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'Life' has support, but is series dying?

Atlanta Constitution
January 26, 1995

'Life' has support, but is series dying?

Bess Armstrong, who plays the mom on the ABC series "My So-Called Life," watched last summer's premiere with her nieces. They were spellbound.

"When it was over, the 11-year-old girls got up dazed and moved out into the moonlight and turned and said, 'What's Jordan Catalano's real name?'" Armstrong recalled recently. "I knew right there what the real power of the show was."

She was joking about the show's appeal, kind of.

Yes, kids across the country have connected with Jordan-"Life's" resident brooding hunk, whose real name is Jared Leto-and are also are seeing themselves in Angela, Rayanne, Rickie, Brian, Sharon, and Danielle.

Almost a million girls from 12 to 17-10 percent of the show's viewers- watch weekly. Add the nearly 400,000 teen boys who tune in, and it's the 34th most popular TV series (out of 114) with that age group, a respectable showing.

But Armstrong knows that there's more to "Life" than teenage concerns, and she's frustrated that more adults haven't discovered the sho's grown-up appeal. Among network TV's crucial demographic-ages 18 to 49- "Life" has been a flop, ranking 109th. Its overall ranking is 103rd.

Because of that relatively tiny adult audience, tonight's episode is the last of the season, maybe the last ever. The irony is that these days, on most networks, under most circumstances, there wouldn't be any maybe about it.

But because it's been hailed by critics and revered by the Internet's I-have-no-life-but-"Life" squad, and because ABC as the top-rated network has some breathing room, the show is putting up a fight for survival that hasn't been seen on TV in years.

Teen star Claire Danes won a Golden Globe this month for her portrayal of Angela. Steven Spielberg recently spoke of his admiration for her talent. And a cyber-group of young fans known as Operation "Life" Support has published a newsletter, raised several thousand dollars to buy imploring ads in TV industry publications, and helped organize a flood of more than 4,500 e-mail messages onto ABC's hard disks.

Armstrong is among those who blames the 8 p.m. time slot and tough Thursday night competition from NBC ("Mad About You" and "Friends") for "Life's" rough going. She says at that time people who would be passionate about the show are putting children to bed or just getting home from work.

ABC Entertainment president Ted Harbert, long a vocal supporter of the show, agrees but isn't sure he can do anything about it. The same overall success that allowed ABC to stick with a low-rated series for 19 weeks also means that later time slots are scarce.

There has been talk of "Life" moving to another network or cable; only Lifetime, half owned by ABC, has been mentioned by name. But executive producer Marshall Herskovitz says he doubts his show could meet the cable channel's budged restrictions.

Herskovitz and other supporters like to point to other series that have taken more than one season to find a wide viewership, from "Hill Street Blues" to "Beverly Hills, 90210" to NBC competitor "Mad About You," which takes the lion's share of the female audience that is the natural complement to "Life's" teen viewers.

In the end, Harbert will have to make what he referred to as a "gut call" about the show's fate.

And that call won't come until spring.

“Lately, I can't even look at my mother without wanting to stab her repeatedly.”

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