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Press Archive

"LIFE" Interrupted

Seattle Times
January 26, 1995


A sense of loss: Good acting, writing seem not to be enough to save show based on ordinary lives of teenagers

by Ferdinand M. de Leon

When "thirtysomething" was unceremoniously canceled a few years back, with story lines unresolved and characters in limbo, I--like many of the show's fans--felt betrayed and let down. But most of all I felt a sense of loss.

After years of faithfully tuning in and letting these strangers into my life, they were all suddenly gone, like friends who had moved away, never to be heard from again.

It taught a painful lesson: All the emotional investment, loyalty, love and hopeful wishes that viewers bestow on their favorite show means little on the altar of Nielsen where powerful TV execs worship. And to carelessly give your heart to a show that isn't an established hit is to invite heartbreak.

So when "My So-Called Life" made its debut last August, I should have known better. It was, first of all, produced by the same team that did "thirtysomething." Not a good sign.

And, like "thirtysomething," to which it's often compared, "Life" is a quiet show based on the naive notion that if the acting and writing are good, the audience will follow. Any armchair TV exec can tell you that's a bad strategy. "Life" is precisely the sort of show I should have steeled my heart against.

But every Thursday at 8 p.m. I found myself settling in front of the television, and happily, willingly, becoming lost in the world of teenage angst and equally anxious parents.

It wasn't long before I again started to set my evenings around a television program, and I found myself caring about the fate of people I know don't really exist, and who, I know, could cease to exist (in the limited way they *do* exist) at any moment.

It's the peculiar power of television. Unlike movies, which carry more prestige, television's impact is cumulative, accruing over time.

Each episode builds on what's come before, feeding into episodes that come later. After the long run of "The Andy Griffith Show," its fans felt *they* had grown up in Mayberry. On "Northern Exposure," the intersecting personal histories of Cicely's residents unfolded gradually over several seasons. More than movies, television shows create their own universe, and the more frequently you visit, the more familiar you become with the terrain.

Nationally, the number of visitors to the universe of "My So-Called Life" has hovered around 10 million, placing the show near the bottom of the ratings pile.

With its relentless realism and its refusal to resort to neat wrap-ups, the program proved a hard sell. It was never the sort of show that got people chatting over the water cooler. If you were a viewer, you learned to stop bringing up the show when you found you seemed to be the only one who watched.

And the issues the show raises--the stuff of ordinary life--aren't exactly fodder for office banter: too personal, and best when digested late at night just before falling to sleep.

It was as much for its uncanny ability to take me to rarely visited corners of the brain, the parts where I had stored my high school years, that I recklessly welcomed the entire Chase family and their circle of friends into my home.

And as long as more episodes kept rolling in, I blithely ignored the dismal ratings and the dire forecasts about the show's future. A colleague who likes the show said he started pulling back from it emotionally after he learned it was likely to get canceled. But it wasn't that easy.

Tonight, the last episode of the show will be broadcast, and its fate is undetermined. Officially, the show is going "on hiatus," which in TV Land is like going into a deep coma. Few shows ever recover. Despite a vigorous campaign by fans to save the show (waged largely online), network executives--including ABC Entertainment president Ted Harbert, who says "Life" is his favorite show--have made it clear the numbers have to improve if "Life" is to be resuscitated.

All shows eventually die. Some aren't around long enough to miss. Some are around so long, you're glad when they're gone. But when you lose one you're not ready to let go, it's different.

When a show is canceled, you often hear that it's been "axed," as in cut from the TV lineup. But when you lose a show to which you've become attached, it's the emotional cords that are bluntly severed.

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

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