One of the aspects of My So-Called Life that makes it so endlessly rewatchable today is the way it not only explores human relationships, but also the way relationships change over time. While the fourth episode, "Father Figures," gives us an intricate portrait of two father-daughter relationships painfully changing before our eyes – Angela and Graham on the one hand, Patty and Chuck (Paul Dooley) the other – it also marked the show’s first real growing pains behind the scenes, too.
Up till now MSCL had been tightly controlled by the "Three Rivers" – creator Winnie Holzman and executive producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick – working closely with director Scott Winant. This quartet had gelled nicely on Thirtysomething and kicked off this follow-up series with a shared vision of what it should be. (Winant directed the first two episodes [Pilot and “Dancing in the Dark”], Herskovitz the third [“Guns and Gossip”].)
With "Father Figures," the executive producers brought in an outside director for the first time: Mark Rosner. Zwick and Herskovitz knew him from their days at the American Film Institute (AFI), and later hired him to develop the pilot for the 1989 NBC drama Dream Street.
“Those guys were great and it was probably the best working relationship of my career,” Rosner says of the show, which followed the lives and loves of blue-collar twentysomethings in Hoboken. “Every day was fun and there was a lot of mutual respect.”
Yet when he was given the opportunity to direct this episode of My So-Called Life, Rosner, who had also been head writer and director on NBC’s Crime Story (1987-88), felt like “a fish out of water.” After a few years of being in charge, he was now being asked to serve the vision of others instead.
“Just looking back on it I wish I had been more flexible in accommodating myself to the culture of the show,” he admits. “…We had different ways of working, different ways of approaching things. And I would say Scott Winant had a fully formed, very theatrical and flowing directorial style, and my style was really different: it was much grittier, much more street based. I was really into a kind of intensity and they were really not interested in having that in the show.”
What the director couldn’t have known at the time was just how much the executive producers were fighting to keep their unique vision intact. Even if they enjoyed a relatively small amount of network interference, they were still blazing new trails in drama – ones in which cliches were either subverted or avoided at all costs. Every line that Holzman wrote did everything possible to keep the characters’ emotions simmering…the exact opposite of the cathartic moments TV directors are trained to go for.
“There’s a big scene where [Graham] and [Patty] have a fight and he’s left on the stairs, and I got him to punch the wall in anger,” Rosner recalls. “That disappeared. It just became clear to me that the kind of emotions that I was interested in or used to evoking...were not really part of the show.”
Toward the end of this episode most would agree that Graham has earned the right to punch the wall after the frustrations he’s experienced. But such a violent display would’ve instantly downgraded him in our eyes. How sympathetic or understanding would we have been later on as we watched him wrestle with his feelings for Patty and Hallie if we were still carrying around the image of him punching a wall?
Nearly 30 years later it’s clear that – realizing they’d probably never enjoy this level of network freedom again – the trio resolved to do things exactly as they had envisioned them; the results speak for themselves.
Still, it’s difficult to miss the comparison between Patty trying to prove herself to Chuck on camera, and Rosner doing likewise with the Three Rivers behind it. Of course Holzman, Zwick and Herskovitz were also trying to do the same thing with ABC…which takes us back to MSCL’s unparalleled knack for exploring relationships.
Though Rosner would never direct another episode of the show, it has to be said that “Father Figures” remains one of the strongest of the series. This is due in part to that Rosner “intensity” – I’m thinking in particular of the kitchen scene where Graham’s teaching Rayanne how to make fritters.
While most probably think of Winant’s direction of the Pilot when they remember the series today – the scenes for the opening credits were plucked from it, after all – every director brought a new dimension to the show, helping to make it the multidimensional achievement that it is.
So Beautiful it Hurts: The Making of My So-Called Life’ 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.”