The Agony and the Angst: An Oral History of 'My So-Called Life'

A look back at the ultimate 90s teen series.

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(Image credit: Courtesy)

For teenagers in the mid-'90s, nothing else on TV so honestly captured the all-consuming euphoria of first love, the deep pain of a best-friend breakup, or the daily identity shifts that defined teenage existence as My So-Called Life. The hour-long series about the teenage travails of 16-year-old protagonist and narrator Angela Chase, played by Claire Danes, premiered in August 1994, back when MTV featured Bjork and The Smashing Pumpkins and the cool girls had ditched YM for Sassy. Kurt Cobain had died four months earlier, and the Gen-X flannel shirts and acoustic guitars of the early '90s would soon yield to the shiny, over-caffeinated, pre-Millennial culture of Britney Spears and Friends.

Many of us caught in that generation gap —dubbed, appropriately, "Generation Catalano" by writer Doree Shafrir —felt like we were part of Angela's world, and were crushed when ABC cancelled My So-Called Life after just 19 episodes. But that single season has lived on: first syndicated in heavy rotation by MTV, then released on home video, and now, streaming on Hulu. Though the series takes place before teenagers had smartphones and email, its stories still feel timeless, even urgent. (The music's still great, too.)

Here is the story of My So-Called Life, in the words of the people who created and starred in it.

My So-Called Life was created by Winnie Holzman, a writer tapped by executive producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz in 1991 after they worked with her on the influential baby-boomer drama Thirtysomething. Marshall and Ed had the idea to create a show about a teenage girl, initially conceived as a half-hour drama in the vein of The Wonder Years (for which Holzman had also written).

Winnie Holzman (creator): What Marshall and Ed pitched to me was, "Let's do a show about a young teenage girl and make it as authentic as we can." When we started talking about this, I hadn't thought about writing teenagers at all. I was about to turn 40; I had a daughter who was about 7. [In preparation] I taught high school students for two or three days. When I went to this place, Fairfax High in Los Angeles, there were so many moments of sense memory that brought back high school for me: The sound of the bell. The feeling of being trapped in the room. The kids falling asleep in class. The messiness of the hallways. The clanging of lockers. These things were so evocative, and I know they unlocked some stuff for me. And a woman who worked on Thirtysomething, and became our script coordinator on My So-Called Life, mentioned to me she had a young teenage niece named Angela. I had a phone conversation with [Angela] and it really affected me. I remember she said something like, "Boys just have it so easy." And that's in the pilot. So I named the character Angela partly in honor of her.

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A.J. Langer (Rayanne Graff), Claire Danes (Angela Chase), and Wilson Cruz (Ricky Vasquez)

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In the 1990s, many teenagers on TV shows —Beverly Hills 90210, for example —were played by actors in their twenties or even thirties. Since they were placing a premium on authenticity, the producers looked for actual teenagers. Just two actresses read for the role of Angela: Alicia Silverstone, 16, and Claire Danes, 13.

Winnie Holzman: No offense to Alicia, but Claire was the person the second we saw her. Our only doubts were about how young she was, the fact she lived in New York and needed to move to LA…will her parents say yes? Will she be ok taking this on? We always wanted her.

Most of the show's young actors were 18 or 19 when they were cast. The exceptions were Danes, who turned 14 after the pilot; 15-year-old Devon Gummersall, who played Angela's neighbor Brian Krakow; and the oldest of the "teenagers," Jared Leto, 21, who was cast as Angela's crush Jordan Catalano.

Winnie Holzman: I remember so few auditions. The person would walk in and we would go, that's the person. Everyone I wanted got cast. We just fell in love with them.

Wilson Cruz (Ricky Vasquez): It was the first pilot I'd ever auditioned for. My agent said, "You should read this, there's a part in it that you might relate to," which I guess was code for "Hey homosexual, you should play this!" So I read it, and of course I felt like somebody had followed me around in my high school years and put it all in a script.

Devon Odessa (Sharon Cherski): I always played the naughty girl. So I went in for Rayanne… and then they handed me the sides for Sharon.

Winnie Holzman: Jared Leto I remember as being very reluctant. I was told he wasn't sure he wanted to act, but he came in and we auditioned him; we asked him to lean against a wall and close his eyes. He wasn't initially a series regular, but as soon as we cast him and watched him, we immediately said, "We have to have him every week." I remember wondering if he would even do it.

In the pilot, Angela dyes her hair as a symbol of her growing independence from her parents (played by Bess Armstrong and Tom Irwin) and childhood best friend Sharon (Devon Odessa). Her new crowd includes wild child Rayanne (AJ Langer) and androgynous sidekick Ricky (Wilson Cruz). The episode was shot in March 1993, with the expectation that if the network liked it, the show would go to series in the spring.

Candy Walken (hair stylist): [When I interviewed for the show], Ed Zwick said, "Our lead actress, who's 13 and will turn 14 during the pilot, will bleach her hair platinum blonde in the first episode. How are you going to deal with that?" And I said, "I wouldn't. That color is going to age her, it's going to harden her. And it's not believable. Bleaching your hair platinum blonde is not something you can do in your bathroom. You're going to get all kinds of weird colors if you try to do it yourself. It will [also] destroy this poor child's hair and change the texture, and it will not be an easy thing to remedy if the pilot doesn't go." So Winnie says, "What would you do then?" And I said, "I would do bright red."

"Bleaching your hair platinum blonde is not something you can do in your bathroom."

Winnie Holzman: It was kind of magical, that pilot. I remember people like the sound person, or the grip, or the makeup artist, turning to me and just being really touched by a scene that had just shot. People were really responding to it intensely.

Patrick Norris (series costume designer and director, "Resolutions"): I was researching more album covers at the time than fashion magazines. Ricky was my rock star. He had that Michael Jackson/Sal Mineo kind of vibe. Janis Joplin was a big inspiration for Rayanne. I would fill closets for these guys, as if it was their character's closet.

Devon Gummersall (Brian Krakow): When we saw the first cut of the pilot, we all watched it together, and were just so proud of it and blown away. We were in love with the experience and each other… and then the show wasn't picked up. All the actors got together and had this pow-wow; we were so devastated. We couldn't believe that something so good could be ignored.

Devon Odessa (Sharon Cherski): I did a whole other series [1993] in between the pilot and the pickup.

Winnie Holzman: The network was, and remained, ambivalent about it. They were confused by it, worried about it, thought it was so dark.They didn't pick it up that spring, and then it was late October or early November when I got the call. Then we had to hustle into production that winter. In other words, it was a year later.

Devon Odessa (Sharon Cherski): After the pilot, we did six episodes. Then there was another break [before the network ordered the remaining 12 episodes]. I was 19 when I booked the show, and we wrapped when I was 21.That's why we all look so different [by the end].

Devon Gummersall (Brian Krakow): I definitely did grow 3 or 4 inches throughout those two years.

Because of the rapid shooting schedule and the uncertainly surrounding the show, the writers, including Holzman and future Friday Night Lights creator Jason Katims, did not have the luxury of planning out the season's arc in advance. Instead, the story unfolded episode to episode.

Jason Katims: Ed Zwick said that our goal was to tell as little story as possible. [In] the episode "The Zit,"the whole inciting incident is that she wakes up and she has a pimple! It's not what you would normally think of as a jumping-off point for an episode, but that was so brilliant.

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Episode Five: The Zit

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Devon Gummersall (Brian Krakow): Both Claire and I knew that we were trading our actual adolescent experience for this very heightened, ultimately amazing version of it that was going to be for public consumption [laughs].. We would do scenes, then go up to conference room for school.

[pullquote align='C']"Claire and I knew that we were trading our actual adolescent experience for this very heightened, ultimately amazing version of it."[/pullquote]

Winnie Holzman: Because Claire was [14], she had to have a certain amount of schooling every day. She had almost no time for rehearsal and was doing those incredible performances because she is a genius. Back then, there were four acts in every episode, so if we had two scenes in every act that didn't involve Claire, we could make our schedule. We could not have her in more scenes than that because of her schooling.

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Devon Gummersall (Brian Krakow): Winnie and Jason were really insightful in the way that they would write for us and include some version of events that happened in our real lives. We were all close, and sometimes we would see things pop up in the episodes that were maybe not things that happened to us directly, or maybe repurposed for a different character, but stuff that we'd been talking to them about.

Devon Odessa (Sharon Cherski): I was trying to get a fake ID when I was 17, and I was so nervous that I wrote my actual birthday as opposed to the fake birthday that I was supposed to write. Winnie incorporated that one of the episodes, where it happened to Angela. But it actually happened to me! And another thing: I always hated my boobs. I thought they made me look heavy, and I just hated them. I talked to Winnie about that and then she incorporated it into the show. And she was so respectful—she talked to me first, like, is it ok if we touch on this?

Winnie Holzman: Jason and I wrote the Christmas episode ["So-Called Angels"], and I wanted Ricky to get thrown out of his house and to be left homeless. And I believe that Wilson then later told me that this was, not exactly the same, but not unlike an experience he had had.

Wilson Cruz: I do remember having a conversation with her early on where I confessed to her that I had been living in my car before we started shooting, and she probably filed that away in her subconscious. That's what she does.

"I have such a big crush on Wilson. I know he's gay but I can't even help it!"

Juliana Hatfield (Angel, "So-Called Angels"): First I was approached through my record company because they were interested in having me write a song for the Christmas episode. I went to meet with some people from the show, and then a few days later, they suggested, "Hey, do you actually want to play the part of the person who sings the song?" I guess they thought that I looked right for the part or had the right vibe or something. So that was exciting, and I said "Heck yeah, I'll do that!" I wasn't really an actor; I didn't understand how to act, to believe that you are the character. But I felt very nurtured by everyone. Everyone was helping me.

Senta Moses (Delia Fisher): When I was on set, Winnie asked me how I liked being on the show, and I remember saying to her, "I have such a big crush on Wilson. I know he's gay but I can't even help it!" And three or four weeks later, there's this whole crazy storyline [where Delia has a crush on Ricky]. I'm like, I'm never speaking to her again! [laughs]

Devon Gummersall (Brian Krakow): The rollerblading thing is probably my biggest regret. I happened to live in the same neighborhood as Winnie Holzman, and I used to rollerblade by her house, and I thought I was really cool. And she wrote it into the show and it was just even dorkier, which was perfect for the show, but not so good for my real-life attempts to be an adolescent who dated girls.

Winnie Holzman: I don't think I witnessed Jared teaching Devon to get girls' phone numbers [which became a plotline with Jordan Catalano and Brian Krakow]. I think I'd heard that Jared had taken Devon out, and that it was eye-opening for Devon [laughs].

Devon Gummersall (Brian Krakow): That was definitely true. Jared sort of took me under his wing I guess, and tried to teach me to be a little less dorky, which was very kind of him.

Senta Moses (Delia Fisher): The cast was like family. The first West Hollywood Halloween parade I ever went to was with Claire and Devon Odessa, because that's just what that cast did.

"Jared sort of took me under his wing I guess, and tried to teach me to be a little less dorky, which was very kind of him."

Tom Irwin (Graham Chase): I had the whole cast over to this little cabin I had in Laurel Canyon, when I got one of the first laserdisc players. We watched Apocalypse Now.

Juliana Hatfield: I remember Jared kind of following me around on set and watching me a lot. I think he was interested in me as a person who made a living in music; he really wanted to make music and I got that sense that he was really serious about it. We kind of became pals after that. He was in my apartment a couple times in New York, just hanging out, and he would pick up my acoustic guitar and start singing and playing, and I would just kind of swat him away. I didn't think his music was going to go anywhere. Like, oh god, another actor with a guitar.

Wilson Cruz: Sometimes we would go to a restaurant and people would go up to Claire, obviously, or they'd come up to Devon Odessa and AJ, and even Devon Gummersall and Jared, and tell them, "Oh, I can relate to your character so much!" Nobody ever came up to me and said that. Never. So here's what happened: Those kids were about 15, 16, right? About 5 years after that, they were finally at the gay clubs. And that's when I got to hear the stories. And what I realized is, of course they weren't coming up to me and saying they saw themselves in me, because they didn't want to admit that [they were gay] yet. But at the time my feelings were hurt.

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Wilson Cruz (Ricky Vasquez)

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Tom Irwin: Usually Bess and my scenes would be toward the end of the day because they wanted to get the kids out earlier. And oftentimes we would be in a scene where we were in bed discussing the day's activities and what's going on with the kids and all of that. There were several times when we would finish the scene and then Bess and I would just sit there in bed and talk for another hour or two, and just hang out on the set. I loved working with her.

The final episode of the series, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," aired on January 26, 1995. It featured a groundbreaking moment in which Ricky says out loud that he's gay —a first for both the character and network television. While doing publicity for the show (like this AOL chat – 1994, everybody!), Cruz made a point of communicating that he was gay in real life.

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Wilson Cruz: It's my favorite scene of the entire series. It's going to make me cry right now. Seriously. We did a million takes because I couldn't get it right. And I'm going to tell you what the secret was. It was the smallest little thing, and a great lesson for me as an actor—it was just throwing the pencil. She says "Are you gay?," and I throw the pencil as if to say, "Fuck it." And then the rest of that scene plays out like a big sigh. You just see Ricky emerge.

Senta Moses: We must have done that scene, I'm not even kidding, ten or fifteen times. Because it had to be perfect. I felt like they were really fighting for every moment to be as truthful and believable and funny in all those awkward ways as possible.

"I wanted to be the change I wanted to see in the world."

Wilson Cruz: I was an AIDS activist early on—we lost my uncle when I was 16—so I knew that people's stories and voices were important, and that there needed to be [a role model] especially for LGBT youth. It sounds corny, but I wanted to be the change I wanted to see in the world. I used to have that on my notebook in school. Here was my opportunity, and I felt like if I didn't step up, I would regret it. And I've never regretted it, never.

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My So-Called Life was not picked up for a second season. The cast and crew, while devastated, were not surprised. Claire Danes had also expressed some hesitation about signing on for another season; she was hoping to finish school and go to college.

Winnie Holzman: The network was on the fence about the show pretty much the whole time. They would say was, "Who is the show for?" Like, "Is it for adults, is it for teens?' They were puzzled by that. And there's no answer to that except, "This show is for the people who are falling in love with it." At some point, it did become clear that Claire had other things that she would like to do. And that affected me, because if you care about someone, you don't want them to feel trapped by you. When I was writing that final episode, my job was to write something that would make me feel good about it if the whole thing was over at this point, or write something that we could come back and explore. So that was definitely in my mind.

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Though she knew it might never happen, Holzman had many ideas for Season 2.

Winnie Holzman: I pictured a situation where Angela and Jordan are an item, Delia and Brian are an item, and Angela and Brian are constantly looking to each other for advice and help with their respective dysfunctional relationships

"I was going to get Sharon pregnant—that was a thought, anyway."

Ricky would be living with Mr. Katimski [the drama teacher who took Ricky in when he was homeless], and it would come out that Mr. Katimski was gay. And the whole school would be polarized…this was a different time, remember. I was thinking that Sharon's mother would want him out of the school, and her friendship with Angela's mother would go on the line for it. In other words, it would become the fulcrum of a polarizing school issue, and Ricky would be right in the middle of it.

And Angela's parents would have split up, and I was going to have her mother go into some kind of depression, and Angela would have to take over running the household. I literally have no idea what I was thinking of for Rayanne, but I think it was getting her in some kind of real trouble. And I was going to get Sharon pregnant—that was a thought, anyway. I mean, obviously none of it was carved in stone, but I think I would have jumped off on some of that stuff.

Within a few years, My So-Called Life's influence became apparent. The female teenage audience that had flummoxed ABC executives became a major TV market, with shows like Dawson's CreekParty of Five, and Felicity. Songs featured on the series, like Buffalo Tom's "Late at Night" and Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" (neither of which had been released as singles at the time), surged in popularity. And of course, Angela, with her Doc Martens, Manic Panic–colored hair, and flannel shirts over floral dresses, became a style icon. Today, the fictional Jordan Catalano has more than 6,000 fans on Facebook (plus 200-odd fans of his band, The Frozen Embryos). A Twitter account of My So-Called Life quotes has been going strong since 2009. Quotes from the show can be purchased as framed prints and T-shirts on Etsy, and there's a play-by-play of the famous hallway scene, in GIFs, on Buzzfeed.

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Devon Odessa (Sharon Cherski): Everyone I meet thinks they went to high school with me. It's really funny.

Patrick Norris (series costume designer): I started to see My So-Called Life's impact on the fashion world about a year after the show ended, and I still see it today. It's phenomenal to me.

Bill Janovitz (Guitarist, Buffalo Tom): The show really did alter our career trajectory in a measurable way. All of a sudden, we had more young women coming to our shows. I think we had been mostly an emotional outlet for sensitive but inarticulate young men until that point.

"I started to see My So-Called Life's impact on the fashion world about a year after the show ended, and I still see it today."

Chris Colburn (Bassist, Buffalo Tom): "Late at Night" is still a big streamed song for us, for years and years now.

Devon Gummersall (Brian Krakow): Even though we were all devastated when it ended, I do think we are grateful for it being such a short-lived and kind of perfect thing that happened under glass, in a way. It was over before it became huge, so it had a purity to it that was kind of unique and rare.

Devon Odessa (Sharon Cherski): Winnie married my husband and me in 2008. Claire and I were both in each other's weddings.

Jason Katims: At the time, I don't think there was the same respect for television as there is now. Winnie, Marshall, and Ed really had the highest aspirations when they sat down to do an episode of television. They were not afraid to do stories that were nuanced and real. I hardly ever go back to shows I've worked on and watch them, but my daughter and I watched My So-Called Life together, and it was a great experience to see it in a new way through her eyes.

Winnie Holzman: Television is a very different world now. But you know what? The show had the perfect life. In a week or so, I'm going to New York with my husband and we're going to see Claire at the Public Theater in a play. This person means so much to me, the way in which we met is magic—what a miracle that I get to count her as a friend. There are no words for my gratitude. There is nothing I would change about any of it.

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