Editor’s Note: This is part four in a series of five articles looking at memorable depictions of coming of age on television — a favorite topic on the small screen, from “Leave It To Beaver” to “Pretty Little Liars.” It’s presented in partnership with Participant Media’s new network Pivot and its series “Please Like Me,” about a 20-year-old man (Josh Thomas) who still has a lot to figure out about identity, love and family. Catch all six episodes back-to-back at 8pm ET/7pm CT on Thursday, August 1.
It’s a rare thing indeed, when a series being canceled provides it with the ideal possible ending. “My So-Called Life,” despite low ratings due to being in a doomed time slot, could still possibly have returned for a second season had the cast (principally lead Claire Danes) and creative talent not balked at the prospect of another year’s grueling production schedule. While they were all having their second thoughts, ABC officially canceled the show, thus retroactively making the first season finale the curtain call for the series. And given the theme of that episode, which saw the culmination of several major plot lines, “My So-Called Life” left its protagonist Angela Chase and several of her friends and family members with a realization that not everyone has when coming of age, which is that one’s first great love is not necessarily one’s last, and almost certainly not one’s only.
Most romance narratives, especially those involving teens, traffic in wish fulfillment: the idea that the endpoint of love is meeting that one special true person with whom endlessly sustainable passion can be enjoyed. At any age, it’s comforting to think that there’s a point past which all one’s problems will be solved. In the teenage years, when everything is life or death, this is even more the case. And since existence at that age is entirely in the present tense, when one finally does find a romantic partner, it feels as though that partner is The One, forever, because if the present is all, he or she is as well.
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“My So-Called Life” pulls off a delicate balancing act in respecting Angela’s love for the beautiful, mysterious Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) as a real thing while still being realistic about the long-term prospects of their relationship. In one season, the show started with Angela having a crush on Jordan and him not being aware that she even existed (a nearly universal teenage experience), and progressed to their actually beginning to date in reasonably short order, considering that that’s where the story would ordinarily end in a teen romance — the happily-ever-after.
The pair then encountered the kind of relationship turbulence so many couples do and broke up, by which point Jordan was as smitten with Angela as she was with him, and he attempted to persuade Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall), the shy nerd who’d been in love with Angela all his life, to be his Cyrano de Bergerac and give him the words to win Angela back. Initially, this worked, as Angela fells back in even deeper love with Jordan, thinking that he’d authored the letter Brian wrote professing “his” love, before she discovered, in the very last scene, the letter’s true author. But, rather than immediately falling in love with Brian on the spot, she got in Jordan’s car and drove away. End of series.
It’s hard to think of Angela’s love for Jordan as remaining the same after that event, which tied into the larger theme of the finale, which recurred in the series at large as well: that there are many different kinds of love and attraction, and that one’s love for or attraction to another person can evolve with time.
Angela’s mother Patty (Bess Armstrong) reminisced fondly over her high-school boyfriend, with whom she’d been planning a reunion, ostensibly to help Angela’s father with his new business venture but really because, as Angela noted when Patty showed her an old photograph, “He’s cute.”
The larger point is made quite explicitly when, at the time of evening when Patty’s old boyfriend was due to come over for dinner (while her husband was out impressing investors), it was actually Jordan there ringing the doorbell, looking for Angela. He is, Patty realized immediately, Angela’s version of her old flame. (Angela’s father had a parallel experience with his business partner, a younger and quite attractive woman with whom he got along quite well; after they succeeded in impressing their investors, they almost kissed before he realized, no, his committed relationship with his wife was not worth jeopardizing over mere attraction.)
The mirroring of Angela’s discovery (whether or not she’s able to fully process it at the time) that the first blazing love of a person’s life is not necessarily his or her only one with her parents having to remind themselves of that is a lovely note on which to end the series. One does not come of age like flicking a light switch. Life, so-called or otherwise, is a learning process. We add new knowledge to old, but never stop learning.
The fact that “My So-Called Life” packed so much into one season is really extraordinary — there are whole coming-of-age narratives worthy of an essay of this length for Rayanne (A.J. Langer), Rickie (Wilson Cruz), Brian and even Sharon (Devon Odessa) as well — and as interesting as it would have been to see its characters continue to grow, leaving off the way it did, leaving the audience wanting more, and having only the extant narrative to process and analyze, is a huge element in its enduring stature as a classic series.
Indiewire has partnered with Pivot and its new series “Please Like Me.” (Binge-watch the whole season starting at 8pm ET/7pm CT on Thursday, August 1, with a total of six back-to-back episodes.) “Please Like Me” is a comedic-drama based on actual painfully awkward events from the life of 25-year-old, award-winning Australian comedian Josh Thomas. Watch the first episode here, as in the span of 24 hours, Josh is dumped by his girlfriend, realizes he may be gay and moves in with his mother, who has just attempted suicide. All of a sudden, it seems as though everyone’s life is in disarray and Josh is at the center of it all.