clap clap blog: we have moved

Monday, April 12, 2004
Saturday Night, Den

Our hosts have digital cable.[1] And so on the first night there, we all end up in the den watching the very first episode of My So-Called Life on Nickelodeon's new teenager network. (Which has that DeGrassi High show, but which would be a lot better with a few key additions that you can probably guess at.)


I used to watch it, of course, although admittedly on MTV, in high school. And I think I saw it once or twice in college. But for whatever reason--maybe because it's the first episode, maybe because of my viewing companion, maybe because of the distance I've achieved from my teenage self[2]--it really appeared to me as a New and Interesting thing this time, rather than as a particular good rerun of a particularly good TV series.

Honestly, I don't think my estimation of it at the time really rose above "good." Certainly it didn't have the same appeal to me as something like The Crow, or Pearl Jam (shh), or Sandman. But in retrospect, I think that was because MSCL was so friggin' accurate, a suspicion which my viewing certainly confirmed. It wasn't just that it was a realistic depiction of white middle-class American teenage life, it was actually presented wholly from the perspective of a white middle-class American teenager, and so I'm not sure how different it actually seemed from my actual life, although I'm sure I would have identified more if it wasn't told from a female perspective. But now, the way it really captured that precise feeling of being a confused teenager without tipping its hand that it was doing so is immensely appealing to me, and I think the female perspective is even a plus, since my college conversations sure make it seem like girls have much more interesting high school experiences than boys, at least among the broad "weird or slightly weird" subgroup.

That straight-faced, pseudo-realistic presentation of the teenage perspective is amazing, since unless you know what's going on it seems wholly real, less like the clearly structured reality of a sitcom and more like a newspaper story or a phone conversation with a friend, even as it's sort of mocking the overwrought drama and angst teenagers engage in. But again, that's fascinating because they can mock it without actually changing anything about it. So many great little touches are there. There's a scene early on in the episode where Angela (Claire Daines) and Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall) keep sneaking glances at each other in science class, and when Sharon (Devon Odessa) joins in, it becomes this total conversation in code where no one actually entirely knows what the hell is going on, which we've all had. There, too, are a lot of great touches about the way groups function in high school, with the intrusion of Brian into the Rayanne-Rickie-Angela karass and the way all four semi-sequentially pick up saying "so" far more than necessary as a repeated nervous tic the night they're at Brian's, trying to hook Angela up with Jordan (Jared Leto). Rickie, who at the time seemed like a bit of a tokeny addition, now strikes me as a remarkably accurate portrayal of high school gaydom, although a) I could be wrong, and b) I see a wee bit of homoeroticism in the way he looks at Brian, although apparently I am totally mistaken about this.[3] And Miss Clap has pointed out how Jordan, who always seemed kind of sexily sleepy at the time, is now quite clearly stoned almost all the time; apparently he is even putting in eye drops at one point.

I have still not, however, entirely gotten over the way The Nerd, i.e. Brian, is presented. He just doesn't end up looking good; he has a clear crush on Angela that he deals with in the most annoyingly socially retarded, elementary school way, until it turns to sort of bitchy middle-school-girl-jealousy.[4] Plus, he engages in this kind of weird, awkward imitation of high school power-plays, and he's just irritatingly workaholicy and obsessed with good grades and a good college and like that, and he seemed annoying even in high school, and a really unfair representation of geekdom. The problem is, of course, he's a distressingly accurate portrait of a certain type of nerd, the overachiever, and I did know some. (In case he's googling himself, I'm talking about you, Mike Baldwin.) And, again, this is written from the female perspective, so we get a (very pretty) female semi-geek who is largely charming although sometimes frustrating, but I was simply not wise enough in the ways of the world at the time to realized that Angela was a total nerd-girl; the mere presence of vicarious-living-friend Rayanne is a tip-off. Angela's totally the kind of girl that would've ended up at Wesleyan or Haverford and would have ended up either becoming an academic or a hipster.[5]

But anyway, of course a big reason my views on Brian are what they are, to say nothing of the whole audience's views on all the characters, is because the damn thing was canceled after one season, and as any teen-drama aficionado will tell you, generally after Freshman year everyone's unhappy. So it was with MSCL: Amanda was looking slutty without actually getting any, Brian was still a clueless, unhappy nerd, Rayanne was off the wagon, Rickie had at least found a place to live but was still getting beaten up, etc. (I'm mostly cribbing the specifics from FAQs as my plot memory is a lot hazy, but I think my general impression is sound.) As befitted the genre, things weren't great, but there was hope on the horizon. Presumably by graduation, at least 2/3 of the people would have achieved satisfaction over their various Issues. (Amanda presumably would have gotten over Jordan but would have never hooked up with Brian, if other shows in the genre like Smallville and Dawson's Creek are anything to go by.) But because it ended right then--and this is the only good thing about that--we're left with everyone unhappy, and that is, somehow, totally perfect for what the show was trying to do. Sure, if you'd been following it in real-time, maybe you would have gotten to Senior year when Angela did and appreciated her triumph over angst, but as a recurring thing that's there, like Nirvana, frozen in time for future teens, you really feel like your misery is going to last forever, like you're always going to be alone, or trapped in a small town, or a virgin, or a geek with no social skills, or whatever. And so, again, it's true to that perspective, because the characters' miseries are forever.

The biggest thing that struck me, though--and this is presumably clear by now--is how much this either served as a model for, or was a prescient precursor for, the huge (and largely great) crop of teen dramas that have sprung up in the last decade. It's unclear if it was really the first of its kind, just a down-market version of thirtysomething, or a sort of yang to 90210's yin, but I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a more direct source for a lot of the conventions in shows like Gilmore Girls, Dawson's Creek, Everwood, Buffy, etc., etc. Even the ones more on the 90210 side of the axis like The OC and One Tree Hill, have, like MSCL, largely told their stories from the perspectives of teenagers, rather than reverting back to the wow-those-teenagers-look-like-they're-28 90210ism that had much more in common with 60's beach movies than with overdramatic angst.

But as much as I like some of the above shows, none of them have really done the specific thing MSCL was doing anywhere near as well as that show did. Dawson's was good but often head-explodingly talky--it could have learned a lot about rhythm from MSCL, whose frequent silences and voice-overs really did a lot to draw you in. Buffy chose to make the interior melodrama of teenage life exterior, and while it created something wonderful in the process, I don't think anyone literally saw their own lives in there.[6] And Gilmore Girls, with its occasional dropping of face and touches of meta, has developed into something even better than MSCL, something smarter and more joyful, but it still can't touch it for first-person identification. I was a boy, but damnit, I was Angela. And I still have a crush on Claire Daines. (Shh.)[7]

[1] I heart digital cable big-time. Plus, they have music channels like "Classic Disco," and then there's a five-channel rock of "Metal," "Rock," "Power Rock" (i.e. pop-metal), "Alternative Rock," and "Progressive Rock." It's pretty killer, although I get a little freaked out the second night and keep flipping stations because I might be missing something good.
[2] Oh yeah, I've really gotten a long way from that juvenile nerd. Ahem.
[3] Although apparently Rickie "Once had a crush on Jordan"! The things you forget over time.
[4] Some girls knew the score at the time, though, and loved Brian over Jordan, but most have, it would seem, only recently come to realize what a jerk Jordan was and to love the nerd.
[5] And the actor who played Rickie, Wilson Cruz, is now playing a White House intern on The West Wing, which is not an unrealistic depiction of where his character would have ended up, as Miss Clap pointed out.
[6] Or, at least, not for very long. Sure, you identify with Willow in her geekdom or in her hesitant drift towards homosexuality, but then her girlfriend gets shot by a black-magic-using geek and she goes nuts and almost causes the end of the world, and sure, metaphorically it feels pretty familiar, but I don't think a lot of us have actually been through that, you know?
[7] Which was, somewhat embarassingly, one of the reasons I really wanted to go to Yale, although their excellent academics and the presence of like-minded geeks played a big part, too. I think she was at Yale at the same time Rivers Cuomo was at Harvard, and the fact that they might meet at some sort of mixer always played out in my mind as a vague indie-rock celebrity fantasy. I would say more about this, but I think I'll save it for a future post once I've completed my current task of close-reading the Weezer catalog.[8] But anyway, it's kind of funny that Daines-the-actor went to Yale and Rory-the-character also went to Yale. And that stupid Felicity girl went to NYU. Loser.
[8] (I am only half-kidding.)