It's a Wonderful So-Called Life

Angela Chase (Claire Danes) and Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto). Teen angst, Nineties style.

Being a teenager was a time. There existed such emotional turmoil and social upheaval, I've never quite figured out if I was more a product of the Sixties or the Seventies. I turned 15 in 1969, too young to be a hippie, too old for the Dazed & Confused look. The political background for my teen years was just my window dressing, though; few of us emerge from adolescence unscathed.

Blocking out all the hideous aspects of that time – bad skin, divorcing parents, school, younger brothers – I can only remember the exquisite pain of teenage love. How I felt I had to put on the delicate membrane of awkward bravado to hide all the fears and questions that bombarded me, a veneer so thin that it must have been transparent. Could my young heart, smarting in unrequited ardor, be seen throbbing away in my chest? I was so in love with love in those days that when my college professor father assigned his Trinity University students to see the Franco Zeferelli version of Romeo & Juliet, he made the mistake of taking me. Daddy had to hold me up when it was over as I sobbed my way toward the exit, past groups of his amused students. I was inconsolable; he was embarrassed. "Could we talk about this in class?" he pleaded, as a student asked him why Tybalt was called the Prince of Cats.

The giddy irony of adolescent angst and love seems to be an enduring theme, particularly for television. Maybe that's because the medium seems to suit it better in our homes, where most of us watch TV. Unlike film, which is sort of a one-shot gamble, the angst better pay off in ratings or it's curtains. That's what happened to one of the best shows ever, My So-Called Life (MTV; 6pm M-F).

The short-lived ABC series, from Thirty-something producers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, was born Thursday, August 25, 1994; its last episode aired January 26, 1995, under much protest from TV watchdog groups. In between, 19 gorgeous photographs of adolescence came alive for an hour. Here was Angela Chase (Claire Danes), growing up so fast that her protective membrane was stretching and tearing for all the world to see. Her parents were the impossibly appealing Graham (Tom Irwin) and Patty (Bess Armstrong) Chase, and provided a mildly annoying but indulgently lovable younger sister Danielle (Lisa Wilhoit). There were Angela's old friends Sharon Cherski (Devon Odessa) and Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall), and Angela's new friends, Rayanne Graff (A.J.Langer) and Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz). And then there was Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto), whose liquid blue eyes sent Angela's heart dancing.

MSCL was not renewed for ABC's 95-96 season but MTV picked it up not long after, began running it steadily, and hasn't stopped. It's one of the genuinely noteworthy programming decisions on MTV's part, and the network has just renewed its promotion of the series in its new time slot. In typical MTV fashion, they didn't just announce it, they ran back-to-back episodes in an MSCL marathon over the weekend, and it suited me fine; for all the years between us in age, Angela Chase's poignant confusion lurks in my not-so-distant memory.

This is a show that just gets better with time; at some point it will begin to look dated, its contemporary soundtrack will start to sound like an oldies station, but in only 19 hours, MSCL did a better job of portraying adolescence than the entire ouerve of Beverly Hills 90210 with all of Party of Five thrown in.

You could't really call Angela Chase EveryTeen. She was much too privileged for that and she knew it, but the disenchantment and dissatisfaction that comes with being a teenager is universal, as is the quest for meaning and experience. Being poised on the precipice of adulthood is terrifying; the fall is often graceless, and the landing even more painful. Some of us are still limping from it.

Layered in between MSCL's lovingly crafted dialogue that fairly radiates the warmth of a fireplace are the raspy realities of growing up. "Lately I can't even look at my mother without wanting to stab her repeatedly," Angela thinks to herself after Patty comments tartly on her daughter's newly dyed hair. "My breasts have come between me and my father," Angela realizes, after an uncomfortable meeting in the hallway following an evening shower. "Kissing... and not kissing...," she sighs, basking in the golden glow of love with Jordan Catalano.

This week I've gone home at night and tuned into Angela's life. There's nothing so-called about it, but she doesn't know that yet. And because there are only 19 facets to the jewel that was My So-Called Life, they will remain set for all time, sparkling in their brittle portrayal.

When the time comes and I have to chose those desert island TV shows, there will be an episode of My So-Called Life on my list. It will be the Christmas one, titled "So-Called Angels," and so conducive to making me cry that I write this watery-eyed. Angela has met a mysterious waif (Julianna Hatfield), who seems to be shadowing Rickie, now homeless after his aunt and uncle move – without telling him. Angela's attempts to include Rickie with the Chases meet with cold disapproval from her mother. "I just had the most upsetting fight with Angela... it was one of those fights where it doesn't even seem real, it seems like the fight is having you," Patty tells Graham, as they decide to take action when Angela disappears after the runaway Rickie. In the police station, Patty looks at a bulletin board of missing children posters, her eyes falling on one featuring the face of the mysterious waif.

Now fearful and searching for her own missing daughter, Patty meets the waif in a churchyard and in an achingly tender scene, asks the question, "How did you die?"

Hatfield looks guilelessly to Patty. "I froze."

I wept buckets. Still do every time I see it. And while the tears are hot and bitter as they flow, they leave behind the memories of my own growing up, only now it feels a little more wistful.

"It was totally wicked, am I right?" Rayanne demands at the end of the first episode, at school the morning after the two have escaped near-trouble at a nightclub they were too young to enter. "And the cops came," Rickie adds, noting the imprimatur of cool.

"I am telling you, we had a time. Didn't we? Didn't we have a time?" Rayanne demands.

"We did," Angela smiles radiantly in sudden recognition of her newfound wings to fly. "We had a time."

Desert Island TV shows? Hmmm... if you had only 10 shows to bring with you, which ones would it be and why? Episodes only, no series.
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