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The Clearasil Years

The Times
August 29, 1994


Thirtysomething's creators focus perceptively on adolescence

by Ginia Bellafante

Angela Chase is a wise 15-year-old whose future we can easily imagine. At 25 she will have grown out of her tremulous beauty into a more certain one. She will pursue a fulfilling, creative profession in a bustling Eastern metropolis and date gentle, intelligent young men who resemble Eric Stoltz. But before Angela (played by real-life teenager Claire Danes) arrives at this promising womanhood, she must cross the emotional hurdles of adolescence, and that passage is the subject of My So-Called Life, an unusually affecting one-hour drama that will make its debut Thursday on ABC.

Produced by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, the creators of thirtysomething - a show that also skillfully portrayed the interior lives of affluent young people - My So-Called Life depicts Angela's turmoil at home and in school. In a leafy suburb we find Angela perpetually at odds with her mother and father. She wants from her parents what all teenagers want, the freedom to go to a rave or dye her hair a fiery red. At school she is torn between an enduring affection for her childhood friend Sharon - a well-behaved clarinetist dressed to her socks in pink - and the alluring world of Rayanne (A.J. Langer), a girl who wears dangling earrings and possesses a brash, sexual confidence. "School," Angela explains in a voice-over, "is a battlefield for your heart."

Most of her heart, though, has already been captured by Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto). She does not know this boy but reads volumes of meaning into his plaintive good looks. "He's always closing his eyes like it hurts to look at things," she romanticizes. But Jordan's interior life may not be nearly as complex as his reserve suggests. He is prone to statements like one he makes during English class: "So getting back to that Metamorphosis story," he says, referring to the work by Kafka, "it's made up, right?"

Angela's endearingly superficial infatuation with Jordan as well as the rest of her conflicts could have been culled from Seventeen's advice columns, yet the writers of My So-Called Life manage to create richly moving story lines from the predictable materials of teenage life. When her mother (Bess Armstrong) asks Angela to take part in a mother-daughter fashion show, Angela is contemptuous of the idea. Mrs. Chase thinks her daughter feels above it all, but in fact Angela is too uncomfortable in her body to stride alongside a mother she views as stunningly pretty. Eventually, Angela reveals the truth to her.

Like the thirtysomething characters, Angela is intensely analytical. Her appeal, in fact, is that she is so perceptive and articulate for her age. Yet at times the insights the writers attribute to her seem implausible. When faced with the chance to be alone with Jordan, she doesn't giggle or express vague fear but reasons that she may need the fantasy of her obsession more than the reality of him. "If you make it real," she says, "it's not yours anymore." That is an intriguing perception, but not one likely to be made by a girl who still cries in her mother's arms.

PHOTO (cr)MARK SELIGER (cap)TEEN SPIRIT: Claire Danes, 15, shines as the articulate, likable protagonist of My So-Called Life. Copyright 1994 Times

“Do we have to keep talking about religion? It's Christmas.”

Danielle Chase, Episode 15: "So-Called Angels"