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A Matter Of ‘My So-Called Life’ Or Death

When the ‘90s cult classic was canceled, devastated fans fought back—and created a strategy we’re still using

The life of My So-Called Life was short. Only 19 episodes were ever produced, and not quite nine months passed between the show’s August 1994 premiere and its cancellation due to low ratings the following May. It debuted in a pre-Titanic landscape, when teen girls were all but dismissed as an audience — three years later, commercials that aired during Dawson’s Creek would command five times the advertising dollars — and the show’s 8 p.m. Thursday time slot pitted it against NBC heavyweights Friends and Mad About You. A weekly viewership of 10 million made MSCL the least popular primetime series on ABC, then the most popular network.

The beloved ABC show centered on Angela Chase (Claire Danes), a 15-year-old high school sophomore in a fictitious suburb of Pittsburgh. She rolled her eyes at the absurdities of adolescence and adulthood, expressing her angst in narration that was equal parts poetic, painful and deeply funny. Created by Winnie Holzman and executive-produced by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, alumni of ABC’s Thirtysomething, the series became a critical darling. Star Claire Danes — who was only 13 when the pilot was shot, but already a spellbinding talent — won the Golden Globe for best actress in a TV drama over Angela Lansbury.

My So-Called Life was an authentic, compassionate look at teenagers in their natural habitat, but it doubled as a treatise on heartbreak in all its forms: between crushes, between friends, between parents and their children, between spouses, between siblings. And then there was the real-life heartbreak. The show’s untimely demise galvanized its bereaved fans into something pop culture had never seen before: the first-ever online campaign to save a television series, at a time when fewer than 12% of U.S. households had internet access — and when hardly anyone could have imagined the inescapable impact the internet would come to have on all the media we consume.

They may not have succeeded, but they had a time.

In 1994, Steve Joyner was a 27-year-old writer living in San Francisco. He didn’t really watch TV, apart from 60 Minutes. But he did listen to NPR. He heard an audio snippet from the My So-Called Life pilot played on the air that summer.

“It just appealed to me,” Joyner recalls. “I put it in my calendar to tune in, no expectations.”

And like Angela watching dreamy Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) lean against a locker, he fell in love. Joyner most closely identified with Brian “Brain” Krakow (Devon Gummersall), because he was “kind of awkward, shy, semi-obsessed with this girl — very much me, at the time.” But he saw “bits and pieces” of himself in the entire ensemble.

In the hopes of connecting with like-minded fans, he turned to the internet, navigating the web on his Macintosh SE at a time when browsers were still in their infancy. He was delighted by what he found on forums hosted by the likes of AOL, Compuserve, eWorld and on Usenet newsgroups. “There were so many people just like me who saw the show and went, ‘Wow.’ And then they learned it was actually not doing well, and then they freaked. They really freaked, in a big way,” he said.

Joyner had discovered an incredible enthusiasm for MSCL — and distress over its possible cancellation — bubbling over in message boards, but a total lack of cohesion. “I thought, if you brought all this energy and all this passion together with some guidance or leadership, and focused it like a laser beam, that could maybe achieve some results,” he said.

Over the long Thanksgiving weekend, he composed a 2,000-word email to fans who’d posted about the show online. He titled it “A So-Called Call to Arms.”

“Like a great many of you, I am absolutely gaga over MSCL,” Joyner wrote on November 30, 1994. “It is well-observed, superbly written and brilliantly acted. The plots are intricate, the characters frighteningly real — in short, a breath of fresh air. I believe my love for this show to be a reflection of yours. And like you, I am shocked and dismayed that the end of the honeymoon is nigh — that, alas, the last episode of My So-Called Life MIGHT be less than two months away.”

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In this email, he went on to propose not only a name for their group, Operation Life Support (OLS for short), but a specific course of action. If they raised $2,580, MSCL fans could publish an open letter to Ted Harbert, then-president of ABC Entertainment, as a full-page ad in Daily Variety, the “diurnal bible of the entertainment industry.” Joyner personally invested $600 as seed money, although he’d end up contributing more than $2,000 to the cause.

OLS soon began soliciting donations in exchange for My So-Called Life T-shirts, VHS tapes and other merchandise. (Winnie Holzman had an Operation Life Support T-shirt for years, before eventually giving it to a young friend who was a fan of the show. “You don’t really want to wear a shirt that’s all about a show you wrote,” she explained. “That’s too embarrassing.”)

Operation Life Support ultimately raised a staggering $90,000, Joyner says. Yes, that’s “nine zero thousand.” His missive caught the attention of a New York Post reporter browsing the same forums. Then, once the AP picked up the story, “media fed on media.”

Joyner estimates that he did more than 100 interviews as a spokesman for OLS, for coverage appearing in outlets like The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, People, TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly, The Washington Post, and USA Today, and with Joyner himself appearing on Entertainment Tonight, CNN and Showbiz Today.

“It was totally a brave new world,” MSCL creator Winnie Holzman told me. “Those of us making the show, we were some of the first people ever to be getting responses to our show online. People were used to getting a little bit of fan mail, or maybe even a lot of fan mail. People weren’t used to this kind of immediate response.”

Holzman remembers younger staff members excitedly showing her internet posts about My So-Called Life, but she found it easier to remain somewhat detached. “It’s not that I wasn’t thrilled that people were getting excited about the show. I really was,” she said. “But when it got too specific, it was distracting. So in a way, I was trying to tune it out.”

Winnie Holzman personally experienced the real-world impact of Operation Life Support when an unusual shipment arrived via the network: several “huge” garbage bags overflowing with letters, which she’d store in her garage for years. “You feel like, well, people went to all that trouble, but then at the same time, you don’t really know what to do with them,” she said.

MSCL’s last scheduled episode (and, as it would turn out, its last-ever episode), “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” aired on January 26, 1995 — after which point ABC declared the show “on hiatus” and replaced it with Matlock. OLS chose that fateful day to publish their open letter, cowritten by Joyner and two OLS advisers, in both Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. They might as well have nailed copies to the doors of every ABC executive’s office.

Joyner had thought that placing these ads would be a natural stopping point for OLS’ fund-raising, but couldn’t have imagined the “avalanche” of responses the campaign would unleash. He heard from some of the adult actors on the show and the parents of the younger cast members — many of whom he eventually got to meet, as well as Winnie Holzman — not to mention thousands of fans. By the emails, letters and phone calls that flooded in, Joyner could track the countries the show had spread to. Canada was huge, then came Germany, then France, and later Russia.

The appeal of the show seemingly transcended age, bringing together teens, their parents, and even their parents’ parents. Joyner heard from teachers who assigned MSCL in their English classes. He heard from the parents of gay teens, moved by Wilson Cruz’s Rickie Vasquez, the first lead character on primetime television show to come out — more than two years before Ellen (and Ellen) did the same. “I know that his character has saved lives,” Joyner said.

By January, Joyner recalled, “All I would do is OLS and sleep and OLS and sleep and OLS and that’s it.” That April, MTV started airing reruns of My So-Called Life (then still on hiatus) every weeknight, in an unprecedented deal with ABC — a big win for the show’s supporters. Joyner soon appeared in an MTV news story that raised the fervor surrounding OLS to new heights. Kurt Loder introduced him as the “show’s biggest champion” in a segment that also featured an interview with Danes.

Joyner had procured an 800 number for MTV to display to viewers. He had also registered OLS for a voicemail service, but the account, which was only able to hold 15 minutes of messages at once, filled up “instantaneously.”

“My Sprint bill was enormous,” Joyner recalled. “It was about three-quarters of an inch of printed paper.”

Between responding to media, maintaining a business account, processing the mail, and forwarding fan letters to cast members like Wilson Cruz and Claire Danes, he was exhausted. With little time left to pursue his own career, he was largely living off the advance for a book he’d written the previous year. “There was this sense that you were contacting something that was somewhat organized and official, but behind the scenes it was just me, going insane,” Joyner said.

The glowing response My So-Called Life received in many corners of the internet was a show writer’s dream come true. But as affectionate and appreciative as she felt toward the members of OLS, Holzman nevertheless chose to keep her distance — as she put it, they didn’t share the same goal. “It’s not that I wanted the show to be taken off the air,” she explained. “But it wasn’t my job to fight and fight for it to be on the air. My job was to accept whatever happened, gracefully, and to handle it in a way that was productive for me.” Holzman, Herskovitz and Zwick had already made their pleas to the network. They had done their part. And now it was out of their hands.

The show was officially canceled on May 15, 1995. To mark the next day’s ABC upfront presentation (on, ironically, Joyner’s birthday), Operation Life Support had taken out another full-page ad, this one in USA Today, for the price of $15,000. It read, in insistent bold, “On May 16th, we guarantee that ABC will be the most watched network.” OLS meant that in more ways than one.

The cancellation didn’t come as a shock to anyone on the show, Holzman told me, although they were always hopeful. “[The network was] ambivalent about it from the beginning. They never ceased to be ambivalent about it. I had plenty of time all season to take in how ambivalent they felt.” But she gives ABC a lot of credit: “No other network at that time would have put that show on the air, so that’s more important in a way than that they took it off the air.”

Once the plug was pulled, it didn’t take long for Holzman to come to a place of gratitude. “It was perfect the way it was,” she said. “We got to make 19 episodes pretty much how we wanted to, which is an incredible gift.”

But when My So-Called Life’s exact cause of death became the subject of public debate, some fans’ grief took on an unexpected dimension of betrayal. In an email statement to the members of Operation Life Support that was soon picked up by the press, Joyner blamed Angela Chase herself for the show’s demise: “Claire Danes Brings Death to Life,’” read the subject line. He wrote that the actress, her family, and her agent “have worked long and hard to convince ABC that Claire has no interest in returning to My So-Called Life and thus gave ABC a trump card to cancel the series.”

“Whether the show would have been canceled anyway, one can only speculate,” he added.

“I had three sources that independently corroborated this, so I was very comfortable saying it,” Joyner told me, explaining that he’d been hearing whispers about Danes’ desire to move on from people “very close to the show” for some time. “But I got a lot of flak for pointing the finger at Claire.” In hindsight, he came to regret the negative tone of the letter, but maintains that he would still publish the same facts.

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“I believe if Claire stayed, the ratings would not have done it in,” Joyner told me.

Claire Danes, then 16, had just starred alongside Winona Ryder and Kirsten Dunst in Little Women (she was Beth — yes, the one who dies), and was balancing a blossoming film career with the hourlong drama’s grueling production schedule and her own schooling. Ten days after the cancellation, Danes called the backlash she’d been subjected to from MSCL fans “hurtful” in Liz Smith’s Newsday column. “It’s all about money and ratings, and I wish the people who loved the show, and who miss it, could get that,” she said. “It wasn’t one person’s ego that killed it — certainly not mine!” (Danes’ publicist did not respond to a request for comment on this story.)

For her part, Holzman firmly believes that the cancellation was not Danes’ decision to make — nor anyone’s but the network’s. “I don’t believe for a minute that they wanted to keep the show on. They may have used her somewhat as an excuse,” she said. “If they wanted that show, they would have found a way to bring it back. But they didn’t.”

“Besides, would anybody have wanted her not to be Juliet against Leo’s Romeo?” Holzman went on, referring to Danes’ starring role in 1996’s Romeo + Juliet. “Are you kidding? Can you imagine not having that movie in that world?”

Joyner wasn’t surprised by the cancellation, given the information he’d been receiving from his contacts in the know, but it nevertheless felt like a “punch in the stomach.” But he hardly had the chance to feel anything, really, given how much OLS work remained to be done: “There was still an enormous amount of mail. We were still selling T-shirts and mugs and buttons and bumper stickers. There was no time, I guess, for reflection at that moment.”

He also believes — while giving effusive credit to Holzman, the cast, and the entire “brilliant” team behind the show — that MTV would not have picked up MSCL if not for the publicity generated by OLS. “From there it developed legs of its own and carried on,” he said.

At the time, Joyner estimated that at least 150,000 fan messages in support of the show had reached ABC, via one medium or another, and the network acknowledged that it was the most extensive campaign on behalf of a TV show they’d ever witnessed. But what, ultimately, did all that amount to?

“I certainly didn’t think we failed,” Joyner told me. “What was most depressing was not that we failed, but if something like this cannot save a show, there’s nothing that can.”

Jack Curry, then the managing editor of TV Guide, told The New York Times in June 1995 that grassroots fan campaigns conducted over the internet were at a disadvantage compared to the snail-mail efforts that had previously saved shows like Star Trek and Cagney & Lacey. “The networks don’t really know who the cyberspace people are, what they buy,” he said. “It was very different when letters arrived on stationery with little pussycats and flowers, because network television still sells a lot of shampoo and cereal — to that 35-year-old housewife from Iowa.”

Today, that 35-year-old housewife from Iowa is almost certainly on Facebook (and Instagram, and Pinterest, and possibly Twitter) and Nielsen ratings are less relevant than they have ever been. And in the decades since My So-Called Life, digital fan communities in the mold of OLS have successfully lobbied networks to order new seasons for little-watched, much-loved shows. In 2009, a blog post on Television Without Pity inspired the “Finale & Footlong” campaign for NBC’s Chuck, with fans rallying on social media and buying sandwiches en masse to convince Subway (which had already advertised with product placement on the show) to sign on as a sponsor. It worked. So did the series-saving efforts of Jericho fans, who coordinated in chat rooms to send tens of thousands of pounds of nuts (in reference to a line uttered by Skeet Ulrich’s main character) to CBS executives in 2007, and so did those of Roswell fans, who were urged by the fan site to mail bottles of Tabasco sauce (a favorite condiment of the aliens on the show) in bulk to the offices of the WB in 2000 and UPN in 2001.

More recently, fans of the cult favorite Community adopted a joke from a 2011 episode (“six seasons and a movie!”) as a Twitter battle cry: #sixseasonsandamovie.

The low-rated sitcom was canceled by NBC in 2014, but it was soon picked up for a sixth season by Yahoo! Screen. “Community is the rare TV series that might owe its continued existence to a hashtag,” the New York Daily News wrote in 2015. It seems the legacy of Operation Life Support persists alongside that of My So-Called Life.

More than 22 years later, a new generation of fans has rediscovered a show so beautiful it hurts to watch. More than 3,000 people follow @MSCLquotes on Twitter. An unofficial My So-Called Life Facebook page has attracted nearly 90,000 fans. On Tumblr, you’ll find no shortage of timeless Angela Chase quotes and a Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer) GIF for every occasion. “I can’t imagine being a teenager in the ‘90s and watching this show week to week. I’d be dying. There is not enough Jordan to sustain a week-to-week watch. Must be binged,” wrote one Tumblr blogger. “I know that the show is like 20 years old. BUT I sincerely wish that people [would] make more relatable, lifelike and truthful movies and TV series like My So-Called Life,” shared another.

Joyner told me that, when he’s feeling “nostalgic,” he’ll read modern-day reviews of MSCL posted online. “I can clearly tell when the person is, maybe, in their teens — I get verklempt,” he said. “It was a different era of television. Today, it would thrive.”

But Joyner readily admits that he’s far from an expert on contemporary TV. In fact, he doesn’t really watch at all. “People are telling me all the time about these great shows, that there are tons and tons of great dramas on cable. All these different channels that didn’t exist 10, 20 years ago,” he said. But Joyner’s daunted by the prospect of becoming committed to another show to the same extent that My So-Called Life subsumed his own.

“I just won’t do it, because all it takes one,” he said.