We're in an era when shows about teenagers are all the rage. That wasn't always the case. The few series that took a stab at accurately depicting high school — "Room 222," "The Bronx Zoo," "Freaks and Geeks," "The White Shadow" — were often critically acclaimed but short-lived.
None was better than "My So-Called Life."
The series, which recently became available on Hulu, is best known today for introducing the world to Claire Danes and Jared Leto. But the show's keen eye for casting wasn't its only strength.
I was out of college when the show premiered on ABC in 1994, but I could still recognize the characters from my own school days: the mopey teen who refused to eat a balanced meal because it would please her mother too much. The nerd next door who's a whiz in geometry and a dunce in relationships. The rebel who masks her insecurities behind fake bravado and a bottle of booze.
Their conversations in the restroom between classes and over landline phones sounded authentic: incoherent babbling with occasional bursts of poetry. (No show has ever used "like" and "whatever" more effectively.)
"School is a battlefield," Danes' 15-year-old Angela Chase shares in a voice-over from the first episode. "For your heart."
Much of the series, also available at abc.com, deals with Angela's obsession with Jordan Catalano, played by Leto. He must have prepared for the role by studying James Dean's wincing.
Her hormones have her alternatively on the verge of tears or laughing with the kind of commitment you wish Leto would have given to the Joker in "Suicide Squad."
But there's more on Angela's mind than making out with Jordan in the boiler room. Her idolization of a renegade substitute teacher takes a hit when she discovers he abandoned his family. Her best friend has to get her stomach pumped after going overboard at a party. Classmate Rickie Vasquez, prime time's first openly gay teen character, finds himself homeless.
In the series' most moving episode, she tries to rescue Rickie with the help of a guardian angel, played by indie rocker Juliana Hatfield. The scene in which Angela's mom, played by Bess Armstrong, leans on the angel on Christmas Eve, will move you in ways TV rarely does. I've watched that episode more times than I've watched "It's a Wonderful Life."
This was the fourth time I've binge-watched all 19 episodes.
Now that I'm old enough to have teenagers of my own, I find myself relating more and more to Armstrong's character and her relationship with her husband, played by Tom Irwin. They're so worried about Angela they routinely ignore their younger daughter, who seems destined for a lifetime of psychiatric appointments. They're also panicked about their marriage, although both are too suburban to say it out loud.
In the series finale, Dad appears to be on the verge of an affair. We never learn if he followed through. The show was canceled due to low ratings and Danes' reluctance to return. I get it. Just a year later, she would be sucking face with Leonardo DiCaprio in "Romeo + Juliet."
But I suspect she also wanted to move on because channeling Chase was just, like, hard. Or whatever.
Being a teenager is tough enough. Portraying an authentic one on TV must have been torture.
Her pain is our gain. If you've never seen "My So-Called Life," now is the time. It's a class act.