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With Bess Armstrong, TV moms come of age

The Baltimore Sun
September 21, 1994

With Bess Armstrong, TV moms come of age

by David Zurawik

On paper, it looked as if she were going to be just another TV mom in another family drama -- or worse. In this series, the teen-age daughter is the star, which usually means mom is further reduced to standing around off-camera in the kitchen, only occasionally popping on-screen to ask if anyone wants pizza or a glass of Coke.

But that's not the Patty Chase that Baltimore's Bess Armstrong brought to the screen when the critically acclaimed ABC drama "My So- Called Life" debuted last month.

Her 15-year-old daughter, Angela, dyed her hair red, so Patty went out and got her own hair cut very, very short. She forced tango lessons on her man-child of a husband, who was on the verge of an affair with a younger woman. She's about to modernize the small printing firm that she inherited from her father, a man who seems dead set against anything remotely modern.

She's angry, lonely, hurt, determined, smart, sarcastic and loving in a perfectly believable way that's rarely seen on TV. Patty Chase is the baby-boomer businesswoman-mom in mid-life crisis. And, of the 100 or so lead characters arriving in new series this fall, she's one of the few who is definitely worth getting to know.

"Patty is this woman who's sort of really tightly packaged and really trying to keep it together, and she's just sort of leaking all over," Armstrong says when she's asked for her take on Patty.

"But she's really trying to do it right. The problem is that half the time she's having to do it with no time to think things through, and she's kind of out there on a limb by herself.

"The bottom line is that so much care is taken in the writing. It's just so skillful and honest, so distilled. That's what makes her such a great character -- the producers and writers are good, and they really care." The producers and writers of "My So-Called Life" are good. They include Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, of "thirtysomething" fame, as well as Winnie Holzman, a Princeton-educated poet who has become one of TV's finest dramatists.

And they have created a great character. But it was Armstrong's performance that was the big surprise in the pilot.

You sat down expecting a teen-age coming-of-age story, and 15- year-old Claire Danes did not disappoint one whit as Angela Chase. But, as good as Claire Danes was in school and party scenes with other teen actors, she was positively dazzling in her scenes with Armstrong.

You quickly realized it was Armstrong who was making the magic happen in those scenes and that her character was at the center of her own drama in "My So-Called Life" -- this one for baby boomers, and just what the doctor ordered for viewers who miss "thirtysomething."

"I don't think any of us quite believe that we are parents. And I think that's why this show has such appeal for people our age. We're sort of looking back on the 15-year-old experience, but part of us believes we are still 15. We're the generation that was never going to grow up. And, as long as Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton are at the top of the charts, maybe we don't have to," says Armstrong, 40.

"But this show gives us both stories -- the 15-year-old's and her parents'. That's one of the things that really grabbed me when I first read the script. The problem is that I don't think most people know that yet. They think 'My So-Called Life' is nothing but an hourlong 'Blossom,' because of the time period. We're trying to deal with that."

Despite the glowing reviews, all is not golden for "My So-Called Life." The Nielsen ratings -- the so-called barometer of American taste -- have not been great thus far for the series.

The ratings have been inching upward, presumably on word-of- mouth, but for the most recent ratings week available, the series finished 67th out of 90 prime-time series. At 8 Thursday nights, it's in one of the toughest time periods of the week, opposite ratings winners "Mad About You" on NBC and "Martin" and "Living Single" on Fox.

But it's not the competition that's the biggest problem. It's that "My So- Called Life" is not a show for 8 o'clock -- a time when little kids mainly control the dial. Even though it concerns itself with teen life much of the time, its focus involves the more serious matters of sexuality, identity and the dangerous crossing into adulthood. It belongs on at 10.

But ABC has no openings at 10. There's football on Monday, "NYPD Blue" on Tuesday, and very successful newsmagazines on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Publicly, the producers of "My So-Called Life" have been saying the 8 o'clock time period is fine, but privately, the word is they are worried that if ABC doesn't find a later time period, adults are not ever going to find the show.

"In theory, the 8 o'clock time period is good, and Ted Harbert [president of ABC Entertainment] and ABC deserve a lot of credit for being so supportive and trying to give families a real show that could lead to discussions between parents and teens -- even if they do watch it in different rooms of the house," Armstrong says.

"But, when you take a show that was designed for 10 o'clock and which is designed as much for adults as it is for teen-agers, and put it on at 8 o'clock, the general assumption is going to be that it's Pablum, that it is an hourlong 'Blossom.' And I think marketing was timid in letting people know what this show is really about, because they were afraid it might be controversial."

That's one of the reasons Armstrong is out selling the show on her weekends and days off.

A portion of this interview took place late on a Friday afternoon at Baltimore-Washington International airport as she was waiting for a plane back home to California. She had gone to New York to promote "My So- Called Life" on TV talk shows for two days when she wasn't needed on the set. She made sure she was routed through Baltimore so she could see her family for a few hours.

Armstrong, a graduate of Brown University, spent 14 years at the Bryn Mawr school in Baltimore, where her mother taught. Her father taught at Gilman. Her sister and brother-in-law now teach at Bryn Mawr and Gilman in roughly the same posts her parents once held. Her husband, John Fiedler, a film executive who produced "Serial Mom" with John Waters, is also a Baltimore native.

The rest of the interview took place over the phone on a Saturday afternoon after she got her two sons, 6-year-old Luke and 3-year-old Chase, to take a nap. That's how hard she's working to get adult viewers to sample the series.

"It's definitely worth it," Armstrong says. "My favorite story is about 'Cheers.' And I say that appreciating the irony that the role Shelley Long played was originally developed for me. It's something I try to talk about with humor.

"But the point about 'Cheers' is that it was 75th out of 78 shows at the end of its first year. Eleven years later, no one remembered that.

"This is not me being Pollyanna; I truly believe everybody comes to the role they're really right for at the right moment. I don't mind missing out on 'Cheers.' I believe Patty Chase is the role I was just born to play."

Education: B.A. from Brown University, double major, classics and theater Feature films: "Nothing in Common," with Tom Hanks; "The High Road to China,"with Tom Selleck; "The Four Seasons," with Alan Alda; "Dream Lover" with James Spader
Television: ABC sitcom "Married People," CBS sitcoms "On Our Own" and "All Is Forgiven," ABC miniseries "Lace"

Copyright 1994 The Baltimore Sun

“School is a battlefield for your heart.”

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