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The gift of growing pains

TELEVISION : CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Teenage truths, and Claire Danes' wondrous ability to convey them, stand the test of time in 'My So-Called Life.'

October 28, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Every so often in the collaborative art called television a little miracle happens. There is a meeting of minds, a confluence of vision, a gathering of particular talents. The planets align, the cards fall into place, and something is born whose worth is instantly apparent to all involved, not as a generator of revenue -- at which it might fail completely -- but as an ennobling refraction of some little bit of the Truth, of what it means, or could mean, to be alive. Each department pushes the others a little bit harder; excellence from one corner prompts ambition in another. What might have begun as just the next greenlighted project or available job becomes a sort of holy mission, even if none of the participants would ever dare call it that -- this being, after all, only television.

Back in the early 1990s, various strains of luck and intention came together to make "My So-Called Life," a show about a teenage girl (played by an astonishing Claire Danes), her family and friends. It lasted 19 episodes, starting in summer 1994, on ABC, before its cancellation. Some people still haven't quite gotten over that. But like a short-lived rock band whose legend spreads in its posthumous wake, the show's influence upon a generation's sense of itself has only grown since, through repeated showings on MTV (and later Fox Family and the N) and on video. This week sees a lovingly packaged DVD rerelease of the complete series that adds depth-plumbing commentary tracks, a disc of first-rate extras and essays by creator Winnie Holzman and fans such as Joss Whedon and Janeane Garofalo. I will not do it the injustice of calling the show perfect; it's too messily alive for that.

In its parts it may have resembled things that came before, but in its sum it was unique, as one would say every life is unique, and yet part of some universal chord. A nonjudgmental mix of journalistic and spiritual attitudes, "My So-Called Life" at once romanticized and accurately portrayed what it is to be young and changing, to be elevated and wrecked by the same powerful emotions, and it did it without descending into melodrama or selling soap. It was, in fact, a quiet show, devoted to long takes, long looks, long silences. But constantly . . . vibrating.

Watching it then and now, what is most immediately evident is the respect paid to its main subject: the emotional life of teenagers. Some of that just has to do with the high production values -- executive producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick brought to "My So-Called Life" the same cinematic gloss they had earlier applied to "thirtysomething" (without making it look slick). But it goes deeper: From the whispered "Go. Now. Go!" that slings each episode into action, the series taps something deep and urgent and so brimming with feeling that when the action suddenly glides into a wider sort of reality -- as in a Halloween episode, with ghosts, and a Christmas episode, with singer Juliana Hatfield as a grunge angel -- it never violates the show's fundamental honesty.

The classic rites and rituals of adolescence, the kinds of hot-button issues that animate after-school specials, the socio-farcical representation of cliques and characters that fill up sitcoms and rowdy teen flicks -- these things exist here as color and texture and as an occasion for reflection or for comedy. (It's a funny show.) But most everything important takes place in the space between the characters. The real story arc is defined by these waxing, waning distances and nearnesses, by the growth or withholding of affection. They are often cruel to one another, these kids, yet desperate to connect. It's a show about finding oneself but very much about finding oneself in other people: the search for identity as inextricable from the search for love.

At the center of this pocket maelstrom is Dane's Angela Chase, a suburban Pittsburgh high school sophomore who has decided to change her life. She has two new, unconventional friends: wild child Rayanne (A.J. Langer) and "sexually ambiguous" Rickie (Wilson Cruz), to use Holzman's original description, whom she has adopted or has allowed to adopt her, sensing that that way lies freedom: "So I started hanging out with Rayanne Graff, just for fun," Angela says, as the narrator of her own story. "Just 'cause it seemed like if I didn't, I would die, or something." (Characters in "My So-Called Life" are always saying "or something" or "or whatever," as though it were good never to be too committal.)

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