Leaning toward loving ABC drama

August 25, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"My So-Called Life" is about a teen-ager, but it's the quality adult drama of the TV year.

It's also one of the finest family dramas in many years and the best girls' coming-of-age show the medium has ever done.

The pilot, which airs at 8 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13), jump-starts the new fall season with a flash of class. It's a show that you don't want to miss.

Angela Chase (Claire Danes) is the 15-year-old character at the center of the series. We see the world through her eyes, and she shares her thoughts through voice-overs.

Angela dyes her hair red tonight; starts to pull away from her old best friend, who seems truly hurt by it; makes a new best friend, who seems a little dangerous; quits the high school yearbook; starts reading "The Diary of Anne Frank"; gets in trouble in the parking lot of a teen nightclub; and falls in love.

The object of her obsession is an older boy who looks like he fell out of the pages of the International Male catalog and acts like he landed on his head and suffered serious brain damage.

But here's what Angela has to say about him: "I'm in love. His name is Jordan Catalano. He was left back -- twice. Once I almost touched his shoulder in the middle of a pop quiz. He's always closing his eyes like it hurts to look at things."

When her new friend Rayanne (A. J. Langer) demands that Angela admit she wants to have sex with Jordan (Jared Leto), Angela says, "I just like how he's always leaning against stuff -- he leans great. Well, OK, either sex or a conversation -- ideally, both."

Conversation is something that seems beyond Jordan. But he does lean great; even Angela's other best friend, Ricki Vasquez, says so. Ricki (Wilson Cruz) is half Hispanic and half black. He's also the most androgynous character prime-time TV has seen since Mick Jagger made his first appearance on "Shindig."

And, then, there's Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall), the slightly-out-of-it honor student who lives down the street from Angela. He's in love with her but has no sense of how to express what he feels. She seems to see him as a pest.

There's a scene tonight between Brian and Angela that's evocative enough to be freeze-framed and hung on the wall as art. They're under a street-lamp. She's on one side of the street, and he's on the other. And, for all their teen longing to touch another human being, there's all the night between them.

If all that sounds like more teen hormones and angst than you want to deal with, there are a couple of things you should know.

First, there is a lot of angst, introspection, talk and even what some will call whining in "My So-Called Life." It's produced by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, of "thirtysomething" fame. Angst is what they do -- and do so well. For all that, the series could be called "fifteensomething." The creator is Winnie Holzman, a Princeton-educated poet who makes angst into something as close to art as the weekly, TV, family drama has ever been.

You should also know about Angela's family, because her parents and their friends and relatives form a "fortysomething" drama-within-the-drama worthy of being a series in its own right. As winning as Claire Danes is, it is Baltimore's Bess Armstrong who does the most memorable work in tonight's pilot. Armstrong plays Patty Chase, Angela's mom, who is turning 40 and wrestling with her own demons, some of which involve competing with and resenting her daughter.

Yes, resenting her daughter. That's one of many wonderful things about this series: Nobody is perfect, and there are no easy answers.

I've seen the first four episodes -- which, by the way, get better and better -- and the characters only get more complicated. Angela's dad (Tom Irwin) is a great guy in many ways, but he's real close to having an affair, which Angela finds out about. Rayanne is exciting, but she clearly has what I would call a drinking problem. Angela could be called self-absorbed, selfish and downright mean at times.

But what a welcome addition she is to prime-time TV. We've had a lot of boy-coming-of-age series -- "James at 15," "The Wonder Years," "Doogie Howser, M.D."

"My So-Called Life" looks as if it's going to be better than any of those.

The first time I heard Angela in voice-over, it reminded me of Huck's voice in the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," telling us how he was going to "light out for the Territory."

That was a 19th-century American boy talking about going west onto the frontier. This is a 20th-century American girl talking about an equally scary sojourn she's taking into adulthood and the wonder, pain and glory of the human heart.

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