understand. While Irwin is quiet and understated, Armstrong is sometimes a little too shrill and annoying for my taste.

To me, the other standout performance in My So-Called Life is Wilson Cruz as Enrique "Rickie" Vasquez. Cruz, an openly gay actor, drew on some of his own life experiences to create a thoughtful and sympathetic portrait of a teenager coming to terms with his sexual orientation. When Ricky does finally come to accept who he is, it's one of the most powerful and inspiring moments in the series.

There are theater connections to My So-Called Life in addition to Holzman and Wicked. The show featured two members of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater Company, Irwin and Jeff Perry, who had a recurring guest spot as a teacher. Perry is currently on Broadway with the Steppenwolf ensemble in the hit play August: Osage County. I saw the show in November, but I didn't actually recognize Perry in the series until I was listening to the audio commentary and heard Danes and Holzman mention his name. So that was a nice surprise! Cruz has played the role of the drag queen Angel on Broadway in Rent. And Danes made her Broadway debut last fall as Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, a performance that I'm sorry I missed.

While the stars of My So-Called Life have moved on to other projects with varying degrees of success, Langer, who played Danes' rebellious, wild child friend Rayanne Graff, has probably moved furthest from her role in the series. She's now Lady Courtenay, married to Lord Charles Courtenay, son of the 18th Earl of Devon.

Now that I've watched My So-Called Life, it's easy to spot some of the same themes and characters that Holzman wrote about so believably in Wicked - teenage cliques, Elphaba's anxiety at feeling different and not fitting in, a desire to rebel.

In a 2005 article in The Advocate, Holzman's daughter, Savannah Dooley, describes her mother's work on the book for Wicked this way: "It is rich with her trademarks: a story about an outsider, fully realized characters, and some subversive political commentary."

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