Narrative Complexity on My So-Called Life

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I have an affinity for coming-of-age stories. Some of my all-time favorite films are the perfectly executed teen narratives of John Hughes. I guess my love for the genre comes from the empathy I feel for these stories. Typically, coming of age stories in film are set in high school, which I certainly experienced. I think the other part of the reason why I like these stories so much is because so many things that take place in them I never experienced, and still haven’t experienced, even in college. I think it’s funny that though, for example, the stories of John Hughes and “My So-Called Life” are so seemingly authentic and mimetic, they seem a bit unnatural sometimes. Maybe that’s due to the subjectivity of experience. Maybe I had an inauthentic high school experience. I didn’t experience cliques in the extreme, segregated sense that appears in both film and television and I didn’t ever randomly start hanging out with the “wrong crowd.” But I believe that these things did, and do, happen to people in high school so I choose to set aside my critical questioning and go along for the ride. Besides, “My So-Called Life” is a fictional series, so I’ll suspend my disbelief at what I feel are inauthentic events. In any case, I feel that “My So-Called Life” is the most authentic coming-of-age show that has ever been on television. Additionally, I feel that what makes it successful in terms of its perceived authenticity is the fact that its platform was television. Though I find a film like John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club to be a highly successful portrayal of teenagers in high school, what it lacks is its complexity beyond a ninety-seven minute timeframe. As good as it is, imagine how complex the narrative could be if it was a television show. This is a fairly stupid point as, how could we determine if this hypothetical The Breakfast Club television series would be any good? Just as My So-Called Life probably wouldn’t be a good film. But it’s important to examine the role of narrative complexity in television as the reason that an authentic coming-of-age story can be told. I’ll be looking at the pilot, as it provides a very solid foundation for an examination of the series as a whole.

First, one must look at and understand the main character of the series, Angela. In the first moments of the show, Angela and her friend Rayanne are facing the camera, asking strangers for money, acting silly and making up stories for why they are doing this (though they aren’t speaking directly to the audience, I think this kind of shot ties into a general theme of awareness that exists in the series). Angela looks fairly innocent, with straight blonde hair, a pink shirt and a lace vest. Rayanne looks slightly less plain. She’s wearing a plaid shirt, long earrings and bracelets. This could be any other kind of television show, until the voiceover begins. Angela says, “So I started hanging out with Rayanne Graff. Just for fun. Just cause it seemed like if I didn’t, I would die or something. Things were getting to me. Just how people are. How they always expect you to be a certain way, even your best friend.” All this happens within the first minute. Already, the audience knows that Angela has started doing something new. Just before the three-minute mark, Angela says, “So when Rayanne Graff told me my hair was holding me back, I had to listen. ‘Cause she wasn’t just talking about my hair. She was talking about my life.” The image that is seen at that moment is Angela pulling her newly-dyed, wet, crimson hair from the sink. In the first three minutes of the series we have already witnessed the pivotal moment of Angela’s identity formation and have entered into her head, the most private of places. The main symbol of the series, her crimson hair, is established and can now act as a touchstone for the remainder of the show. The first three minutes is more emotionally complex than most standard television episodes can get in a half-hour.

The voiceover is the single element that defines the authenticity of “My So-Called Life.” This is the kind of thing that makes a film like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off so successful, the idea that the protagonist’s personal thoughts are being made available to the audience (though in the case of that film, Ferris only breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience, instead of in a voiceover). With Angela’s voiceover, it acts like a diary, providing an intimate vehicle for her thoughts and emotions and seeming to be a never ending force. Once the audience accesses Angela’s true thoughts, we trust her more and her actions appear more believable. We see the way she acts from an objective perspective and also a subjective one, creating somewhat simultaneous, parallel narratives. It makes sense why voiceovers aren’t always used like this on television. It becomes too difficult to control what the audience makes of both perspectives. Maybe my thinking on this is a bit abstract but it seems so much easier to comprehend a storyline when there is an objective or subjective perspective. Isn’t it easier to listen to a friend’s opinion on whether to buy a particular kind of car than to take their advice and also read what Consumer Reports has to say about it? What is most striking about the narrative is the way it portrays Angela’s personality. There is a kind of Hughesian self-awareness that seems to be inclusive in a lot of Generation X film. This is effective because it allows the characters to exist with a particular depth that just can’t, and doesn’t, exist in a typical film or television environment that thrives on creating and subscribing to specific character archetypes. One of my favorite voiceover lines in the first episode is when Angela says, “My parents keep asking how school was. It’s like saying, ‘How was that drive-by shooting?’ You don’t care how it ‘was,’ you’re lucky to get out alive.” This kind of self-awareness is largely responsible for the perceived authenticity of the series, and this kind of monologue is what makes characters like Angela believable.

Also, what makes the show so complex is how many characters are able to exist on the show. There is a much larger combination of storylines (mathematically speaking) that can exist because of this. We understand the relationships between Angela and her sister, her mother, her father, Ricky, Rayanne, Jordan, Brian and various other more minor characters that exist in and around the high school. Though, having not seen the entire series, I am uncertain that every single one of the characters has had explicit interactions with the other, it can be inferred that in Angela’s world, these characters have all probably come across one another. More precisely, Angela’s closer relationships ,with her parents, and Rayanne, Ricky and Jordan, are all trajectories that can be followed and understood independently. These narrative paths coupled with subjective voiceover commentary on these individuals create an incredibly rich story. I think the most fascinating relationship is that between Angela’s parents. These roles which are usually untouchable, authoritarian and “perfect” archetypes in episodic television, are flawed and imperfect. About midway through the Pilot, Patty and Graham start fighting (http://www.hulu.com/watch/87991/my-so-called-life-pilot?c=1368:1483):

Patty: Why do I always have to be the mean one? Why can’t you be the mean
one every once in a while?

Graham: I can be!

Patty: But you never are. Look… I’m calm, okay? But you can’t keep
letting.. I mean you know she loves you more …more anyway …

Graham: She doesn’t love me more!

Patty: She does. Come on. She loves you more. I accept that. But, that’s
not enough for you. You have to… I don’t want to fight… Actually…
I’m not even that upset…

What’s so fascinating about this exchange is the doubt that both characters feel about their identities. In a way it could be seen that the parents are coming-of-age, just like Angela is. They know they are parents, that is certain, but they are still unsure of how they are supposed to be/feel. Patty, the mother, feels like she always has to be the mean one because her husband is passive. She believes this causes Angela to like her less and him more.

What’s so interesting to me about examining “My So-Called Life” is that coming-of-age stories are typically told via film. Because of this, film is always a touchstone when thinking about coming-of-age television (though this is generally true anyway). I think it’s fascinating that a show like “My So-Called Life” was executed so well on television (artistically, anyway) and that a teen show of a similar design/caliber hasn’t existed since. I’m sure some would argue otherwise but I just don’t see the same real artistic or authentic value in a show like Degrassi: The Next Generation. It’s puzzling to me because of how perfect television is, as a platform, for delivering coming-of-age stories. The potential for complex narrative and modes like intimacy accesses a kind of authenticity that just can’t be achieved in filmic narrative.

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