With Bess Armstrong, TV moms come of age In Character

September 21, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

On paper, it looked as if she were going to be just another TV mom in another family drama -- or worse. In this series, the teen-age daughter is the star, which usually means mom is further reduced to standing around off-camera in the kitchen, only occasionally popping on-screen to ask if anyone wants pizza or a glass of Coke.

But that's not the Patty Chase that Baltimore's Bess Armstrong brought to the screen when the critically acclaimed ABC drama "My So-Called Life" debuted last month.

Her 15-year-old daughter, Angela, dyed her hair red, so Patty went out and got her own hair cut very, very short. She forced tango lessons on her man-child of a husband, who was on the verge of an affair with a younger woman. She's about to modernize the small printing firm that she inherited from her father, a man who seems dead set against anything remotely modern.

She's angry, lonely, hurt, determined, smart, sarcastic and loving in a perfectly believable way that's rarely seen on TV. Patty Chase is the baby-boomer businesswoman-mom in mid-life crisis. And, of the 100 or so lead characters arriving in new series this fall, she's one of the few who is definitely worth getting to know.

"Patty is this woman who's sort of really tightly packaged and really trying to keep it together, and she's just sort of leaking all over," Armstrong says when she's asked for her take on Patty.

"But she's really trying to do it right. The problem is that half the time she's having to do it with no time to think things through, and she's kind of out there on a limb by herself.

"The bottom line is that so much care is taken in the writing. It's just so skillful and honest, so distilled. That's what makes her such a great character -- the producers and writers are good, and they really care."

The producers and writers of "My So-Called Life" are good. They include Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, of "thirtysomething" fame, as well as Winnie Holzman, a Princeton-educated poet who has become one of TV's finest dramatists.

And they have created a great character. But it was Armstrong's performance that was the big surprise in the pilot.

You sat down expecting a teen-age coming-of-age story, and 15-year-old Claire Danes did not disappoint one whit as Angela Chase. But, as good as Claire Danes was in school and party scenes with other teen actors, she was positively dazzling in her scenes with Armstrong.

You quickly realized it was Armstrong who was making the magic happen in those scenes and that her character was at the center of her own drama in "My So-Called Life" -- this one for baby boomers, and just what the doctor ordered for viewers who miss "thirtysomething."

"I don't think any of us quite believe that we are parents. And I think that's why this show has such appeal for people our age. We're sort of looking back on the 15-year-old experience, but part of us believes we are still 15. We're the generation that was never going to grow up. And, as long as Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton are at the top of the charts, maybe we don't have to," says Armstrong, 40.

"But this show gives us both stories -- the 15-year-old's and her parents'. That's one of the things that really grabbed me when I first read the script. The problem is that I don't think most people know that yet. They think 'My So-Called Life' is nothing but an hourlong 'Blossom,' because of the time period. We're trying to deal with that."

Despite the glowing reviews, all is not golden for "My So-Called Life." The Nielsen ratings -- the so-called barometer of American taste -- have not been great thus far for the series.

The ratings have been inching upward, presumably on word-of-mouth, but for the most recent ratings week available, the series finished 67th out of 90 prime-time series. At 8 Thursday nights, it's in one of the toughest time periods of the week, opposite ratings winners "Mad About You" on NBC and "Martin" and "Living Single" on Fox.

But it's not the competition that's the biggest problem. It's that "My So- Called Life" is not a show for 8 o'clock -- a time when little kids mainly control the dial. Even though it concerns itself with teen life much of the time, its focus involves the more serious matters of sexuality, identity and the dangerous crossing into adulthood. It belongs on at 10.

But ABC has no openings at 10. There's football on Monday, "NYPD Blue" on Tuesday, and very successful newsmagazines on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Publicly, the producers of "My So-Called Life" have been saying the 8 o'clock time period is fine, but privately, the word is they are worried that if ABC doesn't find a later time period, adults are not ever going to find the show.

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