Reliving the many upsides of ‘Life’

Times Staff Writer

The 19 episodes of “My So-Called Life” ran on ABC from August 1994 through January 1995. Ratings for the drama -- about the small-but-big world of a teenage girl (Claire Danes) -- were low, and it was canceled.

But those who did watch loved it. In fact, “My So-Called Life” is such an emotional touchstone that certain fans might find themselves moved to tears while reading the brochure accompanying the complete-series DVD set that will be released Tuesday. A single clause in the episode descriptions that reads ". . . Sharon and Angela begin to mend their friendship” could evoke a flood, for instance. Or, in another tear-jerking example, its creator, Winnie Holzman, paraphrases the final lines of the “My So-Called Life” pilot episode to express her lack of regret about its quick cancellation. “We had a time,” Holzman writes at the end of a short essay. “And I am still having one.”

One such overcome zealot interviewed Holzman and “My So-Called Life” executive producer Marshall Herskovitz on the telephone recently. The two had met when Herskovitz and his work partner, Edward Zwick, were producing “thirtysomething.” Holzman was an aspiring television writer, and her brother, Ernie, was one of that show’s cinematographers. He gave them a sample script of hers to read.

“And it was like, ‘Oh God, what are we going to say when Ernie’s sister has written a terrible spec script?’ ” Herskovitz recalled. “We read the thing and it was utterly brilliant, and we immediately hired her.”


After “thirtysomething” ended its run, Herskovitz said he and Zwick wanted to continue working with Holzman. They all shared an interest in wanting to create a show about adolescence. Holzman said that their initial conversations evoked “that feeling that you feel when you feel something.”

More concretely, Herskovitz said: “She did everything, you have to understand. She came back to us without a story or characters or anything, but she came back to us with this voice that she read to us of this girl. As soon as we heard it, we just got goosebumps. We said, ‘OK, that’s the show.’ ”

The girl was Angela, Danes’ character, around whom the story lines about friends, ex-friends, school, parents and Jordan Catalano, her obsessive crush object played by Jared Leto, revolve. What did Holzman want to achieve with Angela’s story? “Just to talk about the young women for a second, I was interested in giving them their personal dignity,” she said. “I didn’t want to objectify them as young adolescent girls -- I wanted them to have their own sexuality for their own pleasure.”

She continued. “I’ve always been interested in the fact that people are cliches and they are stereotypes, but that when you look beneath the cliche and the stereotype, what you find is this heartbreaking reason why somebody has adopted that stance.”


Lofty goals. In a “Beverly Hills, 90210"-infused time, there was no place for “My So-Called Life” on television.

“ABC basically dribbed and drabbed us to death,” Herskovitz said. “It was very painful and difficult.”

Holzman said: “If they were talking to me at all, ABC was saying, ‘Who is it for, is it for adults, or is it for kids?’ And I would say, ‘It’s for the people who can’t stop watching it.’ ”

Despite the lingering bitterness toward ABC, Holzman (who went on to adapt the novel “Wicked” for Broadway) and Herskovitz (who has produced several more series and movies and is currently working on “quarterlife,” a Web-only TV show) are gratified by the creative experience of “My So-Called Life.” Along with director Scott Winant -- who created the show’s cozy, intimate look -- they recently watched the pilot episode together to do the DVD commentary.


“The three of us were sitting there sobbing,” said Herskovitz. “The guy in the booth was saying, ‘You guys have to talk!’ We couldn’t talk, because we were so moved by how pure it was.”

“I like everything, even the mistakes,” Holzman said. “I like it all.”