Archive for the ‘My So-Called Life’ Category

The “New Directions” of the underdogs

December 21, 2009

“Don’t you get it man, we’re all losers. Everyone in this school, no everyone in this town. Out of all the kids who graduate maybe half will go to college and two will leave the state to do it. I’m not afraid of being called a loser because I can accept that that’s what I am. But I am afraid of turning my back on something that actually made me happy in my life.” –Finn from the pilot episode of Glee

While it may be a cliché statement, no one ever said high school was easy. It is the most awkward time in an adolescent’s life and they have to go through so much. If you don’t believe me, ask any teen or watch an episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation. It is incredibly hard to fit in, and as a teen that seems to be the most important thing — at least that is what popular TV shows tell us. It seems that every pre-teen wants to have the glamorous life of either Blair or Serena when in reality they can probably identify with a character like Angela Chase: young, angsty, and in the suburbs. However, as we all know, after one season My So Called Life, a show about the life of the everyday teen, was cancelled. The show Freaks and Geeks had the same fate and lighter premise, so I was shocked when a new show Glee hit the airwaves with the tagline “a biting comedy for the underdog in all of us” and was not only a critical success but a commercial one as well.

For those who haven’t seen Glee it is a show about a high school glee club trying to do what they love and survive high school while doing it. If you are doing glee, it means you are a loser and will get a slushie in your face or be dumped in the trash. Not even after the head cheerleader and captain of the football team join does the glee club ever become cool. It is also important to note that every person in the glee club is some kind of stereotype whether it is the gay kid or the kid in the wheelchair. So while at times the show can look like a Benetton ad, it tries to show that it is a show for everyone, and that everyone’s story is being told, unlike Gossip Girl where it is solely Manhattan’s elite.

So why do glee? It seems that the reason so far is because all the kids love to sing dance and be part of something. There is also a sense of camaraderie and that they have to stick together. As we see in this clip, the group sings “Lean on Me” to two of the members who are about to have a baby. The entire school just found out and they are the subject of ridicule ( http://www.hulu.com/watch/112694/glee-lean-on-me ) . Here we see the group telling these two members, the ex head cheerleader and captain of the football team who is now made fun of for joining glee, that no matter what, they are there for them, they are part of something. The show uses group numbers to show this a lot, as seen in this clip right here: ( http://www.hulu.com/watch/112697/glee-keep-holding-on )

While at times this notion of “being a part of something” may come off as cheesy, Glee’s ultra campy format actually makes it work. In recent episodes there have been a few moments that seem a little to after school special, like the character Kurt coming out to his father or the episode where everyone has to “feel Artie’s pain” by spending the day in a wheelchair and doing a wheel chair number ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKuikT2xbAo ), but surprisingly enough these stories come out rather genuine even if they are camped up.

This makes me think about My So-Called Life because it tried so hard to mimic what it was to be a teen at that time, and did it almost too well. However, even with its great job of depicting what it is to be a teen and how relatable its protagonist Angela is, at times it came off a bit more as a public service announcement and less of a teen drama. In shows like the OC or Gossip Girl a character may have a drug or drinking problem, but it is usually solved and forgotten about in the next few episodes, or there is a funny storyline to balance it out. In My So-Called Life the character Rayanne deals with being on and off the wagon throughout its entire series, here is a clip set to music that chronicles it ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-IMtjiMqv4 ). Come to think about there is not one happy ending in any episode My So-Called Life. While it is more true to life, it seems that the audience wants something they can smile about in the end, so when even a character like Kurt from Glee developed a drinking problem in the episode “The Rhodes not Taken”, it was dealt with and over within minutes. The same happens in the episode “Vitamin D” where the entire club starts taking what they think is a vitamin but is really Pseudoephedrine, a performance-enhancing drug. Of course by end of the episode they are all back to normal like nothing had happened.

While it is a show about the underdog, it makes the viewer feel like they are actually the rock stars. It does show them being picked on and ridiculed, but there is never really a super cringe worthy moment. Even when the diva of the series Rachel Berry is getting a slushie in the face, it isn’t as bad as some moments on shows like Freaks and Geeks. In this clip we see the character Bill getting peanuts put in his sandwich by a bully to see if he is really allergic to peanuts ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VE65VbUBGbI Only watch the first 3 minutes). As we see, this moment is painful for all involved including the viewer. While the show is considered a comedy, the entire series banks on these moments that make us go “NO NO NO! AWWW! REALLY?! AWWWW!” Even the worst moments of the show, that usually happens to Rachel, never make us want to close our eyes and, well, cringe. It may be because there just aren’t any of those moments, or because we know that Rachel is the most talented person in the glee club and when she says she is destined to be a star, we believe her and know that these are just bumps in the road.

While I can’t exactly pinpoint why Glee is as successful as it is and shows about other underdog groups weren’t, I do have a few ideas. For one, the show tends to be like its title, gleeful and upbeat, and in a time where we are in a recession and feeling down isn’t that what we need? I mean who can resist a happy go lucky show about the underdogs rising up with musical numbers? My second idea is that even though these kids are supposed to be the biggest losers in school, I totally want to be friends with all of them as well as be in New Directions (that’s the glee clubs name). Plus, Glee sort of says that it is okay to be loser and that you should celebrate unlike My So-Called Life or Freaks and Geeks.

Even when it seems like they hate each other, they always have each other’s back, like in this opening scene from the episode Preggers where two of the girls in the club help Kurt convince his dad that his outfit is for football (http://www.vureel.com/video/5920/Glee-1×04 Watch the first 2 minutes), or in the clip above with the wheelchairs when Finn screams out happily “This one is for you Artie!”. Another example is in the season finale Rachel is willing to give up her solo twice to her rival diva Mercedes. In the end Mercedes says that even though she doesn’t like Rachel very much, Rachel deserves to have the spotlight. Again, corny I know, but after the episode you are just so happy you don’t even really notice. If there is one important thing to take away from Glee, which I also think is one of the reasons why it is doing so well, it is to let your freak flag fly. I don’t know how long it will last, but I can say this: Glee isn’t just waving a freak flag, it’s waving a freak banner and I totally love it!

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the unresolved in teenage identity formation

November 13, 2009

I think there’s an important scene in MSCL, “Life of Brian” episode that explores a central, underlying theme in the teen genre, and especially on this show.  The scene occurs at the dance when everything is beginning to go to shit.  Angela and Ricky are symbolically situated outside of the dance, laughter and pumping music fill the background.  Angela is wearing her native-american print jacket she always does, i love that.  

Ricky divulges to Angela in a typical sentimental, “awww”, pre-embrace moment that: “That I belong no where, with no one.  That I don’t…. fit”.  *Embrace*.  

Jordan exits the party with a group of friends, he lingers behind them.  Angela approaches him and he corners her against the fence; Brian looks on longingly at the pair as the super 90s music repeats “Release me”.  Angela wants to be released from Jordan, and Brian from Angela.  

From an intimate profile angle, we see Jordan and Angela’s lips almost touch.  But to do that would bring us too much satisfaction.  Instead..

“Why are you like this?” Jordan asks.

“Like what?”, Angela replies.

“Like how you are.” Yet another enigmatic Jordan response. 

“How am I?  How… How am I?”  A question unresolved as Jordan walks away.  

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This scene is set up already by Ricky’s explicit statement that he does not quite fit in.  Through the series, and from the first episode we understand that he is a confused, possibly bi-sexual, boy who wears eyeliner.  But this is the first time Ricky outwardly expresses this sense of alienation as a result of his unresolved identity.  But what we learn from Jordan and Angela’s exchange is that you don’t need to be bi-sexual or gay to have identity issues, you just have to be a teenager.  The fact that Angela doesn’t know “how she is” and that she must turn to Jordan to tell her how she is, and possibly who she is, is of much importance.  This dependence on the external to provide validation (Ricky must find another gay male, Angela’s must interrogate Jordan) is something that is more pressing during teenage years.  And i think this scene perfectly embodies that sort of reliance.  

 

Will You Dance With Me?

November 10, 2009

“I was wondering… did… uh…uh…do you want to go to the homecoming dance with me?” As the camera frames Sam’s innocent face, the viewer lingers on to his each and every stutter instantly reminding one’s self of one’s own battles with schoolyard insecurities.  The viewer is instantly brought back to the days of fanciful crushes and the hallway hellos, but as the silence between Sam and Cindy becomes more deafening, the viewer also remembers the times that those crushes crashed and those hellos went unsaid.  As Sam’s hopeful eyes gaze into the possibility of acceptance, we too painfully remember those same feelings of desperation.  After all, the viewers know all too well that Sam is not really looking to go to the dance per-se, for what he is really looking for is confirmation of his existence in the social hell some deem to call high school.  Sam is looking for acceptance, belonging, love, and self-confidence, but he is fruitlessly searching for a happiness that is simply out of his league, and as a result it does not come as a shock to anyone (except perhaps to Sam) that Cindy already has a date to the dance.  In other words, it does not come as a shock that Cindy, the popular cheerleader, has in fact been confirmed within the social order.  But why must we watch this same sad tale over and over again?  This story of unrequited teenage love is not only prevalent in Freaks and Geeks, but also in My So-Called Life and Skins as well.  Moreover if it is so painful for one to watch (and I do not think I am the only one that cringed at Sam’s question) why do we keep on watching the same sad woe in coming of age stories?

As we watch stories like this unfold, we like to see ourselves as the sage and superior onlookers, but are we actually sage or superior to little Sam?  Moreover, do we ever actually come of age or do we perpetually remain underdogs?  Perhaps we continue to watch the same sad story of the defeated, because we will always associate with the underdog, and thus we watch for the day that David actually does defeat Goliath.  This hope that love will indeed conquer all, even for the weak, is what permits us watch Brian Krakow, of My So-Called Life, make as ass of himself in front of his neighbor and crush, Angela Chase.  This hope is what draws us to sickly, lonely Cassie as she approaches Sid longing to find someone that actually cares about her.  Thus, we see Cassie, Brian, and Sam as character extensions of ourselves, and consequently these fictional victories in the battlefield of love are internalized as our own as well.  As Jason Mittell states in his essay on “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” one the chief pleasures in shows like Lost “is the show’s ability to create sincere emotional connections to characters” no matter what kind of outlandish activities or predicaments the characters may have gotten themselves into (Mittell, 38).  This is the type of emotional appeal that connects viewers to the show and has them coming back season after season, for the viewers genuinely want to see characters like Sam land his first date and finally have someone to dance his slow dance with prevailing over the social order.

The dark side of being a teen

November 10, 2009

What My So-Called Life, Skins, and Freaks and Geeks have in common is that they are all the dark side of being a teen. Unlike a show like Gossip Girl that mainly focuses on the elite or being part of the elite and or popular crowd, These three shows are about the outcasts and the kids who could care less about being popular. These shows also have another thing in common: They are all shows that don’t end on a happy note. MSCL and F&G are two shows that were really trying to mirror true life and what it is to be a teen in two time periods. in My So-Called Life, creator Winnie Holtzman went to a high school for a week to get notes to create her characters, while in a case like Freaks and Geeks, most of the stories came from actual anecdotes from creator Paul Feig and other crew members.  However, they both show in detail what it really is to be the alternative teen, or the freak.

What Freaks and Geeks does in the opening of its pilot is show what this show is not. It starts off with a football player and a cheerleader having an over-dramatic conversation about their relationship which is what we would expect from almost every teen show. However, almost right away it takes us under the bleachers where we meet our freaks, and soon enough our geeks and bullies. The show so brilliantly deconstructs everything we expect from a teen drama and turns it on its head. Unlike its other episodes, the pilot ends on a happy/silly note while all of the others end badly, similar to My So-Called Life. In the end of the episode “Life of Brian” All of the characters end up at the dance but the show ends on a down note because no one gets who they want. Angela obviously does not see Brian in the same way as she sees him, Jordan doesn’t stay with Angela, and the guy Ricky liked seems to dig Rayanne not him. Skins is another show that also doesn’t always end on the sunnier side of things. While we see Cassie about to take a bite out of the cheeseburger we are not sure if she has really overcome her anorexia. Although, Skins lives in a very different world than F&G and MSCL.

Skins is in an almost magical realism show. Everything is heightend and we get some unreal moments that would never actually happen in real life, or moments of pure fantasy, like the text messages Cassie thinks she is getting. Unlike the other two, Skins has been a success, most likely because of its heightened realism. When people watch a TV show, they want to usually escape from the world they are in. This is a reason why a show like Dawson’s Creek succeeded vs. MSCL. DC is has a similar premise in the sense that Dawson and his pals are all the underdogs, but they are also in a heightened reality where at the end of the day the “anti-prom” is a success and even the most damaged character can find love and happiness. While both Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called life are both brilliant and critical darlings in their own right, I personally think that they are actually mismarketed and should be for an older crowd who can look back on high school and laugh. for many teens, they will just hit way to close to home.

Narrative Complexity and “My So-Called Life”

November 10, 2009

Having never watched “My So-Called Life” I was not sure what to expect. With Jason Mittell’s “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television” fresh in my mind, five minutes was all the time it took me to discount the show completely. The dialogue is plagued by the “likes” and “whatevers” of teen speak and to major conflict within the 48 minute show concerns a school dance. As the story progressed however, I began to notice several ways in which the show is more complex than I first thought. First of all, it employs both serial and episodic techniques.  A particular story line, the problem of the school dance, is introduced and resolved, contained within the episode as with the episodic format. But the intense feelings of the characters depend on the bond created between character and audience in serialized watching. As a result, someone who does not watch the show regularly (like myself) can only realize some of the pleasure of the show, while regular watchers are rewarded for their dedication with shifts in relationships and unresolved inter-character tension (think the last scene where Angela asks Brian to dance and he says no). Additionally, “My So-Called Life” demonstrates its complexity in the number of relationships it focuses on. In one 48 minute period the audience must digest information about Brian and Delia, Brian and Angela, Angela and Jordan, Patti and Graham, Graham and Brian, Rayanne and Ricky, Ricky and the new boy, Angela, Ricky and Brian and so on and so forth. And there is variety in these relationships, including young love, nonreciprocating love, friendship, more than friendship, marriage, as well as a homosexual dynamic which adds depth to the content as a whole.

The existence of a narrator is also an interesting choice, because it waivers between that of the conventional and that of the non conventional complex narrative that Mittell addresses. The narration is reflective, and let’s the audience further into the mind of the main character which adds to psychological complexity. Having Brian’s inner monologue as a tool for analysis is both helpful and interesting.

However Mittell argues that a truly complex narrative utilizes narrative spectacle, the boldest moments of which are when “unforeseen sharp twists cause the entire scenario to reboot, changing the professional and interpersonal dynamics of nearly every character” (Mittell 36). One can argue either for or against this in “The Life of Brian.” Is the moment when all of the characters’ expectations are disappointed considered a moment of narrative spectacle? What about Angela’s final let down which leads her to apologize to Brian? The moment is cathartic when it is contained within the episode, but on a larger scale it seems less significant and therefore I would argue that this is where the show breaks with the rules of narrative complexity.

Additionally, Mittell writes that “narrative complexity foregrounds ongoing stories across a range of genres,” something “My So-Called Life” failed to do. The show remained situated in teen-drama for it’s entirety and thus did not span genres as a narrative complex show ought to. As a result, I would argue that the episode “Life of Brian” of “My So-Called Life” is a great example of how a show can be conventional but still dabble in narrative complexity in an attempt to keep the audience interested.

November 10, 2009

In contemplating the comparison of film and television, I find that there are similarities and differences depending on the quality and level of each. The length of each represents an important factor. A television series by nature allows the focus to be more spread throughout the characters. Each episode can focus on one person or group within the show and could follow with a completely different approach to the following episode. Films differ in that they are closed. Only in series films, like Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings films, do you find a more episodic tendency, and that tendency arises from the fact that the movies come from a series of books. The films are, in effect, long episodes.

Like all forms of art, there are differing levels of form. Last week we watched Mad Men, a television series targeted at an older, more educated audience interested in the advertising world of the 1960’s. This week’s viewings were “Freaks and Geeks,” “Skins,” and “My So-Called Life.” Each of these shows addressed high school in different manners. In “Skins” I found it fascinating the struggle Cassie went through each day, and looking at her home life one can see why she felt no one cared, despite the attempts of her friends to get her to eat. I think the anonymous text messages are a manifestation of her subconscious wanting her to get better against what the rest of her body and mind are telling her. “My So-Called Life” embodies the awkwardness of high school, from the sense of not belonging to the desire for what we cannot have. “Freaks and Geeks” also addresses the awkwardness of high school, but more from the perspective of a tiny child dealing with bullies and a girl searching for herself after the death of her grandmother.

I always think it’s interesting when awards shows come up, like the Emmy’s or the Golden Globes. The only movies nominated are those that are dramatic and have a deep, thought-provoking plot, and often they are not particularly pleasurable to watch. Brokeback Mountain, for instance, while critically acclaimed, was also controversial in its subject matter, and many people probably saw it only once, maybe twice at most. On a lower level, a movie like Knocked Up (featuring a grown-up Seth Rogen from “Freaks and Geeks”) is watched over and over again because it does not require as much thought and provides entertainment. This may be entirely my own opinion, but in choosing a movie to watch, I tend to lean towards the less ultra-dramatic films, and my choice in television are no different. For instance, the three shows I mentioned at the beginning of class were Entourage, Friday Night Lights, and America’s Next Top Model. While entertaining, these shows are not considered particularly intellectual in subject matter. I believe film and television can both be looked at critically, despite the different formations, because they still attempt to discuss the same or similar issues. The biggest difference that I see is that there are so  many varieties of television that it makes it more difficult to find the higher level through the clutter, but television may still be viewed through a critical lens.

I Don’t Give a Damn ‘bout my Bad Reputation

November 10, 2009

The all to early demise of Freaks and Geeks stands out, to this day, as a scar on my adolescent years. Perhaps I’m being somewhat melodramatic, after all it was only twelve episodes how attached could I really have gotten, but in the summer of 2000 nothing was more tragic than that fateful Saturday evening without the Weir family. The fact is that Freaks and Geeks remains just as compelling as it was a decade ago. Over those twelve episodes (18 after the un-aired episodes were put into syndication) I feel in love with the characters and grew to care about their stories. The obvious question is why in the world did NBC cancel it? Freaks and Geeks, along with other outstanding realistic teen dramedies like My So-Called Life and Undeclared, seem unable to make it to a second season.  I think, perhaps, this speaks to something deeply rooted in the American television aesthetic. Something about Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life, et al., conflicts with the paradigm of American teen dramas. Examining trends across successful teen series like Beverly Hill 90210 and Dawson’s Creek reveals some fundamental characteristics of the genre prototype. There is something distinctly unrealistic about these shows, having spent time in high school I can safely say that there are few similarities between my graduating class and the class at Capeside High (Dawson’s Creek). The awkward and uncomfortable feelings that define one’s teenage years are off limits in the world of primetime teen television. However, awkwardness is the bread and butter for Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks. Its title alone makes it clear that is was destined for failure, there is no room for freaks or geeks on T.V. and certainly not during prime time.
The series pilot picks up on this paradigm in its opening sequence. Apatow pans across the football field to the bleachers as an acoustic guitar plays a harmony oddly reminiscent of Dawson’s Creek’s own background music, here we see a cheerleader and a football player. The two exchange some obviously ironic dialogue and as they kiss and the music crescendos Apatow pans downwards, under the bleachers we see a bunch of kids huddled together and as the camera gets tighter the music cuts from happy-go-lucky acoustic plucking to the screeching guitar of Van Halen’s “Running with the Devil.” The realism that Apatow manages to capture with Freaks and Geeks is not isolated to its focus on the underdog/outcast. The cast consists of actors that were roughly the same age as the characters they played (something that rarely happens in series) and deals with issues as mundane as the matheletes and family game night. This focus on daily issues and the dramatizing of the mundane is somewhat reminiscent of French cinema verite. There is a kind of truth that the series captures which goes against the ‘fantasy of reality’ that characterizes shows like Dawson’s Creek. This is true for film as well, American cinema is addicted to fantasy, even our images of the real play into this fantasy. This is perhaps why shows like Freaks and Geeks are more successful in other parts of the world. Shows like Britain’s Skins or even Canada’s Degrassi (which is going on its 10th season) have a similar sense of reality and have been met with great acclaim and success in their respective countries. It seems that the driving force behind Freaks and Geeks clashes with an aspect of the American aesthetic. Perhaps Realism and American mass media are, at a certain level, incompatible.

Coming of Age sucks, doesn’t it?

November 10, 2009

Coming of age, that period of the teenage years that can be either fun or painful – or often both. Whatever it meant to you, it’s something everyone had to go through. Shows like My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks try to tap into that common experience, make us sympathize with the characters. It didn’t work so well for me; my high school experience was completely different. It was almost the reverse of the usual TV portrayal of high school. People could care less about the cheerleaders and the football team. Maybe it’s because pretty much everyone was a geek or some sorta freak there – I went to a specialized science high school in Brooklyn. Plus, with 4500 students, who cared about what the cheerleaders were doing? We all had better things to do.

Watching the shows, I spent most of my time cringing. Mostly I was just embarrassed for the characters. Was teen life ever like that for anyone? I felt more alienated than interested. Why should I give them my sympathy? I found Freaks and Geeks non-compelling. I think it failed in its most basic function: entertainment. I don’t want to spend an hour of my life feeling sorry and embarrassed for these kids. My So-Called Life was better, but I was more interested in the side plot involving Angela’s parents. Maybe because it was a bit unusual her father must deal with unemployment and trying to find a new sense of direction. Not surprising for a teenager, but it is for an adult. I liked that. Skins was more interesting and less painful to watch. It worked better for me. There was more emotional distance, with the setting going from an America of decades past to a more modern Britain.

The episode “Life of Brian” reminded me of those sappy movies from the 1980s. There’s a scene, about 10 minutes in, that’s supposed to be romantic. Beat 1: Brian is about to leave. Beat 2: Delia comes out to see him. She offers him a drink, and in the next beat, rather heavy, dramatic romantic ‘80s-sounding music plays over the close-up of their hands caressing around the cup. Beat 4: Brain watches her leave, and then ponders his life. In those films, things usually turn out all right. It’s gratifying to see that things don’t always go that well in TV shows. They can go much more in-depth with characters than a movie limited to a time span of about two hours. In film, characters are revealed by their major actions. TV can take a more nuanced and varied approach – a show’s characters can perform many actions, large and small that slowly reveal new aspects to their self.