Category Archives: 1990s

I Heart TV: My So-Called Life

As long as I’m taking a gauzy walk down memory lane, here’s the first draft of another I Heart TV essay – my favorite of the contributions I made to the book. My So-Called Life was, is and will always be one of my all-time favorites, so being able to celebrate it in print…and mention Wonderfalls, Freaks & Geeks and Juliana Hatfield in the process?!…was something I truly cherished.

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“When someone dies young, it’s like they stay that way forever,” muses 15-year-old Angela Chase in the memorable “Halloween” installment of My So-Called Life, which found her entranced by a student said to have died in 1963. In a weird way, the same thing applies to TV series, like My So-Called Life, Wonderfalls or Freaks & Geeks, that were axed before their time. We’re left with a handful of episodes and the promise of what could have been if only…if only.

The drama, which debuted in August 1994 and lasted a scant 19 episodes, told the story of Angela, her family and friends; and while it’s probably best remembered these days for introducing the mercurial acting talents of the Emmy-nominated Claire Danes to the world, it featured an equally capable supporting cast. Bess Armstrong ably portrayed Patty, Angela’s homecoming-queen mom who struggles with the conundrums many working mothers face; and Tom Irwin was simply terrific as quixotic dad Graham. Likewise, Angela’s friends became real-life acquaintances—her troubled pal Rayanne (A.J. Langer), gentle Ricky (Wilson Cruz), heavy-lidded crush Jordan (Jared Leto), ex-best friend Sharon (Devon Odessa) and geeky neighbor “Brain”—er, Brian (Devon Gummersall). Even little sister Danielle (Lisa Wilhoit) comes across as a believable kid whose bratty behavior we understand: she wants to be in the epicenter of the universe—where Angela lives. (Small wonder that for Halloween she dresses up as her older sis’.)

In many ways, due to the use of voice-over narration, the episodes play in part like diary entries woven into the fabric of ongoing stories. Unlike a diary, however, each episode expands the viewpoint to reveal the perspectives of other characters; and also tells their stories independently of Angela. The most notable plotlines are Angela’s infatuation with Jordan, whose inability to articulate anything of substance proves as frustrating to him as it is for us (and leads to a wondrous season-ender in which he turns to “Brain” for help); troubled Rayanne, who reminds Patty—and us—of kids we knew; Ricky’s descent into homeless hell and rebound to stability; and the slow growth of Graham’s restaurant ambitions, to say nothing of his possible dogging around. In the pilot, we discover that he almost stepped out on his wife; and in the finale, he again veers close with feisty restaurant partner Hallie Lowenthal (Lisa Waltz).

 Of course, there’s also Brian’s quiet yearning for Angela. It’s only when he becomes Cyrano de Bergerac to Jordan’s Christian de Neuvillette in the last episode, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” and she learns the truth, that she begins to see him in a new light. It doesn’t stop her from leaving with the hunk, mind you, but the quizzical look she gives Brian says it all. If there had been a second, third or fourth season, that would have been explored. One hopes.

What lifted MSCL above a well-acted suds fest, however, was the superlative writing. Stewarded by creator/co-executive producer Winnie Holzman, who earned an Emmy nomination for the pilot’s script, the show explored topics not generally associated with “teen” dramas of the 1990s, including body image, Ricky’s homosexuality and the world of metaphysics. In the Halloween episode, Angela interacted with a ghost; and in “Other People’s Mothers,” which finds Rayanne spinning out of control, there’s an introduction to tarot that, in the installment’s final moments, sounds suspiciously like real life: “The cards are read in sequence. Each card leads to the next. We move from terror and loss to unexpected good fortune, and out of darkness, hope is born.”

As good as they are, however, it’s the Christmas episode (“So-Called Angels”) that sends shivers up my spine no matter how often I view—or think about—it. Alternative rock-pop genius Juliana Hatfield guest stars as a seemingly homeless girl who appears to Angela and, on Christmas Eve, to Patty; and guides both to Ricky, who’s been living on the streets since being banished from his home. In the final scene, we see Juliana turn away from the camera; and, with the flap of a wing, ascend—like the guardian angel her character is—towards heaven. Of course, to single out a specific episode for praise is akin to recommending just one Juliana Hatfield album—it can’t be done, as each has something special to offer and deserves to be heard.

It matters not, really, whether one believes in ghosts, the tarot, angels or dreams. What matters is that the characters are so believable that we, the viewers, embrace them much as we do the people in our daily lives, quirks and all. Angela, Brian and the rest are no different than many a teenager, forever thinking they’re seeing the full picture when, in truth, they’re viewing slivers. As the season progresses, however, they gradually begin to grasp the complexities of life. In “The Substitute,” for example, Angela’s inspirational English teacher (Roger Rees) turns out to be a deadbeat dad on the lam from the law; yet he still motivates her to hold onto her ideals, and risk suspension in order to distribute the school’s banned literary magazine. Likewise, Patty and Graham—though more clued in about life—are far from perfect, with each confronting the same challenges many adults face at one time or another.

In the end, though, watching My So-Called Life is indeed like viewing photos of someone who passed too soon. We lose ourselves in the snapshots and episodes, laughing at every mention of Tino (the show’s own Godot) while, at the same time, wishing for a different conclusion. And when Angela slides into the passenger seat of Jordan’s car in the finale’s final moments, her eyes glued on Brian…sadness seeps in. In a flash, everything that could and would have been is no more—except in our hearts, where Angela and friends live on.

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Today’s Top 5: Albums MIA From NPR’s “Made by Women” List

There are far more important concerns than NPR’s 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women list. This, we know. Yet, while breezing through it Monday afternoon, I couldn’t help but to (silently) scream.

First and foremost: Albums from last year are on it. Seriously?! Maybe it’s me, but placing any recently released album on a “best of all time” list is short-sighted; we don’t know whether it will, as most great albums do, grow stronger through the years or fall from favor. The former is (obviously) the case for Joni Mitchell’s Blue (from 1971), the top pick, and Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (from 1967), No. 4 (which really should have been No. 2). They speak universal truths of the human condition that are applicable to every generation and age; i.e., they both reflect and transcend their time.

That’s one reason why my Essentials series has a strict “at least five years old” policy. “Classic” status only kicks in if you continually return to an album – and not just for nostalgia’s sake – time and again through the years.

Another reason for my (silent) scream: The exclusion of many great and influential albums at the expense of…Britney Spears?! The Spice Girls?! Isn’t that a bit like including David Cassidy and the Osmond Brothers on an all-male list? I also have serious doubts about any list that ranks Hole higher than Joan Jett or Chrissie Hynde. They kicked down the door for Courtney Love (and all other women rockers who followed them, for that matter). I agree that the debuts of Tracy Chapman and the Indigo Girls should be included, but 10,000 Maniacs’ In My Tribe and Suzanne Vega’s Solitude Standing set the stage for them. And Vega’s 99.9° deserves mention, too, as does Madonna’s True Blue.

But, of course, that’s part and parcel with these sorts of lists. I’ve never seen one that I agree with – from Rolling Stone‘s to Entertainment Weekly‘s to Mojo‘s. They’re generally the creation of a small band of voters who share the same basic dispositions. I.e., they’re good for starting arguments, little else.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Albums MIA From NPR’s “Made by Women” List. (Where they fall is anyone’s guess… so I’m placing them in chronological order.) And, yes – I could well have called this Top 5 “My Regulars.” I’ve featured all of them many times.

1) Lone Justice – Lone Justice (1985). Selected song: “Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling).” I’ve written about this album, and spotlighted this song, many times before, of course, including in my first Essentials entry. It’s a genre-shattering, epoch-changing album that set the stage for the alt.country boom a decade later.

2) 10,000 Maniacs – In My Tribe (1987). Selected song: “Hey Jack Kerouac.” A folk-rock band from upstate New York, the Maniacs were (and remain) a wondrous group of eccentrics with a serious knack for crafting cool and catchy tunes. Who else could have come up with this swinging ode to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the beats? Their success paved the way for other late-‘80s (and beyond) folk-flavored singers and bands, from Tracy Chapman to the Indigo Girls to Innocence Mission.

3) Blake Babies – Sunburn (1990). Selected song: “Sanctify.” You want punk? You want spunk? You want an album that, whether anyone heard it or not, helped kick off the ‘90s wave of women-led rock bands? That could be said to be a true alt.college-rock album? That sounds like it was recorded yesterday? Then pick up this classic from Juliana Hatfield & Co. (And be sure to get Earwig, too). This song brings a “heavy metal rain” upon one’s head…

4) Juliana Hatfield – in exile deo (2004). Selected song: “Tourist.” On her own, Juliana has released a slew of stupendous albums, from Hey Babe (1992) to Pussycat (2017) – but I’m limiting myself to this one (and the Blake Babies) because, well, it’s great – her second to win my esteemed Album of the Year, in fact. Just as a side note: I clearly remember when and where I first heard it – on the day of its release in my Dodge Neon while on my way to pick up my wife.

5) Rumer – Seasons of My Soul (2010). Selected song: “On My Way Home.” I’ve written (too many times) about this album before, most recently in my Essentials series. At once retro and modern, it went platinum twice-over in the U.K. and topped the iTunes charts in the States; and it’s influenced other singers in the U.K. to follow the same stylistic path.

And two (non-chronological) bonuses:

6) Rosanne Cash – Interiors (1990). Selected song: “What We Really Want.” Rosanne Cash shed the country label with this, her seventh album, which owes a heavy debt to Joni Mitchell and the other confessional singer-songwriters of the early ‘70s. It’s stark and powerful, and a glimpse of the internal demons haunting her at the timel.

7) Nanci Griffith – Other Voices, Other Rooms (1993). Selected song: “Speed at the Sound of Loneliness.” In the early 1990s, after a string of successful albums, Nanci celebrated her influences on the sublime Other Voices album; and won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album as a result.

Today’s Top 5: Natalie Merchant

Life. It’s sweet. Every day is a gift, every moment a treasure, despite the pain and misery we sometimes endure. Those are cliches, I know, but I believe them – especially while listening to The Natalie Merchant Collection, which I’m doing as I write. The set, for the uninitiated, features her seven studio albums alongside one disc of new and old songs performed with a string quartet, and another disc of, as the press release states, “rare and previously unreleased tracks recorded between 1998 and 2017.” It’s due out on July 14th, but those of us who preordered received it early.

Much has and will be written about the collection, I’m sure, and I plan to write about it myself this weekend, after I’ve had time to digest the new material and contemplate what the set, writ large, means in the scheme of things. I will say, however, that if you had told me back in 1986, when I first heard Natalie with the 10,000 Maniacs, that I’d still be listening to her all these years later…well, I’m not sure how I would have responded. But I’m glad she’s still making music, and glad to still be a fan.

Anyway, for now, here’s today’s Top 5: Natalie Merchant. Not necessarily her greatest songs (though some are), but great songs and performances, nonetheless.

1) “Carnival.” (From Tigerlily.)

2) “Life Is Sweet.” (From Ophelia.)

3) “Break Your Heart.” (From Ophelia.)

4) “I’m Not Gonna Beg.” (From Motherland.)

5) “Space Oddity.” (From 1999’s Live in Concert, which isn’t included in the collection.)

And three bonus tracks:

6) “Maggie and Milly and Molly and May.” (From Leave Your Sleep,)

7) “Ladybird.” (From Natalie Merchant.)

8) “Frozen Charlotte.” (From Butterfly, the collection’s disc of new and old material recorded with a string quartet.)