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Why the End of 'My So-Called Life' Was Just the Beginning

Steve Joyner (founder, Operation Life Support)

No deep dive on My So-Called Life would be complete without revisiting the audience-driven backlash against its cancelation. I’m indebted to Steve Joyner, the undisputed spearhead of that campaign, for helping me better understand what went down.

Though we spoke way back in August of last year, we only recently went through the transcript of that discussion together. (My fault, not his.) In doing so he helped me realize something for the first time.

While feelings ran hot on all sides in the weeks leading up to MSCL's cancellation, it’s hard now to miss one simple fact: the creators, the network and the show’s admirers who rallied to its defense all had one thing in common: They were fighting enormous odds in a changing media landscape.

The Creators. Producers Marshall Herskovtiz and Edward Zwick had thrown their considerable clout behind creator Winnie Holzman’s unprecedented storytelling abilities to craft a program that flew in the face of every instinct network programmers had at the time. My So-Called Life was a sophisticated, hour-long drama written for adults and teens with a 14-year-old star. That sentence alone should’ve prevented it from ever seeing the light of day on network television.

The Network. Fortunately, ABC had a long history of taking chances and bucking trends. This was the network, after all, that not only gave the controversial sitcom Soap 4 years with which to hang itself*, but also backed the long-running paranormal daytime soap opera Dark Shadows, and the brilliantly unhinged Twin Peaks, to name but a few rolls of the dice. It also took a chance on a little show called Thirtysomething, which went on to define a generation...and to give producers Zwick and Herskovitz the ability to bring My So-Called Life into the world on their own terms.

*I refer those interested in Soap’s saga to my book Soap: The Inside Story of the Sitcom That Broke ALL the Rules.

The Admirers. When MSCL was canceled many viewers were crushed. The rescue campaign that Joyner built from scratch, “Operation Life Support,” transformed the routine putting-out-to-pasture of a program into a public event that grabbed headlines and changed the power dynamic between audience and networks. (You can find a detailed history of Operation Life Support here.)

ABC, which fielded its share of boycotts and angry calls over its continued airing of Soap in the ‘70s, now found itself under considerable pressure over NOT airing a show.

The MSCL rescue effort required fund-raising to pay for full-page ads in major newspapers, round-the-clock fielding of viewer and media calls, and organization of petition drives; it effectively became a full-time job.

This moment in media history completely changed the way that audiences, producers, actors and network executives viewed their relationships to one another. And in some ways, in our age of YouTube and streaming deals that rescue canceled shows from oblivion, it is a relationship that is still being redefined today.

So Beautiful it Hurts’ is neither endorsed by nor affiliated with ABC, The Bedford Falls Co., nor anyone involved with the making or distribution of “My So-Called Life.”


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