In a recent comment thread about the lack of iconic coming-of-age movies in the '90s, I pointed to the sole exception -- the cult TV show My So-Called Life.
It only ran during the '94-'95 season, and was not aired much (if at all) in re-runs. So, unlike the John Hughes movies of the '80s, they were not available to rent on video long after the first run, and even the initial showing was just another prime-time TV broadcast rather than a big-time theatrical release. This kept the show from catching on with a wider range of birth cohorts -- mostly those born in the late '70s and early '80s. But at least among them, the show was iconic, one that always comes up when they think of examples that define the zeitgeist of the '90s (for better or worse).
After posting that comment, I felt a tiny wave of nostalgia and got curious about whether My So-Called Life is still being offered on a streaming service. And sure enough, all 19 episodes are free to watch on Hulu (click here). Worth checking out if you've never seen it, although nothing you need to be in a rush to see. Hearing a musical score modulate the tone from one scene to the next was a breath of fresh air, compared to how devoid of music today's movies and TV shows are.
The episode I watched, "The Substitute," starts off like The Dead Poets Society, with the high school students introduced to a new English teacher, whose iconoclastic style shakes up the stodgy status quo, and whose passion captures the attention of the previously bored-to-death teenagers. As the teacher and the students prepare for the publication of the school's literary magazine, a battle over censorship ignites between them and the principal. (One of the poems is clumsily erotic but not obscene, written by one of the girl students.) By the end of the episode, the substitute is gone, and the bow-tie-wearing principal has taken his place.
Unlike the Very Special Episodes of the '80s, the tone throughout is naturalistic and low-key, rather than histrionic shouting between the teacher / students and the principal.
But even more distinctive of its time, by the end the protagonist Angela has a bitter taste left in her mouth over the whole ordeal, rather than the satisfaction of "fighting the good fight" and holding out hope for greater success next time. After the literary magazine is pulled from circulation, only one other character joins Angela in re-distributing it. Evidently no one else is willing to stick their neck out for The Cause. Her Boomer parents instinctively take the principal's side, and she more or less calls them hypocrites who have endlessly told her stories about how they marched for ideals in the Sixties.
These are relatively minor reasons, though, for losing your youthful Romanticism. The main disillusionment comes near the end, when Angela learns the truth about why the substitute will no longer be teaching there, which leaves her feeling cynical and betrayed by him, rather than righteously hopeful after her side's defeat.*
The Boomers, who would have felt a heartwarming bridging of generations in The Dead Poets Society, would have interpreted this episode as a sign of a defeatist and apathetic mindset among the teenagers of the Nineties. The teenagers themselves, however, took it more as a cautionary tale about allowing yourself to be easily seduced by charismatic strangers who urge you to question everything and follow your passion, as they are more likely to be some kind of con man than a genuine role model.
If the take-away message had only been about choosing your battles, tempering idealism with pragmatism, and rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's, I think the Boomers could have felt that their Sixties legacy had still been passed along relatively intact to the younger generation. After all, by the mid-'90s even the Boomers themselves were no longer tie-dyed hippies.
But given the sordid and banal unraveling of the substitute's stature by the end, the Gen X viewer took away the message that being a passionate idealist was wrong-headed to begin with. Not simply that they should aim in the same direction as the Sixties generation, only walking in baby steps and not pushing as hard. But that the Sixties path pointed in an entirely off-base direction altogether.
What direction did the show preach that teenagers travel along instead? It didn't give an answer, other than "not in the Sixties direction". It was not a lame episode that would play out today about the relative merits of competing ideologies. It was a simple coming-of-age story about lost innocence, and learning from it a lesson of humility -- that your impulsiveness can lead you into acting like a naive idiot who can be easily taken advantage of.
Despite the wishes of helicopter parents, that lesson is not one that can be taught by instruction beforehand, like the alphabet or the list of American presidents. It's one of those experiences, like skinned knees, that the kid has to go through themselves in order to come away from it stronger and more mature. It's not a dangerous experience, just one that is unpleasant and uncomfortable for a little while. The relatively non-interventionist approach of Angela's parents strikes me as realistic for the time. Millennials were being over-protected during this period, but the late X-ers were still allowed to experience skinned knees in the course of growing up out of childhood.
I don't want to suggest that this episode in itself changed the minds of an entire generation. It was not one of those "Who shot Mr. Burns?" episodes that all the kids were talking about. But it was the kind of thing that strongly resonated with teenagers of the time, and marked the shift away from passionate idealism and toward even-headed pragmatism among Gen X.
Also worth noting, by way of contrasting X-ers with Millennials, that Angela doesn't throw a hissy fit at the end. The ordeal was just another one of those disillusioning experiences of adolescence -- better get over it and move on, no point wallowing in pity. She also humbly realizes that she'd allowed herself to be had, rather than putting all the blame on one or another of the grown-ups. You definitely would not see that if they tried to re-make the series today.
* Spoiler, highlight to read: [He had not been fired by the principal, as though it were the final injustice in the battle over ideals. Instead, the principal had received a notice that the substitute was wanted for deserting his family in another part of the country, and failing to pay child support all along. The substitute quit upon seeing the notice. When Angela tracks him down to confront him about leaving his family, he gives a series of evasive and empty answers, further disappointing her for having been taken under his spell.]