My So-Called Life
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My So-Called Life: Complete Series

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If you are looking for angst, drama and passion there is one setting that will always come through, high school. It seems that every few minutes a new teen oriented television drama comes on the air. The problem is they all are so over the top that they seem more like some romance novel instead of having any foundation in reality. Even the series that are billed as ‘reality television’ come across as fake. There was a series that looked at teens in high school that rang true. It was sensitive, had believable characters and was, of course, cancelled after only 19 episodes. It is now a cult classic called ‘My So-Called Life’. Although the series was critically acclaimed it never had a chance to gather enough of a following during its brief initial outing to keep the studio executives happy. It also projected its star, Clair Danes, to stardom and she expressed a desire to move on to other projects including a new movie career. For many this show has been the Holy Grail of television box sets. Back in 2000 BMG released a disc with the pilot and first two episodes for $14.98. Then, in 2002 BMG came out with the full series for $89.98. Both of these releases were discontinued in short order. Fans had to search E-Bay for a copy of the series, at an inflated price, of course. Now Shout Factory has come to the rescue. Not only did they take the 19 episodes on five discs they added a sixth discs of just extras. As additional bonus to the consumers the suggested retail price is even twenty dollars less than the BMG release. Oh yes, it also has a re-mastered six channel sound track. This is one of the first and still among the best teen dramas and it is great to have it back again.

Angela Chase (Claire Danes) is a typical 15 year old high school sophomore. She hates her live, well at least most of it. She has a regular family living in a modest home. Her dad, Graham (Tom Irwin) works at a printing firm run by his wife, Patty (Bess Armstrong). Angela also has a kid sister, Danielle (Lisa Wilhoit). As with most teens her real family is her friends. Angela grew up with her best friend Sharon Cherski (Devon Odessa). Patty is even best friends with Sharon’s mom, Camille (Mary Kay Place). The mothers have remained friends all these years but as the girls start their second year of high school Angela has moved into the orbit of some new kids. Most important in Angela’s revised social circle is Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer). She is wild, almost out of control. Rayanne has been known to knock back a cheap bottle of whiskey on more than one occasion, usually while trying to get into a club with phony ID. Also in constant attendance to Rayanne is Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz). His feminine mannerisms, including wearing eye liner, makes him the joke of the other boys. He is often found in the girl’s room hanging out with Rayanne and Angela. The main focus on many of their conversations is Angela’s growing crush on the local bad boy, Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto). Since he was left back, twice, he is much older than his classmates, drives and is considered by most of the female student body as a hunk. Living across the street from Angela is another life long friend passed over for the new guard, Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall). He is the school brain, nice guy and has harbored a secret crush on Angela for most of their lives. It also looks as if Sharon has a crush on him.

As you watch this series you may notice that there is very little it has in common with modern teen series like ‘The OC’ or ‘the Hills’. These are not privileged kids with fast cars and designer wardrobes. Known of the studios prowl the nightclubs or buy their clothes in the expensive stores with the latest fashions from Paris. They look like regular teenagers. The usually outfit consists of tattled jeans, an old sweatshirt or sweater and maybe a touch of lipstick. There is more of a JC Penney’s back to school line than a designer name. The problems are also average for a real teen. Angela pours over her crush on Jordan, thinking of every possible scenario of how she would like to kiss her. She swoons when she gets to sit in his car and his shirt sleeve brushes her arm. Many of us can remember back to an age when those little things held as much importance to life as oxygen. Angela may be upset by the very presence of her parents but it turns out that she doesn’t know how fortunate she is. Ricky comes from an abusive home unable to accept his sexual preference. Rayanne’s mother, Amber Vallon (Patti D'Arbanville) tries to be her daughter’s cool friend instead of any sort of parent. She is also rarely at home for her daughter. Still, the parental Chases are not perfect as Angela comes to realize. Graham and Patty are having growing problems with their marriage. The traditional roles are switched with Graham as the primary caretaker and Patty the major breadwinner. Having your wife as your boss at work goes a long way towards a man’s self image. They try ballroom dancing but that turns out to be a fiasco. Angela has also seen her father talking to a very attractive younger woman and once caught him on the phone with her breaking a date for an afternoon, non-business meeting.

Without all the overdone drama this show may be thought of as gentle series. It is far from that. There is tension and anxiety that is very real to teens. Try to recall who everything in high school seemed to be a matter of life and death and you have the heart of this series. This show is more about a series of moments. In the third episode when a gun goes off in the school’s hallway the Columbine High School Massacre was still years off. Instead of focusing on the political issues surrounding such an incident the gun shot forces Ricky to open up to Angela about his life. The final moment of the episode is Angela starting a school day going through a metal detector. These moments are subtle; able to convey the emotional impact without hitting the audience over the head. The quality of this series is amazing. The cinematography is a wonder. The way the light and shadows are used is something usually found only in a well done film. The use of modern (for then) music is well placed and never over done. There is not a single instance here that looks like a music video. Rarely has a series been written with such realism. It has a natural feel that makes you feel like you are watching something that captures a time in your own life. The stories switch between the parents and the kids organically. This is a show that offers both perspectives instead of using the adults as window dressing. The family is important to the mood of the teen and Angela’s state of mind cannot be presented without the audience knowing what Graham and Patty are up to.

This is also a dream cast. Claire Danes went on to greater things because of her work here. She may have been young here but she was already realizing her potential as an actress. You can’t help but to feel for her plight no matter how trivia it may seem to you as an adult. For a teenage girl it matters if the boy you like looks in your direction between classes; it can be overwhelming. Jared Leto does angst in the tradition of a junior James Dean. He has a way of projecting his character with a single, soulful look. A.J. Langer is the girl you hope your daughter never meets. She is a bad influence on Angela but she does it because she has a girl crush on her. Langer grows into her role here showing Rayanne is neglected and needs Angela for self acceptance. Wilson Cruz was one of the first openly gay characters on family television. He doesn’t play Ricky as a stereotype. While there are many feminine affectations to his performance it comes across as just who he is.

Shout Factory, thank you for bringing this series back. The full screen video is not what you see on modern season sets. The colors are muted, occasionally dulled. I can’t remember if that was how the original airings were but it fits considering the darker feel life has for a teen. The audio is in both Dolby Stereo and 5.1. Both are excellent. The stereo has excellent channel separation. The full surround sound track is mixed louder but basically only uses the front speakers anyway. What separate this from the BMG release is the incredible extras. The pilot episode has a crew commentary that goes into details of how the series has brought to television. A sixth disc as all the good stuff. There is ‘My So-Called Life Story’ where executive producer Ed Zwick and series creator Winnie Holzman focus on the hard work that went into the birth of this series and how the cancellation affected them all. There is a very revealing conversation between Clair Danes and Winnie Holzman. This comes out as a bi-directional interview that will really hold your attention. Another featurette in much the same format is one with Winnie Holzman and executive producer Marshall Herskovitz. There is a consideration of the music used in the series. Thankfully, as far as I can tell all the original music and artist are used on the DVD. Another featurette focuses on the characters and how their inter-relationships made the series. This is the one fans have been waiting for. If you are not a fan you are soon to be one.

Posted 10/21/07

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