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My So-Called Life: The Complete Series DVD Review

My So-Called Life: The Complete Series

December 18, 2007

Director: Scott Winant, Todd Holland, Marshall Herskovitz, Mark Piznarski,
Starring: Claire Danes, Jared Leto, A.J. Langer, Wilson Cruz, Devon Odessa, Devon Gummersall, Bess Armstrong, Tom Irwin, Lisa Wilhoit,

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DVD Review

When My So-Called Life debuted on television in 1994, it was seen as a smart alternative to mindless teen pap like Beverly Hills 90210. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know anyone like the “teens” (just how old were the actors anyway?) on that show. In comparison, the kids on My So-Called Life were awkward, vulnerable and, most importantly, real. All of the characters on this show acted like actual people. Sure, the writing, at times, was a little too touchy-feely and bleeding heart liberal for its own good – the influence of Thirtysomething’s Mitchell Herskovitz and Ed Zwick – but its observations about teenage life (and life in general) and the many melodramas that make it so difficult were right on the money.

Angela Chase (Danes) is a nice girl still figuring out who she is as she pines after the dreamy Jordan Catalano (Leto) who, initially, barely knows that she exists. Angela is friends with party girl Rayanne Graff (Langer), the openly gay Rickie Vasquez (Cruz), Sharon Cherski (Odessa), who used to be Angela’s best friend but as since been replaced by Rayanne, and the awkward Brian Krakow (Gummersall) who secretly has a crush on Angela. In the first episode, Angela dyes her hair crimson as an act of rebellion against her mother (Armstrong) who tries so hard to understand her daughter but doesn’t have a clue what she’s going through. Her father (Irwin) is a nice enough guy but also equally clueless about his daughter’s day-to-day trials and tribulations. Angela’s parents are both liberal-minded people who were probably Hippies in the 1960s, grew up and bought into the system while still retaining their liberal sensibilities.

One of the great things about the show is how the writers flesh out the characters and the relationships between them. The conflicts that Angela has with her mother are spot-on and have a real ring of honesty to them. Rayanne’s self-destructive, partying ways are addressed in one episode. In another, Rickie comes out to his relatives and is kicked out of the house by his abusive uncle. The seemingly perfect Jordan turns out to be flawed as we find out in one episode that he can’t read or write.

There are so many stand-out episodes (let’s face it, they are all good), like the one with Angela’s substitute teacher (played to perfection by Roger Rees) who inspires her to think outside the box. However, she becomes blind to his flaws by his dynamic charisma. Arguably, the best episode is the Christmas one where singer/songwriter Juliana Hatfield plays a homeless person that Angela tries to help. It’s a truly moving episode as materialism and the commercial aspects of Christmas are rejected in favour of family, friendship, and selfless acts of kindness.

Looking back at it now, My So-Called Life is a wonderful snapshot of the mid-1990s with the hairstyles and the clothes (you can even spot an REM poster in Angela’s bedroom) distinctive of that decade prominently on display. One can now look back at this decade through nostalgic glasses via this show. Despite its brief run, So-Called Life not only helped launch the careers of Claire Danes and Jared Leto, but without it there would be no Freaks and Geeks or Joan of Arcadia which also presented smart and sensitive teens in a realistic way. Both of these shows also had brief runs which seem to suggest that American viewers favour escapist fare like The OC and not heartfelt shows like My So-Called Life.

Special Features:

There is no question that if you’re a fan of My So-Called Life and are lucky enough to own a copy of rare first DVD set that this new set is definitely worth the double-dip. The quality of the transfers seems pretty close but the wealth of extra material makes this a must-have item. The folks at the Shout! Factory were able to get all the major cast members back (even Claire Danes) with the exception of Jared Leto.

On the first disc there is an audio commentary on the Pilot by the show’s creators Marshall Herskovitz, Winnie Holzman and the director Scott Winant. They marvel at how young Danes look and was in this episode and how protective they all were of her. Winant talks about how he pulled off some of the distinctive shots (like Danes under her sweater) and how he directed an inexperienced Danes. They point out that, originally, Leto was only supposed to be in the Pilot but he worked out so well that they brought him back for the series.

The sixth disc contains the bulk of the extra material starting off with “My So-Called Life Story” which features the show’s creators talking about its genesis. Holzman started by writing a girl’s diary entries in a very personal and heartfelt way. They talk about the casting process and how Alicia Silverstone and Claire Danes both tried out for the role of Angela. Initially, they did not want to cast Danes because they felt she was too young. The character of Rickie is also discussed and how the show dealt frankly with his sexuality, daring stuff for network T.V. at the time. This is an excellent, retrospective look at the show.

“A Conversation with Claire Danes and Winnie Holzman.” These two women reminisce about working on the show and what it was like. Danes talks about the hardships of being a teen and how doing the show allowed her to safely work out any issues she might have had. This is a spirited, intelligent discussion as they laugh and take a trip down memory lane.

“A Conversation with Marshall Herskovitz and Winnie Holzman.” They talk about the genesis of the show while she talks about the research she did for it. In doing so, it unlocked her memories of high school and resulted in more authentic scripts.

“The Characters” profiles the entire cast starting with Angela with Danes talking about how she closely related to her character at the time. She talks about why Angela is so relatable and praises Holzman’s smart writing. Next up is Angela’s family with Bess Armstrong, Tom Irwin and Lisa Wilhoit talking about their characters and how they approached their roles. They also talk about what it was like to work with each other. Best of all is the segment with Angela’s friends as we get to see what A.J. Langer, Devon Odessa, Devon Gummersall and Wilson Cruz look like now. They reminisce about working on the show and Devon Odessa admits that originally Sharon was supposed to be nerdier. Cruz speaks warmly about Rickie being the strong, moral centre of the show and becomes quite emotional when talking about some of the fan mail he still gets telling him how much his character changed their lives. Jared Leto is the only cast member M.I.A. which is a damn shame considering how much he owes his career to this show.

“Interview with Claire Danes.” She recounts the moment when she was inspired to want to act and her early experience with modern dance. She also talks about her experience working on the Pilot episode and how she identified with the material.

“The Music” features a conversation with the show’s composer W.G. “Snuffy” Walden who talks about how he got the gig to score Thirtysomething despite having no experience scoring a T.V. show and how it led to So-Called Life. He also touches briefly upon how he came up with some of the musical cues for the show and their desired effect.

“Highlights: The 1995 Museum of Television and Radio Panel” features excerpts from a tribute to the show. Several of cast and production team appear shortly before the show was officially cancelled. It is a wonderful snapshot of the times and bittersweet as well as this was probably the last time they were altogether.

Finally, there is a “Photo Gallery” of stills from the show.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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