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"LIFE" made TV Worthwhile

Capital Times
February, 1st 1995


by Susan Troller

When I first began watching the ABC television program ``My So- Called Life,'' I confess it was one of those dutiful, concerned-parent things.
I figured if all three of my teen and adolescent daughters were deeply devoted to this new television series starring 15-year-old actress Claire Danes, I ought to tune in and check it out.
They groaned when I sat down with them. ``If you wreck this by criticizing it, or even talking too much about it, we'll never watch anything with you again,'' they threatened.
So I watched, and mostly kept my mouth shut. It took about two episodes, and I was watching for myself, not because I ought to monitor my kids' viewing
habits. I cheerfully fell in love with the anxious teenage protagonists, their parents, teachers and every other character the shows' writers skillfully introduced. I winced at the realism shown in the relationships that Angela Chase (the character played by Claire Danes) has with her friends and parents as she tries to negotiate the perilous road toward adulthood.
As I became captivated by the characters and their stories, I found that my girls were asking me questions about why I thought one character seemed to thrive on truly bad behavior, or why it's so easy to be attracted to people who aren't necessarily good for us.
We came to understand and care about the characters as if they were real -- as if they were our friends or even ourselves. And we talked about them and their situations.
I rather doubt any of us could or would have been so frank about subjects like sex, marital infidelity, teenage drinking and sexual orientation if we hadn't had the comforting, neutral notion that this was, after all, just a television show.
Last week's supposedly final episode made me nearly as sad as my children. With them, I intend to write letters to the network defending the series and requesting another chance to capture a more significant audience. And I've been asking myself why I've found this television series aimed at teenagers so valuable when I generally find most TV viewing a waste of time.
It seemed genuine somehow, an antidote to the world view of glossy, silly shows like ``Beverly Hills 90210,'' with wealthy, gorgeous Barbie-and-Ken-doll characters. ``My So-Called Life's'' gentle, almost- ordinary cast not only reminds me of my own children and their pleasures and troubles, but of the teenager I was once myself, and my own tender and terrible friends. This is not to say that this was a sentimental look at the timeless experience of high
school. ``My So-Called Life'' offered plenty of the kind of gritty reality that some adults seem to believe only happens somewhere else, to someone else.
During the course of the series, Angela took up with a new best friend with a troubled attitude and a serious drinking problem. Her first real romance with the inscrutable Jordan Catalano ran onto rocky shoals when it became clear to her, and to him, that she wasn't ready for a sexual relationship.
Her friend Ricky (probably the dearest character invented for television since Mr. Roger's sweetly anxious Daniel Striped Tiger) struggled with loneliness, homelessness and what it means to be a gay teenager.
Meanwhile, Angela's parents had struggles of their own as they tried to keep loving each other despite the ordinary strains of marriage, missed communications and the threat of an appealing outsider.
As a parent watching the various plots and subplots unfold during the brief life of this series, I admit that there were times when I was uncomfortable watching with my children. I expect that they would say the same. But the fact that we all came to love the characters, and understand them as individuals full of good and exemplary efforts as well as foolish and destructive impulses, brought us closer together.
In addition to a remarkable intelligence that admitted not every problem could be neatly tied up in a hour, ``My So-Called Life'' had a refreshing generosity of spirit sorely missing in most of what passes for meaningful dialogue today.
In a time of viciously gleeful human reductionism -- a world apparently filled only with slackers and skinheads, feminazis and fags, whores and victims and gangsters and other assorted cultural, racial and sexual epithets -- ``My So-Called Life'' had the courage to tell my children that we humans are full of contradictions, neither angels nor devils but a compelling mix of our basic nature, our experiences and our values.
As my family came to understand the multifaceted characters of the series, they saw a world that was not a flattened moral landscape of good guys and bad buys but a place where all people struggle, sometimes make mistakes, often pay the price and ultimately remain responsible for trying to do the right thing, even when it may not be clear just what that is.
Knowing that my children will continue considering issues of loyalty, truth, dignity and kindness as they remember ``My So-Called Life,'' I'll feel that the time they spent in front of the television was worthwhile. And I will lobby for more of this kind of entertainment for myself, and for my family.

Memo: Susan Troller lives in New Glarus.

Copyright © 1995 Madison Newspapers, Inc.

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

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