You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture.
There’s a chill in the air in New York. It’s not quite sweater weather, but gone (at least momentarily) is the oppressive humidity that characterizes late summer in the city, replaced by a change in the air that signified, for so many of my formative years, a fresh start with a return to academia. Suddenly, I’m craving backpacks and freshly sharpened pencils.
For those of us no longer in school, there are thankfully no impending pop quizzes or hallway confrontations in our future as the waning days of summer count down. Still, the memory of each September before this one lingers, leaving shades of something like nostalgia, regret or relief that compulsory schooling is a life event we’ll never have to return to again.
“My parents keep asking how school was,” Claire Danes, playing teenager Angela Chase, says in a voiceover in the 1994 pilot episode for “My So-Called Life.” “It’s like saying, ‘How was that drive-by shooting?’ You don’t care how it was. You’re lucky to get out alive.”
It’s a dark notion. It’s irreverent. It’s a little un-self-aware. It’s exactly what a teenager who’s just trying to make it through might say.
And that’s what so much of high school felt like: trying to make it through. Between the banner moments touted by popular media — school dances, first kisses, team championships — there were the constant indignities and frustrations of being close to adulthood and independence but still so far away. In high school, the day often started earlier than your body was primed for, and from there, you had to deal with mountains of homework, trying to fit in, worrying about college, padding your resume with extracurriculars, or trying to get some spending money, all while making sure your room is clean and your parents aren’t disappointed in you for some reason. Meanwhile, you’re getting the message that your younger years are the best it’s ever going to get.
Yeah, I’d say that Angela’s statement is pretty spot-on.
While so many offerings of teen television past position the hallowed halls of high school as an exciting stage for varsity-team stardom, romance and hard-earned Life Lessons, “My So-Called Life” was years ahead of its time for presenting the day-to-day life of a teenager as the slog it often felt like. Angela has her pack of close friends, but she isn’t part of the popular crowd.
She’s trying on new identities — in the pilot, she dyes her hair red and opts to hang out with the edgy Rayanne instead of her old bestie Sharon. (”I started hanging out with Rayanne Graff. Just for fun. Just cause it seemed like if I didn’t, I would die or something. Things were getting to me. Just how people are.”)
She’s got her eye on Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto), but her crush isn’t the driving force of the series. She struggles, wondering whether she’s sexually attractive to peers, or even beautiful at all. Angela has parents who are presented as real, fallible adults instead of moralistic heroes. They make mistakes but are also there to try (haphazardly) to relate to and comfort their kids when needed.
Being a high school student is difficult to begin with; figuring out one’s sexuality adds another layer of stress — and real danger, as LGBT students still deal with higher rates of bullying and suicide than their peers who identify as heterosexuals.
Angela and Rayanne’s friend Rickie is gay, marking the first-ever appearance of a gay teenage character on mainstream TV. His sexuality doesn’t merely comprise a neat one-episode arc: It’s present throughout the season.
We see his interior struggle between fitting in and staying true to himself ― if only he could be “normal,” he thinks, then maybe he could make it through high school without getting threatened by fellow students or kicked out of his own house. You wish that the messages from the “It Gets Better” campaign were around in this fictional world for Rickie to hear.
“Haven’t you ever waited for anything?” Rayanne asks him in one episode. “Yeah. For my life to start,” he replies.
No savior would swoop down from the wings of “My So-Called Life” to rescue Rickie from his problems or keep the bullies at bay forever, but the authenticity of the way actor Wilson Cruz played his character made you believe he’d be OK, so long as he could get through.
Perhaps the show’s vision of high school remained clear-headed and realistic due to its brevity: Angela Chase and co. only graced ABC’s schedule for one season before it was canceled. Maybe it simply never got a chance to devolve from a realistic portrait of high-school struggles into the twisting soap operatics of “Glee,” “The O.C.” or “Beverly Hills, 90210.”
What we were able to see of Angela’s, Rayanne’s and Rickie’s stories showed that depicting high school and teenhood in all its messiness, triumph, and self-discovery was possible on television without moving into melodramatic or schmaltzy territory. They’re worth a watch or re-watch if you’re feeling that particular itch come fall — or if you just need a reminder that you can appreciate your high school years for what they were while being extremely glad they’re over.