When it comes to a TV show, on first viewing I'm watching it for the plot. Okay, what happens next? It's not until I watch it again, when I know what's going to happen, that I appreciate all the little things that make it so great to begin with. A line or a sidelong glance or a particular framing of a shot. Things that don't seem important at the time but in hindsight are vital. Things that directors and writers and actors spend hours debating and thinking about, so that the final product looks effortless but in reality is far from it. Especially in TV, which as a medium (compared to film) is built of little blocks that eventually should (in theory) amount to something greater than the sum of its parts, I find rewatching to be as rewarding an experience as initial viewing.
I recently started rewatching the TV series My So-Called Life. If you don't read Entertainment Weekly, or you didn't come of age in the mid-90s, or you weren't mining your way through Claire Danes' complete filmography (ahem... er...), then you maybe have never heard of this wonderful, canceled-too-soon TV show. But it has a cult-like following. It debuted in 1994, which, if you may recall, was also the year that a certain haircut and coffee shop and sextet entered our collective pop culture consciousness. Needless to say, the ratings were less than stellar, and the show itself was far ahead of its time, conceived and aired before the WB (and then the CW) formed a monopoly on teenage girls' school nights and advertisers realized the value in cornering such a specific market.
But like I said: My So-Called Life. I started watching all the episodes again a few days ago. And I love it even more the second time around. Now that I know how it ends (it was a one-season wonder), how it begins, how it gets from here to there, is even sweeter.
It got me thinking about the other "teen" shows (I use parentheses here because it's a misconception that only teens watched these shows; just ask my mother) that I have devoted hours upon hours to: The OC and Gilmore Girls. The former was the first show I really got into, the first show that I took it upon myself to learn everything I possibly could about. The OC was my first television love. (The break-up was hard; just ask my mother.) Gilmore Girls was the show that I fell in love with just as it was ending. The one I never experienced live. The one I latched onto and devoured in large, feel-good chunks. But I loved it just the same.
And the funny thing is, all three shows are more or less about the same general thing: teenagers. But they couldn't be more different, and I enjoy them for different reasons. And with a bit of distance, I've found that the ways I enjoy them (or, conversely, hate them) has changed, too.
The beginnings: I began watching this show in the eighth grade (2005), just as its third season began. Because of playoff baseball on Fox (the network on which it aired), there is a month-long hiatus for TV shows in the month of October. I assume this is when I watched the previous two seasons in preparation. I remember one sleepover when my friend and I stayed up into the early morning hours watching at least eight episodes of the show. It was the Oliver plotline, so obviously it was memorable.
The end: I stuck with The OC for the next two years, slogging through its lackluster (in hindsight, at least; at the time I was just so happy to be looking forward to a TV show for the first time in my life) third season and then enjoying its renaissance in its fourth and final go-round. When it ended, that fateful Thursday night in February, I weeped as if my life depended on it.
Photos like this made 14-year-old me practically die of happiness. Please ignore Ryan's quasi-mullet.
Why I love it: Like I said, it was the first thing that really made me feel like a part of the pop culture conversation. Unfortunately, I came in after its early peaks, when it was more "guilty" than "pleasure."
Why I hate it: How long do you have? I watched the entire series again last fall, and there are so so so so many things I hate about it. Theresa. Oliver. MARISSA COOPER. Sandy's emotional infidelity in season two. Everything with a comic book (sorry, "graphic novel"). How much of a tool Seth Cohen sometimes is. How annoying and self-righteous Ryan sometimes is. Needless drama. Frank Atwood. JOHNNY OMG JOHNNY. The sainthood of Marissa Cooper that makes sense when you're a freshman in high school but makes me want to vomit in present day. The fact that none of the "teenagers" were actually teenagers, except for Mischa Barton, whom I'm now praying for. Basically, #firstworldproblems.
Why it holds a place in my heart: When it wanted to be, The OC was strikingly good. It had several different personalities. It was a show about spoiled white kids in Orange County, a soap opera about their illegitimate children and the incestuous web a single family spun throughout its community. A journey for its main character to hell and back, several times. It was a show about rebirth, about second chances, and so it's fitting that the show itself had a few different incarnations. Some were beautiful and many were exceedingly ugly. But when it's really good, it's easy to forget the bad times. Kind of like an abusive relationship.
And, of course, any discussion of this series would be incomplete without mentioning the music. So many of my favorite songs come from this show. The OC introduced me to great artists like Rachael Yamagata, Rogue Wave, Sufjan Stevens, and of course, Patrick Park. The music on this show was its own character and the only character that never let me down.
The beginnings: I was droopy (and drooly) after having had jaw surgery and my wisdom teeth removed. So I drifted in and out as I watched various episodes from the couch over Christmas break 2005.
The end: The show went on for another season after I first saw it but I never watched it while it was on. Like The OC, I "discovered" this show after its creative height, but I continued to love it after it was canceled through the magic of DVDs.
My favorite moments are always when Rory and Lorelai are just hanging out. Here, they're probably watching the Brady Bunch variety hour special or Grey Gardens or some god-awful-yet-awesome made-for-TV movie.
Why I hate it: I think I'm becoming hardened and cynical as I get older because I recently watched a few season 1 episodes and realized that Rory is an insufferable bitch. Like, actually, I actively hated her for more than just a hot sec. (In case you're wondering, it started during the episode where she accidently falls asleep and stays at Miss Patty's all night with Dean after her school dance and she comes home and berates Lorelai for--rightfully!--yelling at and being upset with her.) Part of it is probably just Alexis Bledel, who is really not that fantastic an actress (even more striking in comparison to the revelation that is Lauren Graham), but Rory really does a sick 180 halfway through the series that seriously grates. First of all, her voice changes! Does this happen to some people? Her voice is unusually deep for the first season or so and then it becomes progessively more twee.
Also I absolutely HATE Rory during the too-long rift with Lorelai that drags down the sixth season. Her entire plot just reeks of selfishness and privilege and overall bitch-ery, which is unfortunate because Rory was a pretty cool girl while she was in high school and her personality was the antithesis of all those things (self-absorption, entitlement, etc.).
Also Rory is a pretty sucky friend. She's all take and no give. I'd say she's really only a good friend to Lorelai. With Lane and then with Paris, I never got the feeling that she was deserving of either of their friendships.
I guess I'm just annoyed now that we were presented with this character who we're supposed to respect and adore because everyone else did, but now I don't understand why everyone thinks Rory is so special. (Then again, graduating from Yale in three and a half years is impressive, if wholly unrealistic.)
And I won't even get into the travesty that was Luke's daughter April. Sometimes I think Amy Sherman-Palladino, in her final season, was giving a big "eff you!" to the people at WB for not renewing her contract and so left them the biggest pile of steaming crap possible. And by that I mean--spoiler alert!--Lorelai sleeping with Christopher and April just generally existing.
(It is telling that I can slog through the Johnny episodes of The OC but I can't get past the first few episodes of Gilmore Girls' sixth season.)
Why it holds a place in my heart: When I re-watched the first five seasons this fall I was struck by how funny and heartwarming and just plain affecting this show was and still is. Endurance is a tricky and highly valuable thing for me with film and television. This show debuted in 2000, which is such a long time ago as to seem almost like another lifetime. This show was topical in that the issues and stories it dealt with are relevant to a certain subset of viewers. Issues like self-acceptance, familial conflict, first loves and first heartbreaks, and even the age-old question of whether a man and a woman can ever just be only friends (which they seem to answer with a resounding "no"). And in that way it was so much more than just a "teen show." It was wonderfully quirky and, yes, maybe a little obsessed with its quirkiness, but endearing nonetheless. Plus I have mad love for Lauren Graham, who is a fine, if underrated, actress. Also lines like this:
LORELAI: Stop saying mother like that.
RORY: Like what?
LORELAI: Like there should be another word after it.
My So-Called Life
The beginnings: I'd heard rumblings about the epic greatness of this show for a few years, and I finally checked out what all the fuss was about this past fall. (The entire series is available to watch on Hulu and Netflix Instant.)
The end: It took me a few months to finish the entire thing (there was a long break about a third of the way in), but I binged on the last twelve episodes like candy. And then it ended and I finally understood what all the fuss was about--not just about the series as a whole but about why it's so overwhelmingly cruel that more episodes weren't made. I HAVE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS!!
The best representation of this show is this picture. Just Angela Chase, staring wide-eyed and honestly. At once terrified by and ecstatic about this whole "growing up" thing.
Why I love it: Well, there is Claire Danes, my girl crush. Even at 15, she was just as emotionally honest, as physically un-vain (and not just when crying!), and as reliably open as in her later work. Also the show is such a perfect snapshot of life as a high school sophomore. The struggle, the triumph, and yes, the mundaneness of it all. And it evokes life at such a specific moment and in such a specific time period, it's almost like looking through a telescope at some really far away, exotic place (so much plaid! Doc Martens! overalls worn unironically!). Danes' Angela Chase is a cool girl heroine who doesn't realize it. Her voiceovers are disarmingly introspective (in one particularly memorable one she debates whether she should resolve to be less introspective in the New Year. She stream-of-consciously thinks about it for a few minutes and then decides that she won't become less introspective) and real and unknowingly funny yet also incredibly insightful. This show is the only one with voiceovers that I can watch and take seriously. In fact, her voiceovers are maybe my favorite part of the whole show.
But aside from Angela, the whole set of characters is great. Rayanne Graff, Angela's new best friend who is unflinchingly unglued but still charming and likeable; Rickie Vasquez, Angela's other best friend who is gay and as such simultaneously fades into the background and stands out like a sore thumb in the battlefield that is high school; Brian Krakow, Angela's brainy next-door neighbor who is hopelessly in love with Angela (who doesn't realize it, natch) but also kind of a sadistic a-hole; and of course Jordan Catalano, the mute-ish object of Angela's hormonal affection, who is a circa-1994 dreamboat but twenty years later has lost much of his appeal (at least to me). Even Angela's parents are strikingly real portraits of two middle-aged spouses struggling with a teenage daughter, or their own parents, or their own preoccupations with growing up and older.
Why I hate it: Certain episodes are less-than-stellar, sure, but there's really nothing in this show that I hate. Also I feel like saying you hate one aspect of this show is like saying you hate puppies or baby koala bears or something: YOU JUST DON'T.
Why it holds a place in my heart: It's the little things. Like a scene of Angela on her bed listening to "Dreams" by The Cranberries and being moody. Or, on the flip side, performing a dramatic rendition of "Blister in the Sun" by Violent Femmes in her room, including the whispering parts (natch). Like, hello, WE ARE THE SAME PERSON. But what I love most about it is how incredibly normal it is. The OC and Gilmore Girls are wonderful shows, but they are escapist, either in setting or in the relationships they portray. They depict a world that is fantasy and fleeting. To borrow a present-day analogy, The OC is to My So-Called Life what Sex and the City is to GIRLS. Similar subject matter but wildly different execution.
One of my favorite episodes of MSCL is called "The Zit." Angela gets a zit on her chin (presumably her first one for how apocalyptic it seems to her), and this littlest of incidents inspires a series of events that unfold organically but materialize into something so wonderfully true and incredible and heartbreaking. Suddenly Angela's skin blemish morphs into her own mother's insecurities about getting wrinkles and losing the beauty of her youth that once validated her. A seemingly harmless conversation at a makeup counter at the mall becomes the basis for a mother-daughter squabble so uncomfortable in the reality it portrays that I get chills just thinking about it. And an ending that simultaneously brings you up and tears you down. It's an incredible hour of television. On the first viewing, on the second, and, if I ever get there, on the tenth.