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Dangerous Truths by Eric Krupin

I watched the premiere episode of "My So-Called Life" because executive producers Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz with serier creator Winnie Holzman had crafted the most enriching moments in my lifetime of television viewing with their work on thirtysomething. I did not expect them to match that achievement in a genre as narrow as the teen drama, but I hoped they would produce a surperior altrnative to "Beverly Hills 90210." As it happened "My So-Called Life," even in the cruelly short span allotted it, achieved a distinctive poetry in its essays on the adolescent condition.

Some of my first impression were doubtful. By centering the show on one character instead of developing an ensemble piece Holzman risked constricting future plot lines. The crush on the brooding outsider, the lovestruck geek, the blandly embarrassing parents--it was too familar. The harbinger that the series' writers were poised to transcend these commonplaces was Angela's verdict on her father's withdrawal--"My breasts have come between us." The line was as concise and eloquent as haiku, gesturing towards realms of sexuality far too dark and complex for Aaron Spelling's vacuous fantasyland. It was a Great Moment, the first of many to come, and suddenly "My So-Called Life" was the most important thing on television.

What a stygian mise en scéne those early episodes dared--a girl fleeing down a dark hallway, crypticfaces looming in slow motion, the futility of communication, unasssuagable boredom. Youth is a kind of infirmity, James Gould Cozzens wrote, and the peculiar anguish of this condition had never been so artfully mounted. This stuff hurts, Angela's close-ups said. Doesn't anyone notice? Not every actress is capable of projecting emotion past the inarticulateness of her character. The expressive radiance of Claire Danes' face, comparable to Maria Falconetti in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, was the linchpin in the series' affect. Her suggestive blankness was ideally suited to the depiction of adolescent metamorphosis. In its smaller dimensions the work of Lisa Wilhoit was equally fine while Wilson Cruz and the superb A.J. Langer presented acting of a quality rarely seen on television. Langer's exquisite multilayered performance in the Our Town rehearsal was unforgettable, arguably the high point of the series.

So why did the kids tune out? Every partisan of the show has brooded over this question. My own belief is that Holzman's refusal to glamorize the character of Jordan Catalano--a courageous gesture of versimilitude--was the agent of doom. Historically the male romantic lead has accounted for the core popularity of every teen-directed program. Although Jared Leto concedes nothing to Luke Perry in beauty or talent his character was fatally denuded of Dylan McKay's ersatz allure. We like out dreams shallow, "My So-Called Life's" ratings said. The soulless babble swelling to fill the silence left by its cancellation makes a sadly appropriate soundtrack.

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“I cannot bring myself to eat a well-balanced meal in front of my mother.”

Angela Chase, Episode 1: "My So-Called Life (Pilot)"