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The N network's resurrection of 'My So-Called Life' a godsend

The N network's resurrection of 'My So-Called Life' a godsend

By Karla Peterson

UNION-TRIBUNE

April 19, 2004

The four hours of television Americans watch per day haven't done much for our average American waistlines, but they have given us industrial-strength stomachs.

From "CSI's" blood and bile to "Fear Factor's" worm slime and cow guts, no TV scenario is too icky or unnerving for the intrepid Nielsen family. Apparently, America can handle the goop. But are we ready for the "Life"?

Making its debut in the summer of 1994, the beautifully written, exquisitely acted "My So-Called Life" captured the agony and occasional ecstasies of adolescence with excruciating accuracy. Which is probably why ABC canceled the viewer-deficient drama after one season.

In "My So-Called Life," actresses Claire Danes and A.J. Langer bring adolescence roaring to life.

But 10 years later, it's back. Now airing at various times on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays on the teen-friendly N network (which takes over from the kid-friendly Noggin cable channel at 3 p.m. daily), "My So-Called Life" is just as potent in reruns as it was the first time around. And it's scarier than a box of Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches.

Take this week's installment. Poetically titled "The Zit," this squirm-worthy episode finds Angela struggling with three of teendom's biggest horrors: her complexion and her friend's breasts.

"It had become the focus of everything," Angela says of the volcanic pimple that has erupted on her chin. "It blotted out the rest of my face, the rest of my life. Like the zit had become . . . the truth about me."

Meanwhile, Angela's former best friend Sharon has become such a wonder of nature, the widely circulated "Sophomore Girls: The Top 40" list has given her the Best Hooters award.

And on the home front, Angela's mother has signed the two of them up for a mother-daughter fashion show. Where they will wear matching mother-daughter dresses. Home-made matching mother-daughter dresses.

Zits! Hooters! Fashion abuse! Those of you who have not already fled to the safety of the "CSI" autopsy room might be having some doubts right about now. If you are an adult, you have suffered through adolescence once, why suffer again? And if you're a teen now, why watch this when you can watch "The O.C.," where no one has acne (or geometry), and everyone is hot, including the parents?

Of course, there are plenty of good moral reasons to tune in. After the gauzy tanning-booth fantasies of "The O.C." and all those Abercrombie & Fitch ads, it is a comfort and a relief to see teenagers who look like teenagers, instead of teenagers who look like supermodels with Paris Hilton's clothing allowance.

And after years of getting our Nielsen jollies from humankind's bottomless capacity for greed, stupidity, masochism and evil, isn't it time we got a little wisdom from watching good-hearted characters grappling with the milestones and minutiae we all face every day?

Of course, enlightenment doesn't come cheap. It is harder to watch Angela and her fictional family deal with curfews, gossip and unfortunate hair-coloring experiments than it is to watch the "Fear Factor" folks scarf down sea cucumbers and sheep eyes.

Prom night and midterms are the stuff real nightmares are made of, and if you can handle Angela's paralyzing crush on the swooningly inarticulate Jordan Catalano without chocolate and sedatives, you could win the next "Survivor" without leaving the couch.

But the best reason to give the show a second shot is that it is great TV. Really, really great TV.

Created by Winnie Holzman and executive produced by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick (the team behind "thirtysomething" and "Once and Again"), "My So-Called Life" nails adolescent angst so perfectly, you want to embroider the dialogue on throw pillows, which you will clutch to your heart and promptly lock in the attic.

Lines like, "Cafeteria is the embarrassment capitol of the world. It's like a prison movie."

Or, "It just seems like, you agree to have a certain personality or something. For no reason. Just to make things easier for everyone."

Or, "There is something about Sunday night that really makes you want to kill yourself. Especially if you've just been totally made a fool of by the only person you'll ever love, and you have a geometry midterm on Monday."

It helps that many of these lines are spoken by the startlingly talented Claire Danes, who plays Angela with a ferocious delicacy that makes her painful to watch and impossible to stop watching. It also helps that everyone else in the cast is just as good.

As Patty Chase, Bess Armstrong is a ray of steel-belted sunshine, while Tom Irwin gives Angela's father a wry watchfulness that never lets you dismiss him as the doofus dad. Wilson Cruz plays Angela's gay friend Rickie with loads of eyeliner and a beautifully calibrated vulnerability, Devon Gummersall is all twitches and heart as the nerdy Brian Krakow, and Jared Leto plays Angela's bad-news boyfriend with a stoner charisma that is totally addictive.

It is smart and funny and better than pretty much anything you're watching right now that isn't "The Sopranos." In this age of extreme thrills and voyeuristic chills, "My So-Called Life" presents audiences with the kind of viewing challenges that make us better for having survived them. And maybe this time around, we'll be ready.

Karla Peterson: karla.peterson@uniontrib.com; (619) 293-1275.

Copyright Union-Tribune


“My dad thinks every person in the world is having more fun than him.”

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