It's been 25 years since My So-Called Life was abruptly cancelled. Could Canadian TV have saved it?
America wasn't ready for Angela Chase in 1995 — but north of the border, coming-of-age shows were thriving
Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).
On January 26, 1995, the unthinkable happened: after only one season, ABC cancelled My So-Called Life and left Angela Chase's story tragically unfinished.
When the show unexpectedly came to an end, there was still so much of Angela's life left to delve into. Throughout the season, she fearlessly explored the complexities of what makes a person who they are by offering a precious view into the complicated dynamics of high school friendships, leading us down the path of unrequited teen love (which she was on both sides of), and lending us her young perspective on everything from toxic family dynamics to sexuality to addiction and abuse. Ultimately, the show was edgy and tackled issues familiar to primetime Gen X audiences — but unlike Saved By the Bell or Full House or even Beverly Hills: 90210, it treated viewers like equals by not talking down to them. My So-Called Life may have been about how unexpected and bananas growing up can be, but the show's network run wasn't supposed to illuminate that more.
Of course, not all of us understood the magnitude of this disgrace at the time. As a then-10-year-old obsessed with Home Improvement (but especially Jonathan Taylor Thomas), I couldn't relate to — nor did I watch — the dramedy exclusively about perfectly emotional plaid-wearing teenagers. To start, teenagers were more fascinating than anything in my fifth grade existence. And also, I was still barely allowed to watch The Simpsons, so anything remotely "adult" was a no-go in my house.
But then came Ready or Not — the Canadian equivalent of My So-Called Life that took a different approach to coming of age while still often tackling similar subject matter.
For the poor souls whose lives haven't been graced by best friends Amanda and Busy, Ready or Not was similar to My So-Called Life in that it was a show about young women trying to navigate the horrors of tween and/or teen life. But unlike its American counterpart, Ready or Not managed to hold on for five full seasons and, as a result, had more opportunity to delve deep into issues like body image and identity and sexuality (plus whether or not you can get drunk on fake beer). It also followed less of a single cohesive storyline, with each episode largely standing on its own. My So-Called Life may have left us wondering about the future of Angela, Brian Krakow, and Jordan Catalano as part of a larger narrative, but Ready or Not didn't seem to care about what came next. Like life itself, some ends were never tied up and some storylines were never explained, and more than once, the credits rolled and left middle-school aged me wondering, "What the hell was that?" (Adult me still has no answer. Like...where did Troy even go?)
But the series thrived — at least as much as a Canadian series could circa 1993-1997. Each afternoon after school I'd come home to catch an episode or two, and each afternoon I'd find myself either relating to or being largely confused by whatever Ready or Not was willing to offer. Like its predecessor Degrassi High, the show was compelling in that it covered all manners of storyline (in one episode, Amanda doesn't want to date her boyfriend anymore because he gets acne; in another, a friend at school dies in an accident) and didn't shy away from conversations about sex or the societal expectations associated with it. Of course, it's not like My So-Called Life was far tamer: it may have lived on a family-friendly network, but it too took on Big Issues™ like alcoholism, abuse, and homelessness. It also felt a little more together and less like the product of what happens when Canadian television execs don't seem to be paying attention (see: the episode in which Amanda and Busy think Busy's brother's girlfriend has a sunglasses fetish).
All of which prompts the question: would My So-Called Life have done better in Canada?
This question is a little shocking, I know. But when you think about the teen shows that defined the 90s and 00s-era Canadian landscape (Student Bodies, Breaker High, every edition of Degrassi), there was more than enough space for a series in which its heroine delivered thoughts as a voiceover and offered complex and thought-provoking reflections about adolescence. This is especially true when you consider the shift American television underwent over the course of the 90s: the TGIF lineup evolved to consist of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Boy Meets World, as well as a Clueless reboot and a sitcom about a pizza place. And while some of them offered interesting and important insights into teenhood, the priority seemed to be less about reality and more about jokes. In Canada, we may have had Student Bodies (a comedy that veered into Very Special Episodes more than a few times and also wasn't very funny), but we did lay the groundwork for the likes of the aforementioned Degrassi franchise, where Y2K audiences flocked. While America dealt out the hits, Canada kept it a little bit strange. And that strangeness was oddly addicting — since even as tweens, we knew life wasn't laugh tracks and 30-minute storylines.
Sitcoms and tidy endings are wonderful things that will always hold a place in my heart — but as an adult, I want to hear from characters like Angela Chase, whose flaws can't be laughed away with a primetime-appropriate joke.- Anne T. Donahue
Which is probably why we still talk so much about My So-Called Life now, and why over two decades after it ended, I still remember Ready or Not and the episode where Amanda runs away from home to sleep in the mall. Sitcoms and tidy endings are wonderful things that will always hold a place in my heart — but as an adult, I want to hear from characters like Angela Chase, whose flaws can't be laughed away with a primetime-appropriate joke. Then again, the best comedies on air right now are those that follow the My So-Called Life approach to storytelling: they're difficult and messy and rarely presented neatly or with concrete closure (see: Russian Doll, Shrill, Sex Education). In real life, we're all just narrating our observations about what so-and-so said to us and what we think it all means. In 1995, I guess we couldn't handle it. But it turns out 25 years of prep has led to us pursuing more and more series that unapologetically delve deep.
I guess what I'm saying is that I'm awaiting a Ready or Not reboot — as long as the wardrobes, in all their 90s glory, stay the same.