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The real voices of teenagers

Review by Elizabeth Wrigley-Field | November 30, 2007 | Page 9

My So-Called Life, Shout! Factory, 2007, $69.99.

FOR THE first time since its original run in the mid-1990s, the much-loved TV show My So-Called Life is available in a well-made DVD set, complete with commentaries.

Although most remembered for protagonist Angela Chase's infatuation with beautiful, illiterate Jordan Catalano, MSCL's scant 19 episodes are still widely referenced today because they masterfully capture the struggles of teenagers--and their parents--to find their place in confining suburbia.

One of the show's groundbreaking elements was its depiction of Angela's friend Rickie--TV's first gay teenage major character. Rickie first takes center stage in "Guns and Gossip," the show's politically contradictory third episode, when he is implicated in a gun's firing in school.

The parents' resulting anxiety veers into conservatism, and the show doesn't unambiguously distance itself from this. It does counterpose their reaction to Angela's, as she is initially more concerned with rumors being spread about her than with the gun. Amazingly, this isn't played for parody, and the stellar acting leads the audience to half-identify with Angela's priorities, particularly when the true story of the gun emerges.

But the heart of the episode is Rickie's struggle with homophobia. We pan down the hall from cops searching lockers to Rickie being harassed, the unwillingness of any authority to stop the violence against him a brilliant counterpoint to the hysteria about "safety."

The principled stance one character takes against the school principal's bullying attempts to "solve" the crime sets up one of MSCL's greatest pleasures: the tentative friendships that develop across social boundaries--often between characters who are constrained by the same restrictive social norms, but in different ways.

A strength of MSCL is its understanding that gender roles restrict men as well as women. This begins in the very first episode, when Angela's voiceover explaining that "boys have it so easy!" ironically precedes a shot of her nerdy neighbor Brian being shoved against a locker for being insufficiently macho.

Although Brian is straight, he shares with Rickie a repression of his own sexual desires, which he does not know how to fulfill, and the two slowly develop a real friendship.

That expectations of what it means to "be a man" can lead men to act in ways that undermine their own happiness--and that of the women they care about--is demonstrated for every important male character on the show, including Angela's father, a nurturing and talented man who's never figured out what to do with his life.

Equally rare on TV is the show's nuanced attitude toward its female teenage characters' sex lives. Sex is a major theme of the show, but it is never trivialized as it is in many teen shows. The teenage girls are shown to have real sexual desires, although they generally find that the reality of their relationships doesn't live up to them.

The girl who comes closest to sexual fulfillment is neither the character, nor in the circumstances, we would stereotypically expect. Yet MSCL also illustrates repeatedly how expectations of girls' sexual behavior, and of their appearance, hinders them.

One of the best episodes, "The Zit," incorporates sequences ranging from Kafka's "Metamorphosis" to Malcolm X speeches to a fantasy conversation with a cover girl model, examining how attempting to conform to social standards sets women against one another. Only by recognizing the commonality of their experience can the female characters stop seeing one another as their antagonists and begin to accept themselves.

As Angela says at the conclusion of that episode, "When you really look closely, people are so strange and so complicated that they're actually...beautiful. Possibly even me."

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