The Best High-School Show of the Past 30 Years, Round Two: Veronica Mars vs. My So-Called Life

By
Photo-Illustration: Vulture

From late October through mid-November, Vulture is holding a High-School-TV Showdown to determine the greatest teen show of the past 30 years. Each day, a different writer will be tasked with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on November 13. Today's battle: Jen Chaney judges My So-Called Life versus Veronica Mars. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture's Facebook page to vote on which show should advance.

Deciding between My So-Called Life and Veronica Mars is like trying to pick which of your two high-school BFFs you love more: the one who wears her heart on her oversize flannel shirtsleeve, or the clever, sassy one who always knows what to say and how to get what she wants. It’s choosing between high school in a recognizably American town (Pittsburgh) versus a familiar setting that also looks and sounds like a totally different planet (name: Neptune). It’s determining whether to side with a series that achieved cult status after ending too soon, or with one whose massive cult following Kickstarter-ed a movie into existence seven years after its broadcast run ended.

Do you get what’s at stake here? It’s ’90s vs. ’00s. It’s “Will we ever get to see Tino?” vs. “Who killed Lilly Kane?” For God’s sake, it’s bad boy Jordan Catalano vs. bad boy Logan Echolls! (Although, with all due respect to actor Jason Dohring, who played Logan, that last one isn’t much of a contest.) Catalano wins that sucker by a big ol’ country mile. (I had planned to say that Jordan Catalano is to the ’90s what Jake Ryan of Sixteen Candles was to the ’80s, but then some smart Vulture reader went ahead and said it first, in the comments on the My So-Called Life vs. Gossip Girl round. Damn you and bless you, smart Vulture readers!)

Anyway. As those dichotomies demonstrate, My So-Called Life and Veronica Mars are very different shows. But there is some connective tissue between the two.

Rape, or the threat of it, is depicted in both pilots, letting viewers know right away that running young, wild, and free comes with a certain amount of danger. (Veronica Mars continues to make this abundantly clear, to a much greater degree.) Like most shows about high school, both emphasize the divisions between cliques and classes. That’s a bold-faced, all-caps theme in Veronica Mars, where the privileged “09ers” reap every economic and social benefit imaginable, residing in mega-mansions and always getting cleared of whatever criminal charges they face. The chasm between rich and poor may not be as central to My So-Called Life, but it certainly makes its presence known via the exuberantly messy Rayanne and, more so, through Rickie, so abused and neglected by his aunt-and-uncle guardians that he eventually becomes homeless. The suburban comforts taken for granted by people like Angela and Brian Krakow are something Rickie envies. “I would give anything,” Rickie tells Angela, “to have your life.”

Other issues pop up in both shows, including alcoholism, teen sexuality, and school violence. (My So-Called Life and Veronica Mars each possess a charged moment where the characters realize school metal detectors have been installed. In light of the number of shootings that have occurred in American schools in the years since, both moments feel heartbreakingly quaint.)

Where the series differ is in the lenses they use to examine their respective high-school politics. Veronica Mars — the third season of which is off the table here, since it focuses on college by then — is a genre show, a Philip-Marlowe-meets-90210 detective serial. It’s plot-driven, with often zippy dialogue and a postmodern sensibility that, in my view, is its greatest asset. It’s a little Scooby-Doo, a little ’80s teen movie, and just a tad 21 Jump Street. But more important, it knows it’s those things and announces it so viewers will be in on the joke. Hence, in the season-one episode, “So You Think You Know Somebody,” Veronica and Wallace have a discussion about which Scooby-Doo characters they should be. (For the record: Veronica is both Daphne and Velma. For the further record: the Scooby references also nod to the Scoobies of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, making this a double meta-moment.) Homage is paid to the John Hughes movies on numerous occasions, but perhaps most satisfyingly in the episode “Ruskie Business,” when Meg goes to the '80s dance dressed as Molly Ringwald at the Pretty in Pink prom, only to find Duncan, Veronica’s ex and Meg’s soon-to-be boyfriend (and baby daddy), decked out as Duckie. (As for the Fox series starring Johnny Depp, in “Weapons of Class Destruction,” Logan flat-out says to a narc played by '90s-era Teen Beat regular Jonathan Taylor Thomas: “Dream on, Jump Street.”) Veronica Mars is a high-school show best appreciated by people with a Ph.D in contemporary high-school pop culture. 

My So-Called Life is not that. It’s not meta, at all. Its pace is slower and its dialogue doesn’t zing so much as sound like it was recorded from actual, natural conversation. (Veronica Mars showed us how to eavesdrop on people; My So-Called Life just lets us be the eavesdroppers.) The brand of the ABC drama Winnie Holzman created is crisis of the mostly everyday adolescent variety: freak-outs over unpoppable pimples, concerns about who to go with to the World Happiness Day dance, obsessive thoughts about boiler-room make-out sessions. Certainly there are instances where the drama is heightened beyond the basic — see Rayanne’s overdose, or practically everything that happens to Rickie during the second half of the show’s sole season. But at no point on My So-Called Life would, say, Harry Hamlin pop up in Angela Chase’s backseat and try to kill her so she won’t reveal the sex tapes of him doing it with his son’s girlfriend. The delights of My So-Called Life come from the tiny moments when a character says or does something so recognizable, it makes a bubble in your heart burst — the way Claire Danes, as Angela, actively stops herself from crying in front of Jordan Catalano when he tells her he’s not interested in her, or how she gets so irked when her mother attempts to tell her how to treat her acne. (“Just the word swab,” Angela says with contempt via the show’s ubiquitous voice-over. And you think: Yes. My mother saying a word like “swab” made my pimply skin crawl at that age, too.)

It’s not like Veronica Mars never gets real or earnest. When Keith (the simultaneously gentle yet hard-nosed Enrico Colantoni) shares the results of the DNA test that proves Veronica is really his daughter, the moment is played with straight, raw emotion by Colantoni and Kristen Bell. There’s such a natural intimacy between the two actors, in that scene and many others, that the results of that test seem like a foregone conclusion: Of course they’re father and daughter. But even though there’s a push-pull between them, particularly when Veronica deliberately goes off sleuthing against her father’s wishes, the mercurial nature of Angela’s relationship with her parents strikes me as more authentic. In the My So-Called Life pilot, there’s a moment when Angela glares across the dinner table at her mother and says, again via that voice-over: “Lately, I can’t even look at my mother without wanting to stab her repeatedly.” But by the end of that episode, she’s in tears, crawling into her mom’s arms after a night out with Rayanne and Rickie that got a little too real. (Even back then, pre-Homeland, Danes was already a master of allowing waves of emotion to tsunami across her face.) That’s what being a teenager is: a constant dance between shunning Mom and Dad and running anxiously back to their embrace like a child, which is what you still are.

Then there’s the matter of our two enormously likable and brilliantly portrayed protagonists. In the sly, formidable hands of Kristen Bell, Veronica is unlike any high school kid you’ve ever known, unless you spent your senior year with a young James Bond or Teen MacGyver. She can jimmy locks; go incognito, Alias-style, at a gamer’s club; impersonate voices on the telephone; find all the principal’s computer passwords; and manage to spend two full years falsely claiming that Neptune High’s restrooms are out of order without ever pissing off the custodial staff. (Okay, so Lucky the janitor got super-pissed toward the end of season two. But that wasn’t because Veronica consistently shut down the girls’ room to take meetings.)

Veronica never met a pithy rejoinder she couldn’t out-pith, or a situation she couldn’t punch up with a knowing, sexy smirk. While she certainly has troubles — an alcoholic mom, a dead best friend, the knowledge she was a rape victim — she exists as a largely aspirational figure. Veronica Mars is not who you were in high school, and she’s not who your friends were. She’s who you wished you could have been in high school. Hell, she’s who you wish you could be right now, probably.

“Don’t forget you’re a high-school girl,” Keith tells her. “Do some high-school-girl things now and then.”

To which Veronica says: “Relax, Dad. I’m cutting pictures of Ashton out of Teen People as we speak.” Which is just so Veronica.

Angela Chase, on the other hand, does high-school-girl things all the time. That is literally her entire purpose on My So-Called Life. She fixates on Jordan Catalano, and bickers with her parents over why she has to stay home for her grandparents’ anniversary party, and dyes her hair Crimson Glow because putting chemicals in one’s hair is how you find yourself when you’re 15.

She has conversations with Jordan in which Jordan says things like, “Once you start making plans, you have obligations, and that really blows. Whatever happens, happens.” Then she responds to what is obviously a load of horseshit by saying, “I have to say, I really respect that.” Ladies, in our impressionable adolescences, didn’t we all do this? Didn’t we listen intently to some dude with long, eye-obscuring bangs and think he was speaking the most profound truths the universe has ever known instead of just being a noncommittal jackass? We did. We all did this, at least once.

I guess what I’m saying is that Veronica Mars is a looking glass: a portal into a world that kind of looks like high school but doesn’t really resemble most people’s actual high-school experiences. My So-Called Life feels more like a mirror.

When the latter show makes me laugh (or cry), it’s not because the material is working on a wink-wink, intellectual level, as it so often does on Veronica Mars. It’s because its truths land with such targeted force. When Rayanne giddily celebrates the fact that a bunch of morons have named her the sophomore girl with “most slut potential,” or Brian Krakow says in total earnestness that he’s thought about something for “like, 50 hours,” or when Rickie says or does pretty much anything (God, I love that kid), they seem like real flesh-and-blood people that could have been your classmates in the '90s, or could be shoving books into a locker at the high school down the street right this minute. The kids on My So-Called Life are afraid of everything, whereas Veronica Mars and some (though not all) of her friends seem fearless. I don’t know about you, but during my wonder years, I mostly walked in fear.

I could sit here and argue why My So-Called Life ultimately casts a longer shadow than Veronica Mars, for reasons many already know: because its depiction of a gay teen was groundbreaking; because Jason Katims worked as a story editor on it and, one could argue that if he hadn’t, Friday Night Lights might not have been as sensitively drawn as it was; because it gave us Jordan Catalano, the original sex idiot.

But the real reason I have to give My So-Called Life the edge here — and I truly am sorry, Marshmallows — is because it beautifully fulfills the ultimate mission of the best high-school shows: it puts you back in that place and makes you remember what it was like during those brief, challenging months when surging hormones made us feel all the feels that could humanly be felt. Though American Beauty wouldn’t come out until four years after My So-Called Life ended, the show very much functions as the equivalent of that plastic bag that Wes Bentley sees wafting through the air, a reminder that sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, you can’t take it.

Jesus, that so sounds like something Catalano would say … in a letter actually written by the surprisingly soulful Brian Krakow.

Winner: MY SO-CALLED LIFE

Jen Chaney is a film and TV critic and writer, and the author of As If: The Complete Oral History of Clueless.