Coming of age on TV

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The “coming-of-age” film is such a pronounced genre in cinema and yet, I’ve never really thought about television in the same terms. Sure, I’ve watched Freaks and Geeks and Degrassi, but it’s interesting how, as far as television goes, the genre is relatively new. Also it seems that the genre took off around the beginning of, what Mittell refers to the past 20 years as the “era of narrative experimentation and innovation” (29).

I’ve been meaning to watch My So-Called Life for a very long time. The title seems perfectly, cynically Gen X and from what I had read about it, it seemed right up my alley. The very first thing I noticed was Brian’s introspective, internal narration. I can’t recall many other network shows that did/does this. Felicity? The Wonder Years? (Interestingly enough, it appears that creator Winnie Holzman wrote an episode of The Wonder Years). In looking at the Wikipedia page, I see that Angela typically narrates the episodes (makes sense). In any case, this show reminds me a lot of 80s high school films like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, but the narrative of “Life of Brian” seems so much more complex, especially since there is no resolution like there is in those films.

There isn’t the same artistic quality with My So-Called Life that there is with Mad Men or Breaking Bad but, can we even compare them? I’ll argue that the time in which the shows were created are most important to how experimental and innovative they are. Narrative complexity was obviously more well established, and more complex, with a show like Lost than with My So-Called Life, not to discredit it.

The most striking part about My So-Called Life is how self-aware the characters are. This is clearly a John Hughes influence. The only reason it seems striking is because, it seems, this was a feature of what set apart television and film; this sense of the authentic voice of the teenager, allowing him or her to explore, in psychological depth, their true emotions. This is just not so in a sitcom, where teenagers are often portrayed as one-dimensional and stereotypical. However, as self-aware as they are, a character like Brian is fallable. My favorite part of the episode is when Angela’s mother says, in reference to the dance, “They are going to have such a terrible time.”

Another thing I noticed is the use of music. In a coming-of-age series, just as with coming-of-age film, the soundtrack is vitally important. What would Say Anything be without “In Your Eyes”? When Angela approaches Jordan Catalano at his car and he gets in, his stereo is playing the song “South Carolina” by Archers of Loaf, an indie rock band of the time. I can’t help but think about the cheesy original score in relation to that particular song, and some of the other great artists on the soundtrack. The Lemonheads? Sonic Youth? Daniel Johnston? They definitely mirror the alternative nature of the characters. I don’t think there was any real intention in showcasing music to viewers at the time, but it hints at that kind of mentality when it comes to a show like The OC, taking advantage of non-mainstream, alternative and independent music and using it as the show’s soundtrack, to provide a vehicle for showcasing it.

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