THIS LIFE HAS BEEN A TEST: As we head toward the fall TV season, it's time to look back for a moment to ten years ago. Ten years ago, around this time, what turned out to be probably the two most influential TV shows of the past 10 year premiered. What happened to them at the time couldn't have been more different. One left the air after a mere 19 episodes. The other finally left the air this spring amidst of storm of memories and has spawned a spinoff. One is available on multiple channels in syndication, multiple times a day--the other, only on a relatively obscure high-tier digital cable channel from time to time.
The first is, of course, "Friends." Remember that at the time "Friends" premiered, "Cheers" had recently left the air, and pundits were proclaiming the death of the sitcom. Yet out of a cast of relative unknowns with one washout, the creators managed to create a critical and commercial success for a new era. The show spawned a hit theme song, and at least one thriving movie career. Every sitcom after "Friends" takes something from it. Without "Friends," there could be no "Sex and the City," for instance. Yes, the show, especially in its later seasons, grew tiresome with the incessant Ross and Rachel tango, and ever increasingly ludicrous plot twists like the "Rachel is pregnant, who's the daddy" storyline. Nonetheless, in terms of influence, there hasn't been a more copied sitcom since "Cheers," and perhaps ever.
The second is the beloved-round-these-parts "My So-Called Life." "MSCL" was, pretty much without question, the most brutal, honest, and real story of adolescence ever. I was in my senior year of high school when "MSCL" debuted, and for the first time, had a show that I really related to (mostly to dorky best friend Brian Krakow, but to other characters too). The youthful characters and the adult characters were all beautifully drawn, even if they often didn't understand each other. My parents had had "thirtysomething." I had this. I leave it to those more eloquent than I to explain its greatness (this week's "EW" has a nice piece), but watch one episode, and you'll understand.
As for the influence? Leaving aside the fact that it served as the launching ground for Claire Danes and Jared Leto's movie careers, a substantial achievement in and of itself, "MSCL" can be credited (both for good and ill) with the creation of the WB network and the willingness of networks to try to do serious and creative things for teenagers. Without "MSCL," there would be no "Buffy," no "Freaks and Geeks," no "O.C." Now, none of those shows, at least in my view, reaches the heights that "MSCL" did, even if only in 19 episodes, but the influence is undeniable.
In a decidedly unexciting fall season, where the most-hyped shows involve a computer-animated family of lions, Jason Alexander trying to break the "Seinfeld curse" (and apparently failing again), and "Wife Swap," let's remember 10 years ago, and hope that maybe one of those lesser-seen shows will be what those two were.