I was just starting my first year of high school when ABC aired My So-Called Life—set during a turbulent sophomore year at Pittsburgh's fictional Liberty High—so I was probably, like, morally obligated to revere it. What's surprising, watching the series again 13 years later, is that it was worth the adoration.
Claire Danes plays Angela, a middle-class, middling student who's recently fallen out with her good-girl best friend (Devon Odessa) and in with the manic, funny, alcoholic Rayanne (A. J. Langer) and her gay sidekick Rickie (Wilson Cruz). Danes, playing her own age, is jaw-droppingly good: She has a preternaturally grounded quality that reins in Angela's voiceover reveries ("Walking into someone else's house for the first time is like entering another country. Not that I've ever been to another country") and makes the pilot episode's parallel between Angela and Anne Frank seem almost justified. Meanwhile, in an arguably less important triangle, Angela is pursued by her nerdy next-door neighbor Brian (Devon Gummersall) and pursues the dreamy Jordan (Jared Leto).
Everyone remembers Jared Leto—he leans so memorably—but I'd somehow forgotten how dim Jordan was made out to be. "So guess what, ah, there's a term for me," he brags to Angela in the final episode, gearing up for some polysyllabic fireworks. "I'm a rudimentary reader with low literacy skills." Oh, and those famous leans? He's usually applying Visine. In a giggly commentary track by Claire Danes and creator Winnie Holzman, Danes observes: "It was a great romance because it was a forbidden love for both of them ... [Jordan was] from the wrong side of special ed."
As the show developed, though, the writers gained the confidence to shift away from Angela's reliably adorable love life and venture into riskier territory. The stories involving Rickie, whether he's thinking about asking an artsy boy to the school dance ("The Life of Brian") or hopping from one friend's house to another after his father throws him out ("So-Called Angels"), are some of the most heartrending stuff I've ever seen on television. Yes, Rickie is one of those tragic gay characters advocacy groups feel compelled to belittle. But he's a better signal of the way my generation is changing attitudes about gay rights than a hundred of Buffy's Willows.
I'm still a little crushed there wasn't a second season.
New to DVD this week: Drunken Angel (Criterion, $39.95), Our Hitler (Facets, $79.95), Paprika (Sony, $26.96).