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The Ancient Days of Teenage Drama

The Ancient Days of Teenage Drama By ALESSANDRA STANLEY

Published: April 2, 2004

The high school students of "The O.C." do everything imaginable in their privileged beach community in Southern California except, of course, go to school. The show, on Fox, revels in one of the most romanticized views of adolescence on television ? all sex and no band practice. Teenage shows on WB, like "One Tree Hill" and "Everwood," are almost as gauzy, picking up the torch left by the mother of all high school dramas, "Dawson's Creek."

In the primeval ooze of television before "Dawson's Creek," "The O.C" and "One Tree Hill," there was a drama called "My So-Called Life," starring Claire Danes as a smart, confused (what else?) 15-year-old in Pittsburgh. The show's return in repeats tonight on the N Channel provides more than just an opportunity to watch a poignantly funny show about the unendurable ordeal known as high school.

"My So-Called Life" was created by Winnie Holzman with Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz as executive producers, the same team that wrought "Thirtysomething" and "Once and Again"; it was canceled in its first season after 19 episodes, but it serves as a milestone in the American way of depicting teenage life. Ten years on, angst is still front and center, but the important, mortifying elements of high school ? the cafeteria, parents' day, science experiments and make-up tests ? have almost entirely receded. Only a few symbols ? basketball practice and proms ? linger as vehicles for love and power struggles.

On "My So-Called Life," the school principal is intelligent and scary, not a buffoon, and the classroom is a circus funhouse of tedium and terror. In the pilot episode, Angela (Ms. Danes), who has a painful crush on Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto), is daydreaming through the class discussion of "The Diary of Anne Frank." When the teacher catches her off guard and asks her what she thinks of Anne Frank, Angela instinctively replies, "She's lucky." Her teacher is aghast and angrily demands an explanation. Angela wasn't joking. "Because she was trapped in an attic for three years with this guy she really likes," she replies in a near whisper.

On "The O.C.," romance is as ubiquitous and as glossily histrionic as on a daytime soap opera, and the line between adolescence and adulthood has blurred almost indistinguishably. (Daughters have large, womanly breasts and mothers have thin, girlish figures and taut, shiny faces.) In comparison, "My So-Called Life" is searing realism ? the N Channel equivalent of Zola.

The historian Philippe Ari├Ęs argued that childhood is a relatively recent bourgeois concept, a cultural distinction that did not take hold until the 19th century.

By that standard, adolescence is a purely 20th-century American discovery, isolated in the laboratory of early television sitcoms like "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" and "The Patty Duke Show." Progress has accelerated the sexualization of children on television and spawned a whole new subspecies: the tween, celebrated in "Lizzie McGuire" on the Disney Channel and "Degrassi: The Next Generation," a Canadian import, also shown on the N.

Love is all-consuming, but sex is no longer much of a teenage trauma on the most successful shows. On "The O.C.," of course, all the kids are sexually active and confident. Marissa's hunky ex-boyfriend, Luke, has an affair with Marissa's mother, and even Seth, the nerd with the high I.Q. and nervous speech patterns, has a sexy girlfriend, Summer, and no inhibitions.

On other shows, teenage sexuality is fodder for dramatic tension. On "Gilmore Girls" on WB, the teenage heroine keeps her virginity in high school; on "Everwood," the teenage hero has a hard time losing it. But mostly teenage sex is very adult, only better. "The O.C." is written almost entirely from the point of view of teenagers: their angst is more passionate and meaningful and real than in the adult world, which is all about chores, careers and stuff. (That the show also has a large adult following suggests that youth-obsessed baby boomers relate best to teenagers.)

And the eternal-adolescent perspective could explain why the actors chosen to play high school students look so mature ? like fashion models and soap opera stars, not 12th graders. Teenagers see themselves and one another as grown up; everyone else is either a child or very, very old.

"My So-Called Life," on the other hand, is a backward look at adolescence, viewed less with nostalgia than with recovered dread. Parents are victims, too; even Angela's mother, Patty (Bess Armstrong), tightly wound and humorless, has sympathetic moments. "I cannot bring myself to eat a well-balanced meal in front of my mother," Angela says in a voice-over. "It means too much to her."

"Gilmore Girls," in which the mother and daughter get along splendidly and converse in arch, screwball comedy shorthand, is a mother's pipe dream, but all teenage shows traffick in the adult fantasy that teenagers and parents can come to an understanding in a crisis (AIDS, condoms, eating disorders, death of a grandparent). Yet what is striking these days is how often some parents are depicted as purely evil ? in other words, exactly how their children view them. On the latest WB show, "One Tree Hill," the father of Nathan, one of the main characters, is almost Dickensian in his wickedness.

The newest, most fanciful nighttime soap operas, like "The O.C." and "One Tree Hill," are, paradoxically, most realistic in the sense that they more accurately mirror the way teenagers view themselves. "My So-Called Life," on the other hand, feeds the nostalgia of viewers who mourn the days when adults were in charge of television.

Copyright The New York Times

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