How ABC's angsty gem set the tone for teen dramas
This story originally ran in the Sept. 10, 2004 issue of EW.
There are some TV shows that last for years and years, and when they finally go away, they’re barely missed. And then there is the phenomenon of the TV show that dies quickly but leaves an indelible mark. Ten years ago, ABC fielded such a show: My So-Called Life, produced by the thirtysomething team of Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, premiered on Thursday, August 25, 1994 — and was quickly reduced to ratings rubble by another new 8 p.m. series, NBC’s Friends. But in 19 sublime episodes, Life left a lasting pop-culture legacy. Not only did it launch the careers of Claire Danes and Jared Leto, it defined the modern family drama — and has influenced an entire generation of television writers. Says Greg Berlanti, the creator of The WB’s Everwood and Jack & Bobby, “It’s the most painfully honest portrayal of adolescence ever on television.”
Created by writer-producer Winnie Holzman, My So-Called Life tells the story of a 15-year-old high school sophomore named Angela Chase (Danes). Having grown apart from her parents (Bess Armstrong and Tom Irwin), her good-girl best friend Sharon Cherski (Devon Odessa), and the brainiac boy next door with the huge crush, Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall), the angsty Angela finds herself bonding with troubled party girl Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer) and her closeted gay friend Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz). She’s also hopelessly hooked on Jordan Catalano (Leto), a soulful yet frustratingly monosyllabic dreamboat. Holzman took these stock types and made them complicated and real — you didn’t need to be a girl to feel Angela’s longing for Jordan, didn’t need to be gay to connect with Rickie’s coming-out journey.
“It had a tremendous impact on me,” says Berlanti. “We reference the show at least once a week in the writers’ room here…. When I think about My So-Called Life,” he adds, “I think about that line in Star Wars, when Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Darth Vader, ‘If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.’ That’s exactly what happened here.”
And so we asked the actors and creators behind My So-Called Life to recount the show’s brief but lasting existence.
1. THESE KIDS TODAY
“I mean, this whole thing with yearbook — it’s like, everybody’s in this big hurry to make this book, to supposedly remember what happened. Because if you made a book of what really happened, it’d be a really upsetting book.” — Angela Chase
The origins of My So-Called Life date back to 1976, when Zwick and Herskovitz were writer-producers on the TV series Family. “We found ourselves often confined to a more appropriate and decorous presentation of adolescence,” says Zwick. “My So-Called Life is based on some unspoken vow to reexamine adolescence per our vision.” In the mid-’80s, the duo went on to create thirtysomething, where they met and employed Holzman. After ABC canceled thirtysomething in 1991, Zwick and Herskovitz sat down with Holzman to brainstorm a new show. Several concepts were discussed before Herskovitz suggested revisiting the subject of adolescence. Their shared ambition, says Holzman, was an “uncensored” depiction of teenage life.
HERSKOVITZ: I was very insistent: “Winnie, teenagers are different now than they were when we were young. You have to do research.”
HOLZMAN: The Writers Guild of America has this program where you can do volunteer teaching. I did it for a day or two. Hardest thing I ever did in my life.
HERSKOVITZ: She came back and said, “You’re completely wrong. Teenagers are exactly the same.”
ZWICK: Winnie wrote in a notebook just pages and pages in the voice of this character. She just captured how everything in adolescence is so very vivid and turbocharged with meaning.
HOLZMAN: The question I always got that year was, Is your daughter a teenager? At that time, she was 8. I just went back to what it was like to be a teenager for me. Sure, Angela’s me. But at the risk of sounding… whatever, all the characters were me. I was really just making stuff up.
The reaction to the pilot script at ABC was immediate: “Brilliant,” says Ted Harbert, then the network’s president of entertainment. “There was no question we would make the pilot.” Now they needed an Angela. During a casting session in New York in early 1993, a 13-year-old New Yorker with little professional acting experience was brought before Zwick, Herskovitz, and Holzman. She was the second girl they saw that day.
HOLZMAN: The first was Alicia Silverstone. A lovely actress, but so perfect-looking. She was not what I had written.
HERSKOVITZ: We needed somebody who shimmered between beauty and sort of not formed yet. And in walks Claire. She read the scene in the pilot where she has a confrontation with her childhood best friend. There was a direction that said, “Angela starts to tear up.” Claire gets to the moment. Her whole face turns red. She’s having this intense emotional experience — and then pulls it back. Everybody was just knocked out.
DANES: I identified immediately with Angela. They seemed to really understand what it was like to be a sophomore in high school. This is some of the best material I’ve ever had to work with in my entire career.
ZWICK: I remember taking Claire’s parents to dinner. We felt obliged to tell them what life was going to be like for the next year or two–or maybe the rest of her life.
DANES: My parents and I were just taking a leap of faith. Ed and Marshall were trying to prepare me, but there’s no way to do that. And my life did take a drastic turn.
2. ADOLESCENTS, INTERRUPTED
“Sometimes it seems like we’re all living in some kind of prison. And the crime is how much we hate ourselves.” — Angela
The pilot was shot in the spring of 1993, but ABC did not pick up the show for the fall, and instead optioned it as a midseason replacement for early 1994.
LANGER: I’ll never forget the first screening of the pilot. I had never been so satisfied or inspired. After that, we were all hooked. We just wanted to do this show.
DANES: I went back to high school, and halfway through my freshman year, it got picked up. It was pretty traumatic to leave school like that. Also, I had already suffered the disappointment of, you know, “not having the show continue.” Much of my, like, enthusiasm for it had waned. I had to recommit to it.
GUMMERSALL: By the time we started shooting again, I had grown five inches. You can totally tell.
When the order for more shows came in October of 1993, 19-year-old Wilson Cruz had been cast as 15-year-old Rickie. He was described in the script, says Cruz, as “half black, half Puerto Rican, sexually ambiguous like Jodie Foster in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” Translation: gay, but still coming to terms with it — not unlike Cruz himself.
CRUZ: I had decided if it was picked up, I wanted to be out publicly. I needed those other 15-year-old boys like Rickie to watch the show and believe him. I came out to my mom first. She was emotional, but fine with it. On Christmas Eve of ’93, I came out to my dad. He kicked me out. I lived in my car from that Christmas Eve through March of ’94, when we started filming the series.
When production finally began, the cast learned that a guest star from the pilot had been brought back as a regular: 22-year-old newcomer Jared Leto.
HOLZMAN: We actually didn’t know if Jordan Catalano was going to continue beyond the pilot. Once we got a load of Jared on camera with Claire, his presence — it was so magnetic. By the time we were done with the pilot, we knew the stories would always include him.
DANES: I remember there was one scene with Jared where the direction was to kiss him all over his face. I didn’t know what that meant because I hadn’t really made out many times before. I was kind of slobbering all over him. He guided me through it and educated me on how to, like, make out. There were so many overlaps with our real adolescence. I was 13 when I did the pilot. I was having a rough time making sense of my development, my burgeoning sexual self, all of those unruly feelings that accompany that time. I was just so glad that I had a forum to kind of exercise these feelings. I mean, I had Jared Leto teaching me how to make out.
GUMMERSALL: You would get a script and you’d think, God, this is so weird, I just went through this. Yeah, I was smitten with Claire. She knew it. But there was no, like, problems or anything. It was cool. We were just real good friends.
CRUZ: Winnie and I had a talk about what happened to me [with my father] and perhaps using it in the show. When that episode aired on December 22, my father watched it and called me home. So I have that episode to thank for a lot.
3. ON THE BUBBLE
“This life has been a test. If it had been an actual life, you would have received instructions on where to go and what to do.” — Angela
ABC ultimately decided to launch the show at the start of the ’94–95 season; consequently, the series was produced in periodic “dribs and drabs,” says Herskovitz, and some episodes have a sense of finality to them, as if the writers didn’t know if they were telling their last story. To this day, the producers believe ABC failed to promote the show properly. Danes, meanwhile, found time during Life‘s intermittent and uncertain production to make a movie: Little Women, which would only bolster her rep as The Next Big Thing. Alas, even that hype was no match for Friends.
CRUZ: We said goodbye to each other so many times, it was like the boy who cried wolf.
HOLZMAN: It was very private, as if we were making it for ourselves. ABC, to their great credit, didn’t interfere, due to their respect for Ed and Marshall — and because they were so puzzled by the show, they didn’t know what to say.
HARBERT: [It might have been] that the show was too truthful. It was tough to watch. It reminded us of pain, and there’s a large segment of the audience that doesn’t want to be reminded of pain.
DANES: Bess was trying to galvanize everyone to promote it more aggressively. I wasn’t so involved in that. I was pretty overextended with acting, school, trying to, like, grow up.
ARMSTRONG: I felt like Cassandra in the ruins of Troy: I saw what was happening before it happened. I called Ted Harbert. I said, “You’re letting this slip away.” That Thursday-night slot was referred to as “Hamburger Hill” jokingly at ABC. It was their death slot.
HARBERT: Episode number 19 aired on January 26, 1995, and then My So-Called Life was replaced by the fabulous Matlock.
ZWICK: I remember we had a meeting with Bob Iger and some other ABC executives. I remember saying “You do not know what you have.”
HERSKOVITZ: You went further. You said, “You are giving a voice to hundreds of thousands of people in this culture who are utterly disenfranchised — teenagers and particularly teenage girls — who have no voice of their own. You should keep the show on for no other reason.”
Harbert agreed, but he was meeting stiff resistance from ABC’s sales department: Due to the show’s overwhelming teen demos — not yet prized in this pre-Titanic/Dawson’s Creek era — Harbert says ABC could fetch only a paltry $50,000 per commercial spot. But the exec had the clout to bring the show back and, swayed by a massive fan campaign, says he was fully prepared to do so. Until…
HERSKOVITZ: When it was on the bubble, Claire and her parents came to us. She said she did not want to continue.
ZWICK: This came about after two years where she had been very emotionally invested in this show. It has been my experience that when an actor is so engaged, if you trifle with that connection, as a kind of protective mechanism, they’ll say, “Let me cut off. Let me connect to something else.”
DANES: I honestly don’t remember the details.
HARBERT: I’ve never told the press this: Claire’s representatives called. They said, “We think she has a big movie career, and we need to alter the production schedule so she can do movies.” I knew if I went to management with that story what the response was going to be. So I threw in the towel, which I still believe was my biggest mistake at ABC.
HERSKOVITZ: When they heard this about Claire, they were so relieved that they could use it as an excuse.
DANES: That was really hurtful, because I was 15 at that point, and I really didn’t like being held responsible for the cancellation of the show. I didn’t have that kind of power.
ARMSTRONG: Actually, I don’t think there were any bad guys. It was just a confluence of events. It was a perfect storm. It became way too easy for everyone to let go.
HARBERT: In my new office at E!, I have a [MSCL] poster closest to my desk. It’s to remind myself of how precious these wonderful little shows are. It reminds me that these things come along once, and when you get one, you have to hold on to it for dear life.
In 1995, MTV picked up the syndication rights to My So-Called Life, allowing the show to live on and flourish through endless repeats. Zwick and Herskovitz would go on to produce the series Relativity and Once and Again for ABC, and the features Legends of the Fall and The Last Samurai. Holzman, a writer-producer on Once and Again, was nominated for a Tony this year for writing the hit Broadway musical Wicked. Danes continued to make films, and she can be seen in this fall’s Stage Beauty and next year’s Shop Girl. The rest of the cast went on to various degrees of success, Leto more so than the others. All of them report feeling angry, sad, and even betrayed by the demise of the series but have mellowed over time. Still, like the fans, they wonder how Life would have resolved its cliff-hanger, in which Claire drives off with Jordan, suddenly realizing the love letters he’d given her were actually written by Brian. Holzman, Zwick, Herskovitz, and Danes all agree: Angela probably would have given Brian a chance. But, adds Danes, “I don’t see her marrying either of them.”
DANES: I’m still identified as Angela — and I’ve done a lot of different kinds of work since then. But that role really resonated with people. I am profoundly grateful for the show, and that it has been as warmly received as it was, as long as it has. It was really special.