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My
So‐Called
Life
Meets
The
X‐Files:


Winnie
Holzman’s
Influence
on
Joss
Whedon


When
I
think
about
My
So‐Called
Life,...
I
think
about
that
line
in
Star

Wars,
when
Obi‐Wan
Kenobi
tells
Darth
Vader,
“If
you
strike
me
down,

I
shall
become
more
powerful
than
you
can
possibly
imagine.”
(Greg

Berlanti
[in
Jensen
2004,
129])


[My
So‐Called
Life]
is
the
benchmark,
the
gold
standard.
(Joss
Whedon)


Emblazoned
on
a
t‐shirt
now
for
sale
on
the
internet,
we
find
the

words
(in
an
imitation
of
the
font
used
in
Star
Wars)
“Joss
Whedon
is
My

Master
Now.”
Among
his
enthusiastic
fans,
Whedon,
creator
of
the
television

series
Buffy
the
Vampire
Slayer
(1997–2003),
Angel
(2000–2005),
and
Firefly

(2003),
and
director
of
Serenity
(2005),
and
the
forthcoming
feature
film

version
of
Wonder
Woman,
has
acquired
unprecedented
allegiance,
the
sort
a

1
George
Lucas
once
inspired,
or
a
Darth
Vader
demanded. 

But
at
a
November
1999
symposium
on
“Writing
for
Teens
and
Television”
at

Los
Angeles’
Museum
of
Television
and
Radio
it
was
Whedon
who
played
the

supplicant.
At
one
point
in
a
free‐wheeling
discussion,
Whedon
leaves
his
chair
to

bow
down,
literally
(as
the
kids
say
these
days),
before
co‐panelist
Winnie
Holzman,

creator
of
the
subject
of
this
book.
Such
worship
should
not
surprise
us.
After
all,

Whedon
has
described
his
greatest
creation
Buffy
as
an
age‐of‐recombinant‐
programming
hybrid
of
The
X‐Files
and
My
So‐Called
Life
(“Joss
Whedon,
Executive

2
Producer
of
Angel”), 
and
at
“Writing
Teens”
he
emphatically
calls
Life
“the

benchmark,
the
gold
standard”
for
teen
television.

Buffy
the
Vampire
Slayer
was,
of
course,
originally
a
1992
movie—a
quite

awful
movie,
written
by
Whedon
but
directed
by
Fran
Rubel
Kuzui—long
before
it

became
one
of
television’s
greatest
programs.
Neither
Kuzui,
nor
the
film’s

performers—Kristy
Swanson,
Donald
Sutherland,
Rutger
Hauer,
Luke
Perry,
Paul

Rubens—could
quite
pull
off
Whedon’s
signature
amalgam
of
horror,
pathos,
and

humor.


1
. For more on Whedon as an object of fan idolization, see my “’A
Religion in Narrative’: Joss Whedon and Television Creativity” (2002)
2
. The idea of “recombinant” programming, the genetic mixing and
matching of seemingly disparate television genres and formulae, was first
articulated by Todd Gitlin in Inside Prime Time (77-81).
The Collected Works of David Lavery 2

In
spring
of
the
year
after
Buffy
had
failed
at
the
multiplex,
causing
Joss

3
Whedon
to
turn
to
script
doctoring, 
the
pilot
of
My
So‐Called
Life
went
into

production.
Over
the
next
year
and
a
half,
during
an
irregular
and
frequently

4
interrupted
production, 
eighteen
more
episodes
of
Life
were
made
before
ABC
would

pull
the
plug
on
its
critically
praised
but
ratings
poor
show.
(Its

time
slot
dominated
by
a
new
show
called
Friends,
Life
was

bringing
in
only
$50,000
a
commercial
by
the
time
it
ended
in

January
1995
[Jensen
2004,
132)].)
As
if
to
make
a
statement

that
such
innovative
quality
television
was
not
welcome
on
the

network,
Life
would
be
replaced
by
the
utterly
formulaic,

5
geriatric
legal
drama
Matlock,
starring
Andy
Griffith. 

When
Buffy
the
Vampire
Slayer
was
miraculously
reborn

later
in
the
decade
as
a
television
series
on
the
WB,
a
fledgling
netlet,
Whedon,
now

given
full
control
over
his
special
creation,
was
determined
to
steep
his

extraordinary
tale
of
“the
one
girl
in
all
the
world
with
the
strength
and
skill
to
hunt

the
vampires”
and
her
battles
with
both
the
evils
of
the
Hellmouth
and
the
horrors
of

6
Sunnydale
High
School
in
“emotional
realism.” 
Buffy,
Whedon
would
tell
The
Onion,

is
really
“about
adolescence,
which
is
the
most
important
thing
people
go
through
in

their
development,
becoming
an
adult.
And
it
mythologizes
it
in
such
a
way,
such
a

romantic
way—it
basically
says,
‘Everybody
who
made
it
through
adolescence
is
a

hero’”
(Whedon
2002,
375).
Struck
down,
brought
to
an
untimely
end,
My
So‐Called

Life
had
in
fact
returned
for
a
more
extended,
more
powerful
narrative
existence
in

shows
like
Buffy.


3
. Among his uncredited projects was the smash hit Toy Story (1995).
4
. My discussion of the production of My So-Called Life’s here and
throughout this essay is dependent on “Life as We Knew It,” Jeff Jensen’s
valuable oral history in Entertainment Weekly (2004).
5
According to Herskovitz’ memory of the final showdown with the
network, Zwick’s closing argument on the behalf of Life was certainly
eloquent, though not convincing: “You are giving a voice to hundreds of
thousands of people in the this culture who are utterly disenfranchised—
teenagers and particularly teenage girls—who have no voice of their own. You
should keep the show on for no other reason” (Jensen 2004, 132).
6
“Whedon would recount to Bianculli “about appearing in a chatroom
after ‘Innocence’ (2014), an episode in which Angel breaks the curse which
had given him a soul by having sex with Buffy, becoming again the fiendishly
evil Angelus. When a young woman responded on line by confessing to
Whedon that ‘this exact same thing happened to me,’ Whedon explains, he
knew he was accomplishing precisely what he had hoped for with the series”
(Lavery and Wilcox 2002, xxiv).
The Collected Works of David Lavery 3


 

What
exactly
was
Joss
Whedon
worshipping
in
1999
when,
prostrate
at
Winnie

Holzman’s
feet,
he
proclaimed
himself,
like
Garth
in
Wayne’s
World,
not
worthy?
A

decade
older
than
Whedon
(she
was
born
in
1954,
he
in
1964),
Holzman
had
worked

on
The
Wonder
Years
and
thirtysomething
prior
to
being
challenged
by
the
creators

7
of
the
latter,
Ed
Zwick
and
Marshall
Herskovitz, 
to
develop
“an
‘uncensored’

depiction
of
teenage
life”
(Jensen
2004,
129).
The
mother
of
an
eight
year
old
at
the

time
and
her
own
adolescence
decades
in
the
past,
Holzman
made
use
of
an

opportunity
provided
by
the
Writers
Guild
of
America
to
teach
in
a
high
school
in

order
to
familiarize
herself
with
her
subject.
To
her
great
surprise
she
discovered

little
had
changed
in
the
intervening
decades:
teenagers
were
plagued
by
the
same

problems
she
had
known
back
in
the
sixties.
High
school
was
still
a
“battlefield
for

8
your
heart”
(1001). 
Gregory
Berlanti,
creator
of
the
current
WB
drama
Everwood,

has
deemed
Life
“the
most
painfully
honest
portrayal
of
adolescence
ever
on

television”
(Jensen
2004,
129).
Was
it
not
this—Holzman’s
for‐its‐time
bold

exploration
of
the
narrative
possibilities
of
pain
and
honesty
for
television—to
which

Whedon
made
obeisance?



 

Zwick
|
Herskowitz


7
For more on Zwick and Herskovitz’s contribution to the development
of contemporary television, see James Longworth’s interviews with each in TV
Creators.
8
. “The show was bringing back emotions [grownups] never dealt with
completely…” Holzman would observe, “bringing up emotions regarding their
teen years or begun in teen years that were very profound for them.... ‘How
do you know my life’ was a phrase I read many times in a fan letter. That has
to do with just tapping into something that’s universal” (in Owen 1997, 141).
The Collected Works of David Lavery 4

I
do
not
mean
to
suggest
Life
and
Buffy
were
two
peas
in
a
pod.
Life’s
brief
TV

life
transpired
on
a
major
network,
with
more
stringent,
pre‐boutique
TV
ratings

demands.
Despite
bottom‐feeding
Nielsen’s,
Buffy
survived
for
seven
years
as
the

flagship
show
of
two
new
netlets
because
its
audience
demographics
were
desirable.

Life
took
place
in
Pittsburgh,
a
setting
that
compounded
and

enhanced
its
intrinsic
realism,
and
both
its
lead
character,

Angela
Chase
[pictured],
and
her
classmates
(discussed
in
detail

in
the
essays
in
this
volume),
though
unique
and
three‐
dimensional,
were
instantly
recognizable.
Buffy,
on
the
other

hand,
came
to
us
from
the
mythical
California
town
of
Sunnydale,

9
to
which
Buffy,
a
“Gidget
for
the
fin‐de
Siècle,” 
and
her
mother
had
moved
from
Los

Angeles
after
the
events
of
the
movie
had
resulted
in
the
Slayer’s
expulsion
from

high
school.
Her
cohorts,
“the
Scooby
Gang”
and
their
fellow
travelers,
included,

over
the
course
of
the
series,
a
representative
of
the
Watcher’s
Council,
an
ancient

order
devoted
to
vanquishing
ancient
evil,
a
Jewish
computer
genius
who
would
later

become
a
lesbian
and
a
witch,
a
werewolf,
two
(2)
vampires
with
souls,
a
1,000
year

old
vengeance
demon
trapped
in
a
human
body,
and
a
sister
who
was
in
reality
an

incarnated
form
of
a
powerful
energy
force
that
could
open
the
doors
between

dimensions.

To
paraphrase
the
patriarch
of
theatrical
realism
Henrik
Ibsen,
the
illusion

which
Life
wished
to
create
was
that
of
reality;
Buffy,
on
the
other
hand,
while,
like

Life,
taking
its
true
subject
to
be
what
Whedon
called
the
“incredible
hormonal

awfulness”
of
high
school
(“Writing
for
Teens”),
was
an
exercise
in
the
fantastic—The

X‐Files
part
of
“Life
meets…”—with
a
powerful
compulsion
for
the
metaphoric.

Buffy
was
also
fully
committed
to
genre
hybridization
in
a
way
Life
never

could
be.
Teen
melodrama,
horror,
kick‐ass
martial
arts,
television
quality
(aka
low

budget)
special
effects—all
played
a
regular
role,
all
contributing
to
its
mix.
On
a

DVD
commentary,
Whedon
makes
light
of
Buffy’s
recombinations,
and,
with
his

unmistakable
tongue‐in‐cheek
humor,
he
identifies
Buffy’s
special
recipe:
“The
two

things
that
matter
the
most
to
me:
emotional
resonance
and
rocket
launchers.
Party

of
Five,
a
brilliant
show,
and
often
made
me
cry
uncontrollably,
suffered
ultimately

10
from
a
lack
of
rocket
launchers”
(DVD
Commentary
for
“Innocence”). 


9
See Siemann (2002).
10
. See my “Emotional Resonance and Rocket Launchers” (2002)
The Collected Works of David Lavery 5

Language
in
the
two
series
also
presents
a
clear
contrast.
Consider
this
voice

over
commentary
by
Angela,
explaining
the
dream
sequence
which
opens
Life’s
final

episode,
“In
Dreams
Begin
Responsibilities”:


In
the
dream
I
keep
having
about
Jordan
Catalano,
I’m
trying
to
catch
up
with

him.
But
it’s
hard,
because
there’s
something
wrong
with
the
floor.

Sometimes
my
father
is
there.
Sometimes
my
great‐aunt
Gertrude’s
funeral

kinda
gets
mixed
in
with
it.
The
end
of
the
dream
is
always
the
same—I
catch

up
with
him.
I
yell
and
scream,
how
he
hurt
and
betrayed
me.
How
I
can
never

forgive
him.
He
just
stands
there,
like
someone
caught
in
a
storm
who

stopped
caring
how
what
he
gets.
Then
I
wake
up.
The
storm
of
words
still

pounds
through
my
body.
Hatred
can
become,
like,
food.
It
gives
you
this

energy.
You
can,
like,
live
off
it.


The
sentence
fragments,
the
use
of
a
phonological
reduction
like
“kinda,”
the

reliance
on
“like”—all
mark
Angela’s
voiceover
as
the
fairly
typical,
fairly
realistic

speech
of
a
very
bright
teenager.
(Linguist
Geoffrey
Nunberg,
whose

controversial
defense
of
the
much‐despised
reliance
of
teens
on
the

word
“like”
as
a
distinctive
qualifier
and
a
means
of
denoting
quotation

and
citation,
would
find
Life’s
“likes”
of
great
interest
as
representative

utterances
[2004,
264‐67].)
The
language
of
Buffy,
on
the
other
hand,

often
called
“Buffyspeak”
or
sometimes
“Slayer
Slang,”
was
admittedly

11
made
up 
but
has
proven
fascinating
and
influential
for
fans,
who
have

imitated/adopted
it
in
cultish
ways,
and
scholars,
who
have
found
worthy
of
in‐
12
depth,
lexicographical
study. 

The
ends
of
both
Life
and
Buffy
were
hastened
by
the

impending
departure
of
their
stars.
“Buffy
Quits,”
shouted
the

cover
story
of
the
March
7,
2003
Entertainment
Weekly,
and

indeed
the
reluctance
of
Sarah
Michelle
Gellar,
aspiring
to
be
a

movie
star,
to
renew
her
contract
(coinciding
with
the
end
of
the

series’
two
year
deal
with
its
new
network
UPN)
proved
fatal
to
an


11
. During “The Writing for Teens and Television” symposium, in an
exchange about adolescent language, Whedon readily admits, as he has done
in other interviews, that Buffyspeak was his creation and not intended to be
mimetic.
12
. See Michael Adams’ impressive Oxford University Press lexicon,
Slayer Slang (2003).
The Collected Works of David Lavery 6

enterprise
that
was,
because
of
Whedon’s
own
increasing
lack
of
commitment,

probably
in
its
last
days
anyway.

Nine
years
before,
with
Life
already
“on
the
bubble”
and
ABC
dubious
about

its
return,
network
Vice‐President
for
entertainment
Ted
Harbert,
pressured
by

Claire
Danes’
agents,
who
asked
for
accommodation
of
the
show’s
production

schedule
to
allow
the
show’s
star
to
make
movies,
would
make
his
“biggest
mistake

at
ABC”
and
“throw
in
the
towel.”
“I’ve
never
told
the
press
this,”
Harbert
would

confide
to
Entertainment
Weekly,
“Claire’s
representatives
called.
They
said,
‘We

think
she
has
a
big
movie
career,
and
we
need
to
alter
the
production
schedule
so

she
can
do
movies.’
I
knew
if
I
went
to
management
with
that
story
what
the

response
was
going
to
be”
(Jensen
2004,
132).

But
Buffy,
at
least,
would
get
to
plan
its
end—to
think
through
its
“narrative

eschatology,”
as
I
have
called
it
elsewhere
(Lavery
2004),
while
Life,
terminated

before
accumulating
even
one
full
season
of
stories,
had
no
such
luxury.
Jensen

observes
that
many
Life
episodes
exhibit
“a
sense
of
finality
...
as
if
the
writers

didn’t
know
if
they
were
telling
their
last
story”
(132)
each

week.
Its
actual
finale,
the
masterful
“In
Dreams
Begin

Responsibilities,”
written
by
Holzman
herself,
ends
with
a

poignant
cliffhanger,
Angela
riding
off
with
Jordan
Catalano

after
discovering
the
“Dear
Angela”
love
letter
that
inspired

the
title
of
this
book
and
convinced
her,
however

momentarily,
of
the
author’s
love,
was
actually
written
by,

not
the
barely‐literature
object
of
her
lust,
but
her
Cyrano,

Brian
Krakow
[pictured].
It
would
have
been
a
perfect

13
season‐ender
for
almost
any
show
but
Buffy, 
but
as
a
closureless
series‐ender,
it

left
the
central
dilemma
of
Life
forever
in
limbo.

The
careers
of
Holzman
and
Whedon
have
continued
to
evolve.
After
Life
she

would
go
on
to
author
the
film
‘Till
There
Was
You
(Scott
Winant
1997)
and
write
for

the
series
Once
and
Again
(1992–2002),
once
again
working
with
Zwick
and

Herskowitz.
More
recently,
her
adaptation
of
Gregory
MacGuire’s
Wicked:
The
Life


13
. As I have explained elsewhere (2003), Buffy was allergic to season-
ending cliffhangers: “the basic pattern of a Buffy year—established in its first
year, in part because Whedon and company were not certain they would be
renewed and wanted to finish the story of Buffy’s battle with the Master ‘well
within parameters,’ in the twelve episodes available of a partial season—has
been to tell the whole story of the Scooby Gang’s battle with and defeat of a
new Big Bad” (paragraph 7).
The Collected Works of David Lavery 7

and
Times
of
the
Wicked
Witch
of
the
West
for
Broadway
earned
her
a
2004
Tony

Award
nomination.
After
creating
the
successful
Buffy
spinoff
Angel
and
the

summarily
cancelled
sci‐fi
western
Firefly,
Whedon
has
now
seemingly
realized
his

long‐time
aspiration
to
create
for
the
big
screen.
With
the
help
of
an
avid
fandom,
he

succeeded
in
continuing
the
story
of
Firefly
in
the
feature
film
Serenity,
reversing
the

failed
movie‐into‐television‐series
path
of
Buffy,
and
two
other
movies
are
in

development,
Goners
and
the
sure‐to‐be‐big
budget
Wonder
Woman.
Life
after
Life,

life
after
Buffy
have
both
produced
surprising
results.
For
the
time
being,
however,

both
Holzman,
now
on
Broadway,
and
Whedon,
who
admitted
to
Kimberly
Potts
to

having
“a
bitter
taste
in
my
mouth
with
where
TV”
has
gone
(he
finds
reality
TV

“loathsome”),
have
moved
on
from
the
medium
where
their
greatest
creations
were

born
and
lived,
though
in
the
case
of
My
So‐Called
Life,
for
far
too
short
a
time.