In a tiny brush stroke of irony, the new fall television season begins early on ABC Thursday night with a stripped-down-and-reglazed antique from the producers of “thirtysomething.”
Although considerably smarter than average, “My So-Called Life” is the latest in a very long line of prime-time series about youths coping with their changing lives and their parents coping with them. In other words, a sort of “Beverly Hills, 90210,” minus the lobotomy.
It’s an apt curtain raiser for a 1994-95 season in which newness and sameness glom together indistinguishably.
As fathers of the late, great “thirtysomething,” Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick now bear the crushing tonnage of our expectations, having artfully transfused television drama in the late 1980s with an extended family of relentlessly introspective baby boomers whose stories on ABC thumpity-thumped the heartbeat of substance. They are the executive producers of “My So-Called Life”; its creator is Winnie Holtzman, who spent two seasons writing scripts for “thirtysomething.”
But “thirtysomething” glistened from its inception with a seductive uniqueness that this latest series does not initially share.
Despite good intentions, some smiles and some moments that may ring excruciatingly true for both teens and former teens (to say nothing of their parents), “My So-Called Life” often makes you feel less like a witness than an exhausted chaperon for its subculture of hyperventilating sophomores. It can be a wearing experience, for after a promising start, the series travels a slippery downward curve greased by a series of feel-good endings that strain credibility.
Teen Angst and parental hand-wringing hover smoggily over the stylish, Holtzman-written, Scott Winant-directed premiere (the best of four episodes made available for preview), as almost immediately the zits hit the fan. For reasons even she can’t define, mopey 15-year-old Angela Chase (Claire Danes) impulsively colors her straight hair crimson.
“We’ll always be able to spot you . . . in a crowd,” her mother, Patty (Bess Armstrong), chides with faint ridicule during dinner. Angela over-responds defiantly, stabbing her plate with her fork.
This on-going mother-daughter petulance is mediated by Angela’s appeasing, stridently anxious-to-please father, Graham (Tom Irwin). “Why do I always have to be the mean one?” the self-pitying Patty bitterly lashes out when he shrinks from getting tough with their daughter. Flawed characters you can handle, but “My So-Called Life” elevates them to high-decibel stridence; just who is least grating in this series varies from scene to scene and episode to episode.
In ways that recall ABC’s grand “Wonder Years,” “Degrassi Junior High” on PBS and “Square Pegs,” a quirky CBS sitcom in the early 1980s, “My So-Called Life” contains its share of charming small truths. When Angela tells a teacher that Anne Frank was fortunate to be “trapped in an attic for three years with this guy she really liked,” for example, you not only pity the poor teacher, you also recognize that Holtzman has a witty grasp on adolescence and knows a bull’s-eye when she sees one.
Another plus is the brooding self-consciousness that seems so genuine in Angela, a credit to Danes’ effortless performance. Her nervous body language speaks volumes, as do her character’s private thoughts, delivered as part of a voice-over narration in the manner of “The Wonder Years.”
Pretty enough to be noticed, plain enough to be insecure, Angela is dreamily transfixed by physical appearance and acutely self-absorbed. These are recognizable traits, the territory that comes with teenhood. Will her breasts ever grow? Is that a pimple on her face or the Leaning Tower of Pisa? Does Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto), the handsome slug she has a crush on, even know she’s alive?
Angela’s so-called life away from home is marked by boyfriend/girlfriend melodramas. Sharon (Devon Odessa), her longtime best friend, is devastated when Angela replaces her with flirtysomething playgirl Rayanne (A.J. Langer), who is inseparable from the show’s human hybrid, the “bi,” eyelinered, hormonally challenged, sexually ambivalent Rickie (Wilson Cruz). A half-black, half-Latino, half-boy classmate, he routinely hangs out in the girls’ bathroom, which somehow no one questions for several episodes.
Manic passions fill this attic. Although Angela and her friends tend to magnify even the minuscule, some genuinely serious matters do surface on “My So-Called Life.” There’s a near rape in the premiere, and it turns out that the fun-loving Rayanne is a party boozer who blacks out when she drinks. (As if everyone in the series was an amnesiac, however, Rayanne’s drinking problem is fleeting, vanishing into an abyss of future episodes.)
Further down the line, “My So-Called Life” slips in an episode about teen bullying and guns at Angela’s relatively upscale school.
Yet it resolves these affairs with unnatural tidiness, just as Angela’s soggy rapprochement with her mother at the end of Episode One--prompted by something that her clunk of a father does--is an illogical U-turn against heavy traffic.
Dippy teens, dippy parents. The question: If you’ve experienced it once in real life, do you want to endure it again?
* “My So-Called Life” premieres at 8 p.m. Thursday on ABC (Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42).