Posts Tagged ‘My So-Called Life’

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.

Hyper Consciousness

November 10, 2009

“Life of Brian” although an atypical episode, shines a light on the structure of My So-Called Life by switching the perspective from Angela to Brian. It highlights how incredibly self-conscious the characters are, how incredibly important they find all of their actions to be. The show really captures what it’s like to be a teenager and have something as a dance seem so important, to feel so embarrassed when things go badly, even though no one is watching or cares nearly as much as you. And MSCL’s genius is that it actually makes these trivial things important to other people by having them happen to characters on a show, to make the inner monologue a voice over. The show is so heartbreakingly relatable, and it so justifies all of the characters’ suspicions by putting them on TV.
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My favorite scene in “Life of Brian” is the one where Brain Krakow is examining slides on a microscope and Delia walks in. I think the show is very clever about shifting power dynamics, specifically in this episode, and even more specifically in this scene. Brian Krakow is always rude when he feels threatened or insecure (as are most of the characters), and he starts out the scene a little abruptly, unsure of Delia’s intentions. Then when he is able to teach her something, he feels higher status. And then, with an awesome close-up on the hands on the microscope and then Brian’s face, we learn he has an erection. And it’s the best mix of feeling awesome and so stupid, because he’s so excited that Delia likes him, but he is still conscious of the fact that he is such a loser that this is his first lady-induced erection. It’s a really excellent scene in an episode full of them.

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.