Claire Danes has been nominated for a Primetime Emmy award for the fifth time in a row for Homeland. Much before she stunned audiences as Central Intelligence Agency operative Carrie Mathison in the espionage drama, and even before she was Juliet to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 movie, Danes had reserved her place as one of the finest television actors. At 15, she won a Golden Globe and her first Emmy nomination for her portrayal of a suburban teenager in My So-Called Life.
Over two decades after the American network ABC cancelled the show, it has achieved cult status and is often cited as one of the most keenly observed teen dramas of all time. Created by Winnie Holzman, My So-Called Life follows 15-year-old Angela Chase (Danes) at the fictional Liberty High School in suburban Pennsylvania in the 1990s. Angela narrates 17 of a total of 19 episodes, discussing the usual adolescent concerns such as popularity, changing ideas of friendship, and falling in love as well as thoughts and anxieties that are way beyond her years. By giving Angela a raw and seemingly undoctored voice, the show boldly discusses subjects that were often glossed over or skirted around on television in the ’90s, such as sex, body image, homophobia, alcoholism, broken homes, and dyslexia.
Angela has coloured her hair red and left her middle school friends Sharon and Brian for the rebellious and wild Rayanne and Rickie. She is in love with Jordan Catalano, played unforgettably by Jared Leto. As a teenager obsessing over her crush, Angela narrates her profound and often absurd feelings. She makes “emo” socially acceptable, and is genuinely angry, confused, and in love but without being as morbidly depressed as fictional teen characters tend to be. One of the show’s biggest triumphs is its portrayal of teens as actual people and not silhouettes of a preconceived notion. Every episode does not end with a lesson learnt or a family reunion. The angst, arrogance, self-consciousness and confidence of adolescence are all very well-scripted, and the enormity of their concerns is not trivialised or written off as a phase.
In an episode that finds Rayanne Graff (AJ Langer) overdosing on drugs and alcohol, the series discuss the pertinent issue of teenage alcoholism. Enrique “Rickie” Vasquez (Wilson Cruz) was the first openly gay character in a leading role in a TV show. Jordan’s bad boy image serves as a cover for his learning disability.
Though critically acclaimed, My So-Called Life faced tough competition from shows like Friends and Mad About You. Danes too was reluctant to return for another season. Operation Life Support was the first ever online fan campaign created to save a show. Executives at ABC received thousands of letters and AOL messages from devoted fans. The show was ultimately followed by a novelisation in 1999, titled My So-Called Life Goes On, written by Catherine Clark.
With ’90s nostalgia in vogue these days, My So-Called Life is a perfect throwback binge watch and a reminder of how Claire Danes was awesome even before Carrie Mathison walked in.