Television teems with teenagers, who are generally presented as wiseacres, sex symbols, or sullen dolts. We are generally happy to see adolescence satirized either because we remember our own miserable teen years or because we’re going through them now and it’s a relief to see other kids as screwed-up as we are. But to do the opposite-to take adolescence seriously-is really tricky, because you fall into an adolescent trap, which is to inflate ultimately trivial trials (dating, acne, homework) into angst-heavy, life-or-death quandaries. All of which makes My So-Called Life (ABC, Aug. 25, 8-9 p.m.)-the most extraordinary show of the new TV season-that much more of an achievement. Even if you’re someone who tends to refer to teenagers as ”kids today” (as in, ”Kids today don’t know what it’s like to work hard!”), you may nonetheless find yourself spellbound by the petty problems and lovingly nursed grudges of a 15-year-old suburban girl.
As played by the amazing Claire Danes, Angela Chase lives on the outskirts of Pittsburgh with her parents (Tom Irwin and Bess Armstrong) and younger sister (Lisa Wilhoit). Danes has deep-set, widely spaced eyes that seem to look through you; she’s at that age where she wants to get to the essence of everything, especially other people’s souls. She frequently speaks to us directly, in an omniscient voice-over, with a tone of unsettling conviction. When her low, ruminative voice says, ”School is a battlefield for your heart,” you know she’s not talking about history class: No, she’s gazing, helplessly, at Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto), a hood with a sensitively dangling forelock, in the hallway between classes. ”He’s always closing his eyes like it hurts to look at things,” Angela’s narration asserts-but then we see Jordan squirting some Visine into his peepers, and realize he’s not the brooding romantic Angela fancies him to be, but probably just a zonked goofball. This quick juxtaposition of idealized dialogue and realistic camera work epitomizes the brilliance of what the show’s creator, Winnie Holzman, has pulled off: She gives Angela the dignity of her shallow deep-dish thoughts, but also permits us to see the truth, even when it contradicts our central character.
Holzman came to prominence for her writing work on thirtysomething. Both that show and My So-Called Life have been produced by the team of Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. Indeed, it certainly looks to me like the Chase family is living in the same dark-lit, comfortably ramshackle Victorian heap that was the Steadmans’ in thirtysomething.
One of the strengths of Life is that it grants Angela’s parents as much understanding as it does its teenage protagonists-Angela and her best pals, Rayanne (A.J. Langer) and Rickie (Wilson Cruz). Angela’s mom, Patty, is a grim control freak thoroughly unsettled by Angela’s adolescence; Bess Armstrong, a TV vet (All Is Forgiven, Married People) who has never had a vehicle worthy of her until now, plays Patty as a terribly ambivalent martinet, one who feels she has to crack down on her eldest daughter because she knows her husband won’t. Tom Irwin, who specializes in damp-eyed vulnerability, is perfect as Graham, a well-meaning dad thrown for a loop by Angela’s budding womanhood. ”We used to be pretty tight,” Angela remarks to us in a voiceover. ”The sad truth is, my breasts have come between us.”
That’s another reason Life escapes the taint of teenage narcissism: Angela isn’t so obsessed with herself that she fails to notice what her parents are going through, what vulnerable adults they are. For all of Angela’s wry wisdom, however, Holzman’s script for the debut episode is also fearless in detailing this girl’s frequently dippy inner life. Holzman remembers that when you’re a teenager, you’re forever looking for people in books, movies, and pop music that you can identify with, and, like many girls before her, Angela has seized on The Diary of Anne Frank, whose tragedy she innocently reduces to a metaphor for her own lonely neediness. In a blurt of bad taste, Angela tells a teacher that the concentration-camp victim was ”lucky” because ”she was trapped in an attic for three years with this guy she really liked.”
It is a blessed relief that Life portrays things that have become ”issues”- teenage drinking, unwanted sexual advances-without turning them into moments of preachment. I detest shows that are said to ”tackle issues”—that’s the phrase their fawning reviewers always use in admiration. But issue tackling is drama-deadening. Life understands this, and gives all of its hot-button topics the complexity and ambivalence they deserve.
And I haven’t even made it clear that this is also a really funny show. Just watch this thing, will you? A