'So-Called Life': gone, probably, but not forgotten

January 26, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

I was an absolute goner the first time I heard the voice of 15-year-old Angela Chase (Claire Danes).

"I'm in love," she told us in the pilot episode of "My So-Called Life." "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. I just like how he's always leaning against stuff. He leans great."

Angela's voice was almost always like that -- confessional, confused, honest, smart, longing, aching, a fresh stream of teen consciousness that sounded poetic compared to the normal grind of assembly line network dialogue.

I said her voice was like that -- was, was, was, was. After tonight's episode, "My So-Called Life" is, for all practical purposes, history.

There are no more new episodes, and production of the show has shut down. ABC is sending off "My So-Called Life" on so-called hiatus -- the network euphemism for that never-never land from which few series ever return.

Next Thursday, when you surf onto the ABC prime-time wave at 8 p.m., you'll find Ben Matlock instead of Angela Chase. "Oh, please, Mr. Matlock, you just have to take my case." Talk about a sense of loss.

For fans of the show, all hope is not yet lost. One of the most aggressive lobbying efforts to keep a show on the air since the "Cagney & Lacey" campaigns of the early 1980s is generating a ray of hope that ABC might give new life to "My So-Called Life" and put it back on the schedule in September.

The campaign is called "Operation . . . Life Support," and it is the first such effort conducted mainly in cyberspace, with fans using the Internet and major commercial on-line services to make their feelings for the show known.

"The support is beyond anything we imagined," says Steve Joyner, a free-lance writer from the San Francisco area who is directing the campaign.

Joyner said yesterday by telephone that "Operation . . . Life Support" has received about 11,000 supportive e-mail messages, faxes, letters and phone calls, as well as $7,000 in donations to publicize its effort.

The money will be used to buy full-page ads in today's Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter -- prominent industry trade publications. The ads will urge ABC Entertainment President Ted Harbert "to do the right thing" and renew the series, according to Joyner.

Harbert went on-line to respond to "Operation . . . Life Support" members following last week's episode of the show.

Joyner described Harbert's response as "somewhat repetitious based on what he said in the past, vague, noncommittal, political."

"But he's in a very tough position," Joyner added. "He's like the president of the United States. If he says something, people listen, and they hold him to it."

According to Harbert, the problem with "My So-Called Life" is ratings. The show has about only 10 million viewers a week; a hit show like "Home Improvement" has more than 30 million.

As Harbert put it recently, "Ten million is a lot of people, but it's not so many by our standards." He also said that the network would not be swayed by any one group of viewers.

One group that did sway Harbert and ABC, a little, was the Television Critics Association. Earlier this month, Harbert met with critics to promote ABC's winter and spring schedule of new shows. But he spent most of the time answering questions about "My So-Called Life."

Seizing on the obvious interest, ABC added an extra session to its schedule -- a press conference with "My So-Called Life" producers Marshall Herskovitz and Winnie Holzman, and stars Claire Danes, Bess Armstrong and Tom Irwin.

"I think there really is hope. I believe this show really has a chance of getting renewed," Armstrong said later that night at a party. "The critics' support during that press conference made a difference, believe me."

Whether such critical support will make enough of a difference remains to be seen. It wasn't enough in the case of "I'll Fly Away" and "Brooklyn Bridge," for example.

"Of course, I have my own reasons for wanting to be renewed. This is the best thing I've even been associated with," said Armstrong, who has co-starred in such feature films as "The Four Seasons" with Alan Alda. "But I also feel like we'll all be losing something important if this show is cancelled."

We will -- too many things to list in one story. For me, one of the most important is the voice of Angela.

Young girls are not very essential in the values of prime-time television -- until they develop breasts and become sexual objects, that is. "You're acting like a silly schoolgirl," and, "Don't be such a girlyboy," are just two expressions I have heard on television in recent days, which suggest the values at play.

"My So-Called Life" was a rare exception. It celebrated Angela and her outside-the-mainstream, soul-of-a-poet sensibility in all its quirkiness, sensitivity, insight, contradiction, optimism, melancholy and angst.

If the series never returns, I'll remember that voice. It's burned into the television memory bank part of my brain along with, "Oooohhhh, Mr. Grant," and, "Honey, I'm home."

Who knows what one line will stay with me. But the line I remember right at the moment makes me smile. It's from the first dinner scene in the pilot, after Angela has dyed her hair.

"I'll never dye my hair red," Angela's younger sister says, voicing the family's disapproval.

"It's not red," Angela says, trying to come off as knowing. "It's crimson glow."

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