Many of us still fondly remember the angst-ridden travails of Claire Danes as Angela Chase, the allure of Jared Leto’s bad boy Jordan Catalano, the crazy of A.J. Langer’s Rayanne Graff, and the pity induced by Devon Gummersal’s Brian Krakow from the short-lived and now much-beloved coming of age series, “My So-Called Life.”
It only lasted one season on ABC, then it enjoyed a revival in reruns on MTV in 1995. Since then, the critics have come around and Time magazine included it on its 2007 list of “100 Best TV Shows of All-Time” while EW named it one of its new TV classics.
But, while we look back romantically on the series, Wilson Cruz lived it. As Rickie Vasquez, he played one of the earliest gay (not to mention, minority) characters on major network television and certainly the most real for someone in their teens.
“We had an uphill battle and there were a lot of elements that led to its demise,” Cruz tells Zap2it. “But in the end, the esteem to which that show is held in really testified to its value. And I think all of us who were involved with it are so incredibly proud of all of the work.”
Cruz has gone on to star on Broadway, in the Logo series, “Noah’s Arc,” and he had two ABC homecomings as a guest star on “Pushing Daisies,” and most recently, “Grey’s Anatomy.”
And while it’s pretty clear that Danes’ desire for a film career over a second season of the show contributed to it not being renewed for Season 2, Cruz says that part of that uphill battle for “My So-Called Life” took place in the corporate offices of ABC.
“First and foremost, television is a business,” he says. “And in any business, there has to be a good marketing strategy. And as far as ‘My-So-Called-Life’ is concerned, there was no template on how to sell that show on network TV. There was no teen drama like that before it. Afterwards, lessons were learned on how to market that show to the audience we wanted to reach. MTV knew how to do it and that’s why it was so successful on MTV. And after MTV, it caught on. But, I don’t think ABC knew how to sell that show. They were reinventing the wheel as they went.”
And certainly in a business like network television, ratings dictate advertising sales and thus the lifespan of a show. In a time with no DVRs or on-demand and online viewing, ratings across the board were higher back then, than they are now. To look back now at the almost 6.5-million loyal viewers for “My So-Called Life” on the network in 1994 – those are ratings that today would be considered a strong audience for a teen show. The CW’s “90210,” currently in its third season, for example, gets less than 2-million viewers consistently, so it’s strange to say now that “My So-Called Life” wasn’t registering with viewers. But, that was their reality.
“At the time that we were on ABC, it was the No. 1 network,” Cruz says. “It had an embarrassment of riches as far as their schedule was concerned and the only place that they can put us was Thursday night at 8 o’clock, which wasn’t necessarily the right time for it. It should have been on at 9 o’clock. And our competition, which people forget, was the very first season of ‘Friends’ and I think one of the last seasons of ‘Mad About You,’ which was a hugely successful sitcom at the time.”
Whether or not the future of the show would have been different if ABC understood how to market and schedule it at the time, Cruz takes a pretty Zen view on the series’ lifespan.
“If you look at it like 19 perfect episodes,” he says. “It was actually perfect just the way it was. And maybe that’s all it was meant to be.”