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My So-Called Life: Angst for the Memories

When I pried open my new DVD box set of My So-Called Life: The Complete Series, one of my all-time favorite shows, I found an awesomely substantive package: not only all 19 episodes on five discs, but art and liner notes from creator Winnie Holzman and famous fans like Joss Whedon, plus an extra disc probably filled with interviews, making-of footage and, for all I know, a video game that requires you to maneuver teen heroine Angela Chase through a crowded high school hallway on a quest to “accidentally” brush up against sad-eyed hunk Jordan Catalano.

I say “probably” and “for all I know” because the first thing I did was pop in the pilot for a refresher viewing and it’s all I’ve thought about since. I still haven’t looked at anything else in the set. I will. I’m sure Holzman, Claire Danes and others have illuminating things to say about the series. But just . . . can we go over the pilot? One of the greatest in television history?

It’s a beautiful 48-minute invitation, a gracefully realized scribble pad of hurt, silliness, risk, stupidity, bewilderment, obligation and desire that doesn’t ennoble adolescence so much as lay it bare in a way television had never done before (and I sometimes believe hasn’t since, save for the other 18 episodes).

Start with Danes’ face, especially her gaze. Whether I picked up on this when the show first aired on ABC in 1994, I can’t say, but Danes brought Holzman's lead character, Angela, to life in part because she could arrange her features — her wide eyes, tentative lips and milkmaid-pale skin — to appear troubled and empty at the same time. In the pilot she looks into mirrors a lot, which in most other teen shows would seem the height of pretentiousness. But not here: Teenagerhood is a multilayered epic of self-involvement, and Danes can give a looking-glass moment either a check-yourself reality or an abysslike melancholia.

Everything discombobulates Angela, even after a calculated hair dye that you can tell was supposed to change everything, but really only took her from the mousy brown that signified her longtime best friendship with good girl Sharon (Devon Odessa) to a Nagel-print red that announced her fresh allegiance to wild girl Rayanne (A.J. Langer). All she really did was switch sides.

Her seesaw relationship with her parents is superbly dramatized as the volatile hiccup it’s supposed to be at this stage. Persnickety mom Patty (Bess Armstrong) is at first evil — “I cannot bring myself to eat a well-balanced meal in front of my mother, it just means too much to her,” the pitch-perfect narration for Angela hilariously informs us — but by the end of the episode, she’s a sympathetic figure of worried loneliness, comforting Angela when she decides she’s overdosed on attitude. Meanwhile, easygoing dad Graham (Tom Irwin), a career-stymied nondisciplinarian who was always Angela’s buddy-buddy growing up, is suddenly turning into a pitiable figure, which is what happens when a daughter slowly attuning herself to failure begins to recognize it in adults.

My So-Called Life is credited with kicking off the explosion of teen-angst drama that turned WB, for instance, into a network seemingly dedicated to grades 10-12. But watching the pilot, I think Holzman understood better than anyone since how to make teens sound smart and funny without that air of Algonquin wittiness that eventually took over zit-geist shows from Dawson’s Creek through The O.C. And Life refused to wring easy drama out of the factional stereotypes that still rule youth TV — the ones in which we learn that the jock is secretly sensitive, or the nerd has hidden hottie-ness. My So-Called Life started with three-dimensionality as a given, even if a sense of isolation was usually the base emotion. When Angela passes by a gaggle of cheerleaders, her interior monologist may muse snidely, “Can’t people just cheer on their own, like to themselves?” But later, in almost a throwaway moment as the camera tracks Angela running to class, we get a brief glimpse of a cheerleader crying. We don’t know who she is. Angela barely acknowledges her. But she’s on her own, and she’s not cheering.

Oh, let’s see, what else? The camera pan of cafeteria slop that begins a scene between Danes and Langer; the overhead shot of the girls’ restroom that shows the fabulously realistic detail of towel litter; the way director Scott Winant edits a succession of raised hands to show the know-it-all studiousness of Angela’s torchbearer Brian (Devon Gummersall); how Armstrong’s portrayal of motherly irritation subtly lets you know she went to high school herself; how Langer invests Rayanne’s spunky engagement with Angela with a sense of nurturing, like a guardian angel for all things you might want to try only once; and the deftly self-referential way the episode plays with Angela’s obsession over Jordan’s soulful leaning against walls, while letting the viewer marvel over how exquisitely Danes herself does it.

Then there’s Wilson Cruz’s gay high schooler, Ricky, whose unforced charm and heartbreaking sweetness felt revolutionary 13 years ago, and who is starting to feel bold and new all over again, if only because TV seems stuck in a gay-image rut of loudmouth quipsters who practice orientation by association — in other words, you can tell the homosexuals because of their pop-culture references. Cruz, meanwhile, quietly, simply unpacked his soul and gave us a character, a loyal chum who happened to wear eyeliner, say “I love your house!” a little too loudly when meeting his new friend’s mom for the first time and, when his friends Rayanne and Angela get invited by some older boys outside a club to party with them, look like every teen outcast you’ve ever seen in your life.

MY SO-CALLED LIFE: THE COMPLETE SERIES | Shout! Factory | $70

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