For those of you keeping track, this is my 100th column. If Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. were a television show, it would be in syndication already.
So before going on, I’d like to take a moment to do something I really ought to do more often, and that’s thank all of you faithful readers who’ve supported this endeavor. I’d never do this if it weren’t fun, but there have been a few times over the last few months that wrapping my addled brain around the first sentence of whatever column I’ve decided to bang out in a given week has been a chore, and times when there are a million-and-a-half things I’d rather be doing than this time-sucking monstrosity, and the thought that hundreds of you out there actually read this thing has served as invaluable motivation.
So whether you’re in this for the music reviews and couldn’t care less about me, or you read the first two paragraphs hoping to grab a few insights into my life and skip all the artsy musical crap, I really appreciate it. I hope you’ll all be here for column 200, 500, 1,000 and beyond.
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I am not a fan of television.
Actually, I need to rephrase that. Television is nothing more than a broadcast medium for filmed entertainment, and as such, it’s silly to blame the messenger for the often brain-sucking, pitiful and downright insulting quality of the message. The 90-10 rule applies to TV programming like it does to music and everything else: 90 percent of everything is crap.
When it comes to television, the remaining 10 percent breaks down like this: There are decent shows that exist within a proven framework, great shows that invert and subvert that framework, and excellent shows that create their own worlds whole cloth, shows that stick out amidst the vast wasteland of vapidity because they offer an experience like nothing else.
And then there is My So-Called Life.
Here was a show so far ahead of its time that the network didn’t have the slightest idea how to market it, a show so emotionally rich and resonant that it defied pat categories, a show so bewilderingly close to perfect that it was canceled after 19 episodes. Here was a show that single-handedly created its own genre – the serious teen drama – and simultaneously obliterated it, knocking down walls that other shows didn’t even know existed.
Like most trailblazing works of art, My So-Called Life left in its wake a series of embarrassingly inferior and depressingly more successful knockoffs (Party of Five, Dawson’s Creek) that took the most superficial elements of genius and pretended to be the real deal. What these shows missed entirely was that My So-Called Life, despite its title, wasn’t just a show about teenagers and their lives.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, it certainly was about Angela Chase, Rayanne Graff, Brian Krakow, Jordan Catalano and Rickie Vasquez, and all their adolescent orbits around each other. But it was also about Patty and Graham Chase, two of the most fully realized TV parents ever created, and their slowly dissolving relationship. It was also about every supporting player, even the guest stars, all of whom got to inhabit characters of breadth and scope.
And all of those characters were treated lovingly and brilliantly by one of the most talented creative teams ever to grace the small screen. All the episodes were well done, but when creator Winnie Holzman wrote the script and Scott Winant directed, the show created its own spellbinding atmosphere. The magic of the show lay in its ability to blend multiple points of view behind a theme, and Winant’s signature stylistic fingerprint – the moving-camera fade between rooms and perspectives, which he likely taught the makers of ER and American Beauty, among others – accomplished this with emotion and beauty. Aided, naturally, by the sublime music of W.G. “Snuffy” Walden.
And we can’t forget the actors, none of which have gone on to do work of this caliber in anything else. Most of the attention is lavished on the extraordinary Claire Danes, but her performance is matched and buoyed by literally everyone else on screen. I’ve always been particularly impressed with A.J. Langer’s Rayanne, and the way she manages to hide so much pain behind her explosive sparkle, but every actor does brave work, and they’re all safe in the hands of the creative team. It’s a special kind of magic when all the elements work, and it happens so rarely that whenever it does, you have to cherish it.
I know, I’m gushing, but I just received my complete My So-Called Life DVD set in the mail, and it’s like visiting with an old friend. It’s somehow sweeter, watching these discs and knowing that they were never supposed to happen, and that they do because of a few fans with an abiding love for these characters and this story. MSCL was, as I mentioned, canceled after 19 episodes due to low ratings, but slowly built up a dedicated fan base. MTV picked up the show and had a ratings smash with it, and the VHS sets sold surprisingly well. The road seemed to be paved for a complete DVD release, but no one wanted to pick up the ball and run with it.
Until my hero, Jason Rosenfeld.
I love this guy. As an employee at BMG Special Products, he sought out the fanbase at mscl.com, and laid the groundwork. After leaving BMG, he started his own company, Dry Grass Partners, and shopped the idea around, finally landing a deal with Another Universe. And then he shepherded the set towards reality, dealing with fan concerns daily and never faltering as Another Universe’s whole infrastructure seemed to collapse.
And boy, did it collapse. We were all asked to pay full price ($100) back in February, with no firm release date. And then the overcharges started, and some people were screwed to the tune of $300, with no DVD set. And then the lies started coming down from AU CEO Ross Rojek, lies about bonus material (which has yet to materialize) and exclusivity. That last one still stings – the set was promised as an exclusive, made to fan order, and as I speak, copies of it are sitting on the shelves of Best Buy, going for around 50 bucks.
But at every turn, there was Rosenfeld, posting on the message board and making sure we knew the truth, most of which directly contradicted Rojek’s statements. Jason has endured threats and suspicion, and has effectively removed himself from official dealings with the project, but there he still is, calling people and pressuring AU to refund all the overcharges. I’m one of the lucky ones – I was never overcharged, and I got my set, unlike some of the other people on the board – and I still say everyone who ordered this set owes Jason a round of drinks and a heartfelt thank you.
There’s no review here, because if you’ve ever seen the show, you don’t need me to tell you how amazing it is, and if you haven’t, nothing I can say will encapsulate it. Part of what I love about My So-Called Life is its ability to recall for me a particular period in my life, and I’m unable to overcome my heavy bias and see it apart from that. All I know is that this show makes me laugh, cry and feel more than any other piece of television I’ve ever encountered, and to have the whole run on DVD is somehow magical and otherworldly.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, Roger Rees is just about to throw all the literary magazine assignments out the window, and I don’t want to miss it. Next week, a big one, I promise, with a bunch of reviews.
See you in line Tuesday morning.