Why 'My So-Called Life' is the most influential teen show ever
When My So-Called Life premiered in 1994, the honest portrayal of high school in the hallways and at home changed the conversation of teen and family TV forever. As Yahoo Entertainment discovered when we asked showrunners to name an episode of a teen series that impacted them when they were that age — or that they wish they could have seen back then — MSCL is still the only show many of them want to discuss.
“Teen TV didn’t really exist when I was that age. (The horseless carriage was all the rage tho, and ladies were demanding the vote!),” jokes Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon. “I don’t think teen TV really existed until My So-Called Life. (90210 was not teen TV. It was Mini-Dynasty.)”
Whedon says he wishes he’d been able to watch all 19 episodes of MSCL when he was younger. But he singles out “Other People’s Mothers” (when teens Angela and Rickie have to call Angela’s mom after their friend Rayanne overdoses); “Life of Brian” (when the World Happiness Dance brings almost nothing but sorrow), and “Betrayal” (when Rayanne — brace for it — has sex with Angela’s obsession, Jordan Catalano).
“Knowing other people feel like you do — while getting a humbling dose of everyone else’s perspective — might’ve been nice,” Whedon says. “Also, feels.”
More showrunners participating in our Why Teen TV Matters survey sent us passionate tributes to the series created by Winnie Holzman and exec-produced by thirtysomething‘s Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. Read together, they tell the story of the show’s legacy.
Michael Mohan (Netflix’s Everything Sucks!): When the pilot episode of My So-Called Life first aired back in 1994, it felt so unbelievably fresh. Up until then, teenage life had only been depicted via overly sanitized sitcoms like Blossom or Saved By the Bell, featuring characters that spoke in catchphrases rather than how my friends and I actually spoke. From the very first scene, My So-Called Life stood out by being even more real and raw than even the best John Hughes movies. Still, to this day, I don’t think I have ever related more to a character than Brian Krakow, the nerdy boy who secretly lusts after his neighbor Angela Chase. This is a show that wasn’t afraid to be quiet. It wasn’t afraid to have the characters do unlikable things. It was just honest and messy, and above all real.
Nahnatchka Khan (ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat): I was just out of my teens when it premiered, but I was blown away by My So-Called Life. Coming after the soapiness of “teen fare” like Beverly Hills, 90210, the realness of the characters and grounded stories featuring teenagers was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It’s not an individual episode, but the whole storyline with Rickie (played by Wilson Cruz) just trying to be his true self in the face of hate and adversity was revolutionary. I remember wondering what it would’ve been like if that show had come out five years earlier, when I was the exact age of its main protagonists, and how it would’ve changed my perspective on things — because it definitely would have.
Brian Yorkey (Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why): My So-Called Life landed in the world a little bit after my teenage years, but is still — as I suspect it is for many, many people — one of the most resonant portrayals of high school and how I felt going through those years that I can imagine. I was about to use the word “accurate,” but I hesitate because the specifics of people’s high school experience — I have learned — can be very, very different, but so many of the emotional moments are very much the same, and MSCL was so brilliantly honest and raw and sweet and painful and lovely and even dreamy, that to me it felt how high school felt.
I would say the episode that probably left the greatest impact on me of all the wonderful (but too few) MSCL episodes was probably the episode called “Why Jordan Can’t Read,” which I found so sort of powerful but also funny and gentle at the same time. The way the show balanced adult foibles with the life-or-death emotional rollercoaster rides that the teen characters went through was so perfect, and I especially loved Roger Rees’s portrayal of substitute teacher Vic Racine — who proved to be inspiring and then a huge disappointment — as was true for me with a number of teachers in my high school years.
Stephanie Savage (Hulu’s Marvel’s Runaways): My favorite episode of My So-Called Life is “Other People’s Mothers.” The rawness and intensity of the mother-daughter relationship at that age — they captured it perfectly. There is so much conflict in the episode, but despite all of Angela’s bad choices, her mom still has her back. I don’t have kids, but watching that episode I was like, “Oh, that’s what a mother is.” Teens tell themselves that their parents don’t matter in their lives, but they do.
Terri Minsky (Disney Channel’s Andi Mack): I think My So-Called Life is essential viewing for teenage girls, moms of teenage girls (ideally with their teenage girls), anyone who has been a teenage girl, anyone who cares about a teenage girl and wonders what in God’s name is going on with her.
Jason Micallef (Paramount Network’s Heathers): Any episode of My So-Called Life that focused on Rayanne. I never really identified with any of the characters on teen shows for some reason, but Rayanne felt so mysterious to me. I loved the episode where she slept with Jordan Catalano. I mean, that is such a cruel thing to do to Angela, and yet you sort of understand why Rayanne did it.
Katie Elmore Mota (Hulu’s East Los High): I loved My So-Called Life. It was canceled way too soon. It wasn’t so much that I really connected to one particular storyline, but the series as a whole really resonated with me. I loved that it was about a group of students on the fringe, teens who felt like they didn’t belong anywhere and were dealing with the pressures of fitting in. I think the show really captured so many of the complexities of feelings that I had as a teenager: who am I, who am I supposed to be, and how do I survive another day of high school? I loved the character Rayanne because she just acted like she didn’t give a f***, would always call things out at face value, but of course, deep down she did care and had her own challenges to face as a result.
Other shows we can thank for the teen programming we see today:
THE WONDER YEARS
Josh Schwartz (Hulu’s Marvel’s Runaways): The Wonder Years. The pilot episode where Winnie learns about her brother’s death and they had their first kiss. It was the first time I was ever made aware that I’d be nostalgic for my youth. … I’d never seen someone on screen my own age (I was the same age as Kevin and Winnie) treated with such complicated emotions, dealing with life and death … like an adult.
Adam F. Goldberg (ABC’s The Goldbergs): The most impactful show dealing with teenage issues from my childhood was The Wonder Years. I was the same age as Kevin Arnold and even though the show was set in the ’60s, I truly identified with his character’s everyday struggles. There was a classic episode about being picked last in gym class that they handled in such a real and honest way, and it was like looking into a mirror. Gym was the most painful part of my day growing up, and I remember feeling such immense relief knowing that I wasn’t alone.
WHO’S THE BOSS
Gloria Calderon Kellett (Netflix’s One Day at a Time): Who’s The Boss, ’cause I convinced myself that Alyssa Milano was Latina. … She looked kinda like me and I love that she was tough and took no crap.
FREAKS AND GEEKS
Dan Perrault (Netflix’s American Vandal): Freaks and Geeks, in general, was one of my favorite teen shows. The characters felt very relatable, and their everyday high school hopes and fears did as well. In high school, we tend to treat everything like it’s high stakes even if it’s just a matter of who likes you or who sits near you at lunch. As an audience those situations are funny, but as a teen, it was nice to connect with characters whose high school high stakes situations were not very different than my own.
Peter Paige (The Fosters): There wasn’t a lot of “Teen TV” in my era. We had Fame, which I loved, but I can’t recall a particular storyline as being especially impactful. I think the story I wish had been on TV during my adolescence was the Jack’s kiss episode of Dawson’s Creek. I can only imagine what that would’ve meant to me as young gay man.
Eileen Heisler (The Middle): It’s not so much individual episodes I remember from when I was growing up … more entire series. I remember really being drawn to family shows at a young age … Family, One Day at a Time, Family Ties. One storyline from a later series that always sticks with me was “Darlene Fades to Black” on Roseanne. I was not a depressed child myself, but I felt that episode/storyline was so groundbreaking because it showed a teen feeling that everything with her wasn’t OK and that there wasn’t necessarily an epic reason for it … simply that she was going through a phase where she wasn’t happy and that was OK. They just understood that she was going through this period, it didn’t resolve immediately, and I thought that was brave and revolutionary for a sitcom.
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
Mike Royce (One Day at a Time): I honestly wish I had been a teenager during Buffy. I had Happy Days. And the Fonz was cool, but he was no Buffy.
Shows created by people who wished they’d had them:
I. Marlene King (Pretty Little Liars): As a girl growing up in a small Midwestern town, I wish Emily Field’s storyline on Pretty Little Liars was on TV when I was a teen. There were no gay women who weren’t stereotypes on TV when I was struggling with my identity. When I created PLL it was important for me, as a storyteller, to make sure Emily’s friends supported her when she came out. I wanted to show young people what unconditional friendship looks like and what it looks like to accept your friends for who they are.
Lauren Iungerich (Awkward): When I was growing up, there were not many teen shows on TV, and the only one I watched was 90210 (the Darren Star original). I’m not sure if 90210 had a big impact on me other than highlighting the need for stringent Girl Code when dealing with matters of the heart. Basically: don’t get involved with your bestie’s ex. The teen content that made a real impact on me was not found on TV; rather, I was impacted by teen films — specifically John Hughes movies. John Hughes had a way of empowering teenage voices to feel important. He did not condescend to or trivialize the teen experience. His work was the reason why I wanted to create Awkward. I felt there was a void in teen content that didn’t minimize how profound the teen years are for most people. The teen years dictate who we become as adults and why we become those people. The teen genre is an unsung genre of storytelling, but the impact of the genre sticks with you — even as an adult.
Proof the inspiration continues:
Jennifer Kaytin Robinson (Sweet/Vicious): I’m not sure that this falls directly into the Teen TV category, but Dear White People on Netflix is astonishing. What Justin Simien has done with that show is so brilliant, and [it] should be required viewing not just for teens but for everyone. I don’t want to ruin anything, as it is something that should be experienced as you watch the series, but Season 1, Episode 5 has stayed with me since the minute it ended. It is an episode that explores race and gun violence with such grace and nuance. The cast, the writers, and the episode’s director, Barry Jenkins, made an exceptional half-hour of television. I think it’s episodes like this one that make me the most excited about being a storyteller.
My So-Called Life is currently streaming on Hulu. Watch all 19 episodes free on Yahoo View.
Read more “Why Teen TV Matters” from Yahoo Entertainment:
‘My So-Called Life’ and ‘Parenthood’ creators on Parkland teens ‘changing the conversation’ on TV and in real life
Show creator looks back at 4 decades of ‘Degrassi,’ from abortion to Drake
Joss Whedon on Parkland students: ‘I’ve been writing about kids like these for a long while. I thought I was writing fantasy.’