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My So-Called Life: The Complete Series

In a Faustian pact of Bizarro proportions, many a short-lived television series achieves greater popularity in failure than other, more successful shows that manage to stay on the air for years. Because of this fickle law of inverse fortunes, we are highly unlikely to witness a complete DVD set of Full House (192 episodes over eight seasons), and yet here we have My So-Called Life: The Complete Series, a five-disc set covering all 19 existing episodes of the 1994 teen drama, which was unpopular enough to be dumped by one network (ABC) mid-season, popular enough to be picked up by another (MTV), and then discontinued without any satisfying end-of-series resolution. The legacy of My So-Called Life is inextricably tied up in the vain cult of adolescence: the overwhelming desire of teenagers to watch prettier versions of themselves enduring the very same clichéd and hyperbolic rites and banalities of so-called life. The appeal of the series is obvious: Claire Danes stars as Angela Chase, a typically moody 15-year-old girl with contempt for her parents (Tom Irwin and Bess Armstrong), little appetite for homework, a self-centered addiction to withering introspection, and a magnetic attraction to the most destructive of her peers, namely her wild pal Rayanne (A.J. Langer) and moody, blank-eyed heartthrob Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto). Danes is terrific as the central character, a role that quickly turned her into one of the hottest teen actresses around. With her perfect, emotive, Anime-sized eyes and natural combination of awkwardness and grace, Danes transports the mundane moodiness of teenage girlhood into a specific, bright, and winsome personality. Her Angela is the iconic girl-next-door, simultaneously plain and extraordinary, with equal helpings of premature emotional intelligence and immature lapses of judgment. In his role as Angela's slippery paramour Jordan, Leto is also superb, integrating both the comic buffoonery and maudlin sentimentality written into his character, and also skillfully imbuing Jordan with an appealing (if limited) inner-life that complements his pillow-headed vacuousness without transforming it into something improbably deeper (Leto was so convincing, and dreamily good-looking, in this role that he became the butt of endless snarky asides from the Gen-X crowd and had to have his pretty face literally beaten into a bloody, pulpy mess in Fight Club to successfully divorce his acting career from Catalano's persona).

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Surprisingly, for a show written mostly by women (including creator Winnie Holzman), only the male characters (aside from Angela) in My So-Called Life are drawn with any subtlety: Wilson Cruz as Angela's token gay friend Rickie, Devon Gummersall as nerdy Angela-devotee Brian Krakow, and Tom Irwin as Angela's nonplussed dad, all survive some gratuitously annoying and gag-reflex-itchingly sentimental storylines with three likable dimensions intact. However, the series' supporting women are grating and criminally over-performed harpies, beginning with Armstrong as Angela's relentlessly type-A mom, through Langer's insufferably irritating party-girl. The writing of the series is pedestrian, with its brightest material paradoxically saved for the dim-witted Catalano. Its obligatory treatment of the staple issues for teen TV dramas (drinking, rumors, teen sex, the gay kid) is simply trite, while attempts at exploring greater issues, like homelessness, veer insanely into idiotic melodrama (look out for songstress Juliana Hatfield as a, no kidding, singing homeless angel). Nearly all of the plotlines involving adults or non-Angela tangents are close to interminable, but the great advantage of BMG's DVD collection is that the scan button skips past most of this dreck fairly quickly (the "Halloween" episode is better-off skipped entirely). Steadfast viewers who make it through the entire 19 episodes might, near the end, be tempted to to commit suicidal self-asphyxiation on their DVD remote and still be surprised to find that the quiet cliff-hanger that closes the series leaves them wanting to know more about Angela's so-called life; as long, that is, if she moves out of her house and makes new friends. The transfers on the 19 episodes of BMG's My So-Called Life: The Complete Series are unexceptional, but neither is the source material particularly visually inventive or gripping. All episodes are full-frame (1.33:1) with the audio remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1. Contrary to some early advertisements, there are no supplemental materials. Five keep-cases in a paperboard slipcase.
—Gregory P. Dorr



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