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It's Fifteensomething `My So-Called Life' zeroes in on adolescent angst

August 25, 1994

It's Fifteensomething

`My So-Called Life' zeroes in on adolescent angst

by Marvin Kitman

MY SO-CALLED LIFE, starring Claire Danes; created by Winnie Holzman; executive producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz; premieres tonight at 8 on WABC/7.
I'VE BEEN reading all the gloomy reports about the dismal new season. Any season with "My So-Called Life" can't be all bad. It's a wonderful quality show that ABC and TV can be proud of.

"Life" is an hour-long drama dealing with the five W's of a teenager's life, including: who am I, what am I doing here, and wasn't I switched at birth and really somebody else's rich famous and beautiful child?

Groan. Not another teen angst show, like "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Beavis and Butt-head"? This one is different.

ABC dragged its heels about putting the series on for two years, finding one reason and another for delaying this dark and difficult - i.e., not mindless - show.

Second, it's produced by Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, the creators of "thirtysomething," another angst classic. And it's created by Winnie Holzman of Long Island, one of the major writers on the last two seasons of "thirtysomething." "My So-Called Life" is what the angst-eteers like me have been waiting for all these years and I am not disappointed.

It's a fifteensomething kind of a show about the so-called life of Angela Chase, played marvelously by Claire Danes, who is trying to figure out how she got into this mess called growing up and where she fits in. Her so-called life arrives in a two-hour pilot with characters fully developed. [MSCL.COM Editor's note: It's an one-hour pilot.] They come up in the darkroom hypo tray in 30 seconds, with the shadings and nuances all there, a wondrous thing to watch.

Angela's life is miles away from Beverly Hills, 90210. She lives in a suburb of Pittsburgh, 15217, although it's hard to tell this from the palm trees in future episodes. In all my years in western Pennsylvania, I never saw a palm tree near the mills and coal mines, but maybe I didn't look hard enough.

At 15, Angela is in the process of discovering all the games kids and parents play in the process of growing up. She's in a middle-class urban high school, which is a battle for your heart, as she explains to the camera in one of the inner monologues that give a - dare I say it - literary quality to the program.

"My parents keep asking how school was," Angela muses to the camera. "That's like asking how was a drive-by shooting? You're just lucky to get out alive."

Angela has two main problems in life: Her mother doesn't understand her. Neither does the rest of the world.

She is your above-average, brooding, confused adolescent. She has an identity crisis, trying to be her own person, separating from her parents, and marching to her own acoustic guitar.

She has dyed her hair tonight - "of natural causes," as her mom explains. Mom does not like the new reddish look. She also has quit the yearbook. Her room is a disaster area. She has dropped her best girlfriend for no reason, and taken up with a faster crowd. She has a crush on an older man, a student who has been left back twice. She has started experimenting with lies to her parents about going to school plays while going to her first wild party with her new way-cool friends.

It's the age-old game of giving mom and dad a hard time, which, we veterans recognize, has the goal of getting a reaction: "Hello, is anybody home?"

What gives "My So-Called Life" dimension beyond the usual teenage angst TV series are the sensibilities it brings to portraying Angela's life with her parents. Mr. and Mrs. Chase are parents in even more trouble than Angela.

Patty Chase, played superbly by Bess Armstrong, wears the pants in the family. Mom solved her midlife crisis by joining Dad's printing business, and he now works for her.

Graham Chase (Tom Irwin) is a frustrated man. He wanted to be a chef, not a printing salesman with a wife as his boss. His marriage is not cooking with gas, either.

Angela can't look at her mother right now, as she explains, "without wanting to stab her." But she used to get along better with her father. "My breasts came between us," she says.

She tries to confide in her father about all the new things she's discovering. "I'm starting to like Anne Frank."

"She in your class?" the distracted father asks.

Angela is fascinated by "The Dairy of Anne Frank" because she was hiding. So is Angela. The enemy is not the same, but it's hard to tell teenagers how good they have it.

Holzman's writing is brilliant. The script is filled with Angela's acid, on-target comments on life and society: "Cafeteria is the embarrassment capital of the world," she explains at lunch in school. "It's like a prison movie."

Yes, it's a little on the not-so-sunny side of the street. But Holzman's bittersweet humor added to the relative honesty makes "My So-Called Life" a charming and irresistible mixture.

The show will be attacked for having a certain whining quality, like "thirtysomething." It's funny: Whenever a person is introspective on TV, they call it "whining."

What Angela is going through in her 15th year is identifiable and universal drama. Regardless of sex, religion or Generation X or Y, everybody hurts. Life in the teens is hard.

"My So-Called Life" says it all with the kind of consistent insights missing on TV since "thirtysomething" prematurely went dark. I just hope they don't break our hearts again before Angela reaches 16. Meanwhile angst for the memories, Holzman, Zwick and Herskovitz.

Copyright 1994, Newsday Inc.

“Ignore her. She got up on the wrong side of the coffin this morning.”

Enrique (Rickie) Vasquez, Episode 9: "Halloween"