'My So-Called Life' and 'Parenthood' creators on Parkland teens 'changing the conversation' on TV and in real life

Victoria Leigh Miller
Writer
Wilson Cruz as Rickie and Claire Danes as Angela in My So-Called Life. (Photos: Everett Collection)

Winnie Holzman and Jason Katims first crossed paths 25 years ago when they worked together on the ABC drama My So-Called Life. Holzman’s creation, about Liberty High sophomore Angela Chase (Claire Danes) and her inner circle, was a grunge-era look at a group of friends and their angst-ridden high school experience. Despite lasting only 19 episodes, My So-Called Life created a powerful legacy, creating a prototype for teen-based television and influencing a generation of writers and producers. The show also served as a major stepping stone for Katims, who would go on to serve as showrunner for Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, and Rise the new NBC drama premiering Tuesday, which revolves around a high school drama department’s production of Spring Awakening.

In 1994, the My-So Called Life episode “Guns and Gossip” addressed the community’s fears after a student brought a gun onto the school’s grounds. By the end of the episode, Liberty High had security guards and metal detectors, which was, at the time, a new thing for campuses. With school shootings regularly in the news now, along with the debate about whether to arm teachers, a story like that feels almost simple today. Especially when real-life kids — like Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Cameron Kasky, who co-founded the student-led gun control advocacy group Never Again MSD after the February mass shooting at his school — are the ones leading the call for change in inspiring ways, including organizing this month’s March for Our Lives.

As part of Yahoo Entertainment’s “Why Teen TV Matters” series, we spoke with Holzman and Katims about how the teen TV genre has changed since the days of Angela Chase and how they are inspired to tell stories about teens today.

Yahoo Entertainment: Winnie, did you ever think those 19 episodes of My So-Called Life would leave such an impact?
Winnie Holzman: I guess I didn’t think it, but I felt it. It’s not the kind of thing you think, because it doesn’t make sense. But we felt we were making something that had impact. So I guess you could say that I’m not really surprised. It’s taught me a lot about … success, really, and how you really don’t know the impact you’re going to have with anything that you do, and so you have to kind of just do it and have faith.

On My So-Called Life, you dealt with real teen issues, like when Rickie (Wilson Cruz) said out loud that he was gay, which was groundbreaking for TV at the time. What were some of the most-challenging real-life issues to deal with on the show?
Holzman: I think the biggest challenge was just to keep it real and complex as possible. I don’t think any of us thought of it in terms of issues. We were always thinking of the people, the characters, and where the characters lead us. I don’t know if you were, Jason, ever thinking about this, but in recent days I was thinking back to our “Guns and Gossip” episode, because we did have an episode where guns went off in the school.

That was actually my next question, because it’s very timely now.
Holzman: Yeah. But it reflected a different time. Let’s put it that way.

Jason, have the young activists we’re seeing today, the teens who have organized the March for Our Lives, inspired you? Especially since Rise, your new show, is set in a high school?
Jason Katims: Well, there’s no doubt that they’ve inspired me. I think they’ve inspired the entire country. I’m not alone in feeling like there was something about all the new kind of voices rising up after that shooting, of what I think of as young, future leaders, and the fact of that has changed the conversation that we’re all having now about gun control. It’s already effected change in our country, and how could you not be inspired by that. And if you’re doing a show about teenagers right now, how could you not be inspired by that. So I’m absolutely, deeply affected by it.

Also, there’s this weird connective tissue between some of those teens that we’ve seen. Like, for example, Cameron Kasky is currently in a production of Spring Awakening, which is the first show that we do on Rise. So there is something that I kind of noticed about that, and I was sort of discussing it with [Spring Awakening playwright] Steven Sater as well, the sort of coincidence of that, and it was the timeliness of it and the issues that are also dealt with in Spring Awakening, and the fact that [Sater] and Duncan Sheik were inspired to write Spring Awakening after the events of Columbine. So there’s all these connections to it. But the basic thing that I come back to is that it’s very inspiring to see that [activism]. And while we’re already finished with the production of the first season [of Rise], so it’s not like I’m writing in any storylines or anything specifically connected to it, I feel like it will influence me, and I’m sure other writers as they’re moving forward, because I think it’s changed the conversation.

Holzman: I think what’s inspiring about teenagers is that they’re hungry for truth, and it’s obvious — they can’t really hide it. And that may put them into despair in a culture where truth isn’t highly valued, like ours, but I think that’s really the power of what’s happened in the past few weeks with the movement that has started in Florida. Look, they were pushed to the wall, and they were pushed in a way that was devastating, and their response was simply to tell their truth, and to say, “Listen to the truth, we can’t lie about this. We’re not gonna f***ing lie about something that just happened that is now our truth.” And that’s exciting, and really that’s what galvanizes people. But teenagers are longing for that, they’re hungry for that, so it’s a population that’s thrilling in a way. And I’m sure that no matter what issues or subject matter Jason’s exploring, just knowing him as I do, I’m sure that’s really the essence of his show.

Katims: Thank you, Winnie. But I do think that what you said was a great point. And certainly when I worked with Winnie, and Ed [Zwick], and Marshall [Herskovitz] on My So-Called Life — which was my first show that I worked on, it was like my graduate school — what I learned was all the stuff that Winnie just talked about, about speaking honesty, and finding what’s real. That’s been the thing that I’ve carried with me in everything that I’ve written since, and certainly on Rise, which focuses on this story of this town and community and high school, and hopefully will feel like it has that same kind of sense that you feel that these are not made-up stories, that these characters feel real and honest. That’s the thing that I feel like I’ve aspired to do since I’ve worked on My So-Called Life. And I think that as Winnie was saying before, it’s not like you sort of often jump in, in telling these kinds of stories, and think about what issue am I going to attack today? What message do I want to send today? You really try to get inside the hearts and minds of these characters and tell their stories, and hopefully by doing that it will sort of connect in some way to these larger things that are going on in the world.

Is there anything from your past shows that you feel like you’d have to think twice about doing today? With the #MeToo movement, for instance, this isn’t quite related, but do you think it’s more challenging today to have a bad-boy character, like Jordan Catalano, pressuring a girl to have sex before she’s ready?
Holzman: No regrets there. I mean, I don’t mean to make light of the #MeToo movement, which I think is extremely important and impactful, but I also think it’s what Jason was just saying — I just feel like characters are complicated. If they’re gonna draw you in, they can’t all be well-behaved, because if they’re all well-behaved, and groomed, and kind of neatly shorn of their problems, they’re not really gonna feel like people that you’re actually encountering. And especially when you’re young, how do you figure out who to be in the world? You have to kind of screw up and make mistakes, whether you’re a boy or a girl. I mean, even as an adult you have to screw up and make mistakes — that’s what learning is.

Today, as audiences are just more sensitive about things, would it be harder to like a guy like Jordan Catalano now?
Holzman: Well, you know he was very polarizing. The whole show was polarizing, and not everybody liked it. And there were certainly characters that people “hated” and “liked” and argued about, and that’s part of the fun of doing a TV show.

Is there a show that left an impact on you when you were that age?
Holzman: When I was I guess in my 20s, probably, there was a show on TV called Family, that was actually the first show that Marshall and Ed and Richard Kramer, who was instrumental on Thirtysomething — Marshall and Ed created Thirtysomething, of course — [had worked on]. This was a family drama. There was a teenager named Buddy [played by Kristy McNichol], and she was very much the precursor to Angela. I would watch it and feel it was very heartfelt. And it wasn’t like it was blowing my mind the way Thirtysomething later did, but I absolutely loved watching it. And it was a family, a beautiful family that was aspirational, meaning you wish you could belong to such a loving family. And when I say [Buddy] was the precursor to Angela, when Marshall and Ed asked me to do My So-Called Life, and we realized it was gonna be about a teenage girl, they expressed to me that when they had done the show Family there were all these stringent rules about things you couldn’t do with the teenage girl. That just had to do with the times, and the showrunners of that time, how they felt you had to portray a teenage girl, so we were gonna sort of upend that. So in many ways, it was a show I liked and loved and admired, but it was also a show I sort of pushed back against. It was a beautiful show, but if you think about it as Marshall and Ed’s first show, you can also see that it inspired them to push in another direction.

Katims: Having worked on My So-Called Life, I do feel like it was changing the conversation about what a teen show could be. I’m trying to think before that. You know, I remember watching The Waltons. I was very moved by that show and loved that show, but even times when I was watching the show, I think I was wishing that it was able to cut a little bit deeper. And I think that’s what shows like My So-Called Life and Thirtysomething started to be able to accomplish, and break new ground, and sort of change the way that we think about television.

Is there a specific issue that you guys would like to see addressed more for a teen or family audience?
Katims: Well, one of the issues in Rise that we are talking about is gender issues. We have a transgender character on the show, and that’s something that I felt I hadn’t really seen on broadcast television, and so that’s definitely something that has been a really positive experience for me, at least working on the show, and hopefully that character will connect in some way [for the audience].

Josh Radnor as teacher Lou Mazzuchelli and Ellie Desautels as transgender student Michael Hallowell (Photo: Peter Kramer/NBC)

When I did Parenthood, we included the autism storyline in that show. Again, I wasn’t writing it because I had a message to send, or I wanted to make a statement about it; I wrote it because it was a personal storyline to me. But when I saw how important it was to that community, it really had an impact on me. They hadn’t seen a kid on broadcast television with autism, and it made a real difference to many, many people in that community. I’m hoping we’re able to represent the transgender character on our show and do something similar. We’re specifically not telling the story about this character getting bullied; I mean, we touch on that in an episode, but it’s really not the point of the whole story. The point of the whole story is really just to put somebody, a transgender character, in the show and make them a real nuanced, living, breathing character, and so that’s something that I feel I was compelled to do, just because it felt like it was something that I wasn’t seeing really on broadcast television. Those are the types of things that I feel like I want to bring in too.

Holzman:  I think you have to say that there’s so many shows — like The Fosters and Degrassiand other shows — that have really, really talked about things that are really going on for young people and giving them value and respect. … But I know exactly what Jason’s saying, because you can’t underestimate the impact of people who have not previously seen themselves on network television. To see themselves depicted, to see something that they can relate to that looks like them, that feels like them, that has their issues, it’s very empowering for people. I definitely learned that in my career on TV, and I know Jason’s learned it, he just expressed that. I think any time you’re showing somebody in the fullness of their humanity, and it’s something that maybe hasn’t been depicted yet, you’re reaching out in a way that can be incredibly impactful for people.

Is there a teen storyline from one of your shows, past or present, that you’re proudest of for its impact or intent?
Holzman: Jason’s done so much more TV than I have, he’s gonna have a harder time choosing. You know honestly, I’m just proud to have done TV that anyone could relate to, or that certain people did relate to, because even that alone is kind of a feat, you know? [With My So-Called Life], you know you were touching on sex before, and #MeToo, and I feel like Angela was allowed to have her own sexuality, and she was allowed to be a sexual creature, but she wasn’t seen as a sex object; she was a person. That is something I’m really proud of.

Katims: It’s so funny, because I think these are always such tough questions because it makes me feel like, Oh, tell me, who’s your favorite child? So it’s really hard to, because then I start thinking, Oh, well, there’s that story, there’s that. I guess the one that just comes to mind is the Max story on Parenthood, and because the show had such a run, we really got to see him from the first diagnosis through his graduating high school. Max Burkholder, the actor who portrayed Max, he grew up and became a young man while we were shooting that show. There was just something remarkable about that storyline that moves me, like his performance and how deeply he invested. How deeply somebody who was probably 11 or 12 years old when he was first cast invested in telling the story from the beginning, and how much he grew into it and owned it. And I remember when I was directing an episode toward the end of the series, I asked him to say a line slightly differently than how it was written, and he said to me, “Oh, Max wouldn’t say that.” And I mean I was so blown away. It was such a beautiful thing. … When I first wrote it, I felt like I was not only the writer and the showrunner but also the autism consultant. … It got to the point where he owned it in such a way, and he was, of course, right about this character. And as I said before, the sort of impact that storyline had — not only in the autism community, but that special needs community in general — spoke out to me.

Max Burkholder as Max Braverman on Parenthood. (Photo: AP/Colleen Hayes/NBC)

There’s one thing I would love to just add. We’re on the phone with Winnie, and just from my perspective of what I learned on My So-Called Life, and because you were asking about impactful storylines. … I think the Rickie storyline on My So-Called Life, this story about this teenager who’s sort of coming to terms with his sexuality and coming out, and how that story was told, and handled, and putting in the context of the time period where that show happened — when I don’t know if I even recall gay characters on television that were that authentically drawn, and with that poignancy and sort of beauty — it really just moved me and stayed with me. Watching how we shaped that storyline, and Wilson play every aspect of it … I learned so much from watching that character start as the sort of charming winning young man and turn into one of the most moving storylines on the show or any show.

Holzman: You’re right. Thanks. And I love Jason Katims. I can say that: I really love him. He’s an amazing writer, and an amazing person.

It’s awesome that you guys have stayed such good friends.
Holzman: You’re put together with the right person and it’s kind of a lifetime assignment.

Rise premieres March 13 at 10 p.m. on NBC. My So-Called Life is currently streaming on Hulu. Watch all 19 episodes for free on Yahoo View. Parenthood is streaming on Hulu and Netflix.

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