thrift store finds: my so-called life goes on

Alright, first some backstory: My So-Called Life was a teen drama which aired on ABC in the 1994-1995 TV season. The show turned on the life of Angela Chase, a precocious teenager whose running inner-monologue on the ins and outs of her friends, family, and school life made for gripping television.

The show featured a more realistic portrayal of teenagers than American TV viewers were used to at the time, and although highly acclaimed by critics, MSCL (as I will occasionally refer to it from here on out) hurt for mass viewership. The show became lost in the programming shuffle at ABC, who seemed understandably befuddled as to what they had. MSCL wasn’t escapist soapy drama like Beverly Hills 90210… but with the teenage cast, it wasn’t the type of show that older viewers normally tuned in to see in droves. Neither fish nor foul, MSCL limped to the end of its’ first season.

MSCL received one hell of a reprieve when MTV started playing reruns daily. This, I would argue, was the move that turned MSCL into a certifiable hit to people my age.; it’s surely the major reason the show is so well-remembered by my generation. Given the publicity from the MTV airings, ABC was prepared to bring MSCL back for a second season despite the anemic ratings… however Claire Danes, the star of the show, expressed doubts and concerns about returning. These doubts put the kibosh on Season Two.

This bothered quite a few fans of the series, as the last episode of My So-Called Life ends on an ambiguous note. Angela finally nets the guy she’s been in love with since the first episode, the dreamy but dense Jordan Catalano… but realizes the only reason she has fallen for Jordan has been the love notes written to her by the nerdy Brian Krakow, Cyrano de Bergerac style. The final episode leaves viewers hanging- Angela goes with Jordan, but looks (longingly? pityingly?) off at Brian as the credits roll. Fans never knew what was to come next…. until Random House decided to settle the question!

My So-Called Life Goes On, by Catherine Clark, published in 1994 by Random House, details the summer after the first season finale.

Before we begin, a warning: I’m going to spoil key parts of this book. Normally I try to stay well on the side of the angels when it comes to spoilers, revealing next to nothing besides my admiration or annoyance with whatever it is I’m writing about. Not today. I don’t think I’ll properly be able to talk about this book without talking about what happens. Copies of MSCL Goes On still list for big bucks on eBay, although in most cases it can be had for about $10 bucks if you know where to look. Considering the scarcity of the book and my interest in writing about it, I’m going to be a little more free with details. Fairly warned, be ye.

I’d also like to take a moment to remark how singularly weird this book’s existence is. Serialized novels have often provided fans a reprieve from cancellation of their favorite properties, but these are usually science fiction or fantasy related. I’ve never heard or seen it happen with a program like My So-Called Life. I’ve known PLENTY of rabid MSCL fans over the years who would have given anything to know what happens after the last scene in that final episode. This book effectively answers that question.

Catherine Clark has a distinguished career as a writer of teen fiction. A cursory glance at her body of work reveals a number of original novels for teenagers (many with pun-tastic names like Maine Squeeze and So Inn Love), and a couple of novelizations. She actually wrote the novelization of the pilot of My So-Called Life, which probably made her the likeliest candidate to write an original novel featuring the characters.

I mean Ms. Clark no disrespect when I say, despite those credentials, I have a hard time wrapping my head around this book! One of the hallmarks of My So-Called Life was the authorship of its’ creator, Winnie Holzman. Holzman is now better known for writing the Broadway play Wicked, but she was heavily involved in the production of MSCL, and won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for the show’s only season. It seems strange to have the last word on these characters be from someone who had very little connection to the actual program.

That being said, I am guessing that My So-Called Life Goes On was not intended to be the final word on Anglea, Rickie, Rayanne, and company- as I’ve mentioned many times previously, the lead-in times for writing a novelization for any movie or TV show is monumental, and Goes On would have had to been written WELL before ABC pulled the plug on the series. Simply by virtue of scheduling, this is the LAST time anyone would experience new, presumably in-canon stories featuring these characters. That’s really cool.

I have issues with the book but I want to focus on the good stuff first. Clark does an admirable job of keeping the reader involved in a story that clearly has no stakes. Canny readers would KNOW that there was no way the subplots from the show were going to be resolved in a one-off novel. Clark seems to acknowledge this and simply has fun drawing those subplots out even further. In particular, I enjoyed the way Clark continued to tease the story with Angela’s father Graham and his flirtation with Hallie Lowenthal. This was a major plot point for Angela’s parents in the TV show, and Holzman and her writing staff were presumably poised to bring the conflict up again in the future. Clark uses that plot to great effect.

Of course, for every flash of interesting writing, there’s equally awful, crashingly goofy scenes and subplots to boot. The most glaring is the one that a cursory Google search seem to decry: Brian Krakow has sex with Rayanne Graf’s mother. In every episode he was a part of, Krakow was a befuddled, puberty ridden mess. It was one of the striking qualities of his character AND the show itself that he was never glammed up or made into a sexy teen. Yet here, Clark turns him into something of a lothario… a ham-fisted lothario, but I never would have thought Brian Krakow would be gettin’ any! Not only does he bed Ms. Graf… but he ALSO gets back together with Delia Fisher!

I suppose I can understand WHY Clark (or whoever) made this a plot point in My So-Called Life Goes On. Krakow is constantly getting the short end of the stick on the show, so perhaps it’s fair he gets a little play. I can even understand why Brian’s virginity was lost in this way. It just seems off-putting and weird to me, given what’s already been established with the character. When I think about it, most of the sour notes in Goes On come from the specter of sex. An extended chapter featuring Angela skinny dipping in front of Jordan also seemed quite off to me, although I find that idea a bit more in-character for Angela.

Clark also has inspired moments of characterization sprinkled throughout the book. Take this bit from the beginning:

KRAKOW EATS GRAPE NUTS. I’m sorry, that’s PERFECT.

Last nitpick, although this one is not necessarily the fault of the author, but rather a peccadillo of the show: The teenagers speak as teenagers do. So like, there’s, y’know… a… emphasis? Or something? On like, this particular way of talking or whatever. Clark continues this through-line into her novel. Like I said, it’s not a fault of the writer… and she definitely pulled it back somewhat from what you’d have seen on a typical episode of MSCL. It still doesn’t exactly read well.

I suppose at this point, you can surmise that I was a fan of the show. I was excited to get to spend a couple hundred pages with these characters again, even if the book in question was altogether goofy and awkward in places. If your a fan of the show, it’s worth checking out… if only for the weirdness factor of My So-Called Life Goes On‘s existence.

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One Response to “thrift store finds: my so-called life goes on”

  1. […] cassette tape soundtrack for the TV series My So-Called Life. I’m a huge fan of the show and thoroughly documented that love when I did a TSF on the novelized sequel My So-Called Life Goes On. Cassette tapes are such a document of the time MSCL came into the world… if I could have […]

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