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‘My So-Called Life’ Producer Marshall Herskovitz on How Alicia Silverstone Almost Played Angela

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Marshall Herskovitz is the bard of emo television. With his partner Ed Zwick, he spearheaded the touchy-feely genre, from Family to My So-Called Life to that glorious trifecta of grownup angst: Thirtysomething, Once & Again, and the short-lived beauty Relativity. Vulture talked to Herskovitz about the long-anticipated, fat, honking, extra-packed DVD set of My So-Called Life but got distracted by intoxicating utopic chatter about his latest project Quarterlife, a generational drama tied to a social-networking site wrapped in an enigma.

Did you enjoy doing the commentary tracks or was it a burdensome task?
It’s not burdensome, but it is self-conscious. Winnie [Holzman, the show’s creator], Scott [Winant, another producer], and I did commentary on the pilot, and I’m embarrassed to say the three of us were sobbing. The guy in the booth was like, “You have to say something!” I didn’t write that episode or direct it — so I can say this — but it’s so pure, it’s so pure, it’s so truthful! It doesn’t seem like anything on television.

I loved that even in that first episode, the parents were as interesting as the kids. On so many teen shows, they’re cartoons, as if to make the teen characters look layered just by contrast.
Well, we had an interesting dilemma: The minute we decided to cast Claire [Danes], who was 13 years old, we had a huge problem. We couldn’t do the show as we’d imagined it, with her hours. So we made an artistic decision to make the parents more important. At first, it was just to accommodate the production, but in the end it served the show.

If you’d had a second season, would Patty and Graham have gotten divorced?
We were too improvisational for that. The only thing we were pretty sure of, something was going to happen between Angela and Brian Krakow.

Wilson Cruz’s character had a lot of parallels with his real life.
When Winnie wrote the character, I remember saying, you know, this is really interesting, this is good, but what makes you think we can cast this person? Who is of indeterminate orientation, indeterminate race? And all the sudden Wilson Cruz walks into the office. It was really quite eerie. He had literally never acted before.

I’ve heard that you considered casting Alicia Silverstone as Angela.
It’s better than that. We had someone looking for us in New York and she said, there are two people you should see. They’re really special. The first was Alicia, who was 16 and emancipated. Ed wanted her, and I said, “This girl is absolutely beautiful, but the Angela I see shivers back and forth between being beautiful and being really” — I mean, Alicia, you know, this is a girl who has been told she’s beautiful since she’s 5 years old! I just don’t think Angela’s that girl. Then in walks Claire Danes. And at 13, you know: From one angle, she’s breathtaking; from another, she’s awkward. We were all terrified of her. She was very quiet and reserved, and half the things she said were utterly brilliant and half the things sounded like a 13-year-old.

Did you get any desperate notes from the network as the show began to tank? Any requests for weird guest stars to boost the ratings?
All I can say is that Ed and I lived a charmed life. We didn’t get notes! They were deeply unhappy with the show, and they couldn’t figure out how to sell it. You just can’t sell on good alone. So they would keep picking up five episodes here, six there, and it made the whole experience go on and on and on until it died.

So tell me about this Quarterlife series. I’m wary of anything with a video-blogger protagonist. Am I being excessively paranoid?
You should then watch the show ,and I won’t comment on it. It’s the best I can do, and it’s my attempt to be real, the same sensibility as in everything I do. The video-blogging is a small part of the show. We did a pilot for ABC three years ago called Quarterlife but not with these characters or these actors, and it just didn’t work. Eventually, we were like, you know what, this is the time to go to the Internet and not do television anymore! It was an opportunity to be a social network.

Like Facebook? So it’s not a television show?
Yes, we’re creating resources across 50 different art forms. It’s a huge endeavor for us, and we control it and we own it.

Is there a narrative show inside it? Does that change the writing process?
We’re writing hour-long stories and then we cut them into six pieces. I don’t know how to create real emotion in less than an hour. It would be ridiculous to try to throw that out. The whole episode will be available for download on iTunes, but it’ll premiere on MySpace and then on our own site, Quarterlife. One function is to broadcast the show and allow people to comment, and another is to create content we’re calling User Generated Quarterlife. This is a generation of people who are very talented, and we want to be influenced by that. So I’ve put the script up, and you can pick one take from every shot in the pilot and remix it. But we’re actually more interested in them creating their own stuff! I will know we have succeeded if some kid in college says, you’re full of shit. And he creates something to show us, “No, this is what it’s really like.”

So how about you? Do you do social networking?
Well, I’m the wrong age. [With slight reluctance] I do have a Facebook and a MySpace page, but just for research.

Yes, I know. I just Friended you.
Um. Okay.
—Emily Nussbaum

Earlier: ‘My So-Called Life’ Finally on DVD?

‘My So-Called Life’ Producer Marshall Herskovitz on How Alicia Silverstone Almost Played Angela