Back in 1994, one of the best series never to make it was born: My So-Called Life, a teen drama with such heart and truthfulness that many (including its network) didn't know what to make of it. For anyone who was a teenager — or an overgrown teenager — back then and watched each week with bated breath, the complete series is being released today on DVD in a special collectible set. TVGuide.com talked to Wilson Cruz, now 34, whose Rickie Vasquez had one of the show's most poignant storylines, about the show's legacy.
TVGuide.com: After more than a decade, why does My So-Called Life still speak to people so much?
Wilson Cruz: I think it took its audience really seriously but didn't take itself too seriously. In the end, what it was trying to say with the parallel storylines between the parents and the adolescents was that these issues, like self-esteem, love and sexuality, might appear to be hypersensitive when you're an adolescent, but you're still dealing with those same things as adults. Even though it was '90s-centric, you could put those kids in different clothes and hairstyles and have them say those words and we could be in 1965, because they're the same issues. There's a universality to the show. Winnie Holzman [the show's creator] went out of her way to be as brutally honest as she possibly could — and I do mean brutally. I think there were times when, to steal one of her phrases, it hurt to look at it. Because it was so real, so honest.
TVGuide.com: I was one of the people campaigning ABC to get the show renewed back then. Were you surprised when it was canceled?
Cruz: No. Especially since we were always under the ax, waiting for it to fall. We made a pilot in 1993 and it didn't make it on that year. That right there told us we were not their favorite show. [Laughs] And then when they did pick us up, it was only for eight episodes, then another six, then another four. We kept getting short orders, and at the end of each, we would always have a wrap party and say goodbye to one another. We didn't want it to be over, but we were prepared for it. But we were devastated when it did finally happen. We had invested a lot of ourselves and we also knew how special a working environment we were in. And we didn't know when we were ever going to have that experience again.
TVGuide.com: Rickie was such a role model. How did people respond to that?
Cruz: This is what I can say: After 13 years, there are people who were 14 or 15 years old when they first watched the show and they come up to me on a weekly basis and say, "Rickie Vasquez was the first gay person I ever knew." And it kind of formed their idea of what that meant, what it was to be a gay person. It did teach some compassion to a generation of television viewers. It's one thing to be sitting in a classroom and have a teacher tell you how to treat other people; it's a whole other thing to watch, week after week, somebody's life spelled out to you in an emotional way: That lesson is something that will stay with you forever. I came out publicly because I also wanted the audience to know that I stood behind everything that came out of my mouth.
TVGuide.com: So do you think it was ahead of its time?
Cruz: It was timely — when I think about where we were politically in 1995, Clinton was in the White House talking about gays and lesbians in his speeches, and the gay and lesbian community was really a part of the campaign to get him elected.... There was a lot going on politically and socially in the country in terms of civil rights. The clock has turned back now, I'm sorry to say.
TVGuide.com: Did that memorable episode of Rickie coming out to his parents reflect your own experience at all?
Cruz: It did reflect it — neither Winnie nor I can remember which came first, if she wrote the script first or if I told her what happened to me first. But that happened a lot with the show — her instincts were impeccable with all of the kids. It presented me with an amazing opportunity of telling that story by using my own experience — which isn't that different from a lot of people's experiences.
TVGuide.com: Was it therapeutic for you, then?
Cruz: [Emphatically] Oh, the whole series was cathartic for me — to have walked through all of those horrible, uncomfortable experiences of adolescence, and then to be able to just shake it off and go home, to deal with those issues one more time, to delve into them and then let them go.
TVGuide.com: Did you stay in touch with anyone from My So-Called Life?
Cruz: Devon Odessa, who played Sharon on the show, she and I were always very close. But you know, 13 years is a long time; there's a lot of water under the bridge. A.J. Langer is now married to a British lord and is the mother of a child. We're not kids anymore! Jared [Leto] is a rock star — I didn't see that coming. [Laughs] And Claire [Danes] went away to college and, you know, she's become this huge movie star. Although I did see her over a year ago and it was as if we'd been in each other's lives the whole time. You know, there are only six kids who will ever know what it felt like to be on that show and have that experience.
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