On TV: Whose So-Called Life? | Essay | Chicago Reader

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On TV: Whose So-Called Life?

This year's "quality" offering turns out to be yet another damn show about the American family--its problems, its triumphs, its enduring strength as a subject for TV.

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Network executives are never comfortable making judgment calls about quality--it distracts them when they're analyzing the market research--so they tend instead to think of it as a marketing category. A "quality show" is a particular genre of programming, with a distinct style and a limited appeal. It's moody and downbeat with arty photography, the cast is made up of professional actors rather than stand-up comics or faded movie stars, and nothing ever explodes. Its target audience is TV critics. A quality show invariably collects reviews so rapturous they amount to a kind of spiritual bullying. Reviewers threaten to beat up any network drone who'd dare to cancel a quality show; and they despair for the commonwealth because their new favorite show draws such pathetically low ratings. That's the true mark of quality: under the weight of its rave reviews it sinks like a stone into the Nielsen abyss and is off the schedule by Christmas.

This year's quality show is ABC's My So-Called Life. It's such a perfect example of the genre it'll probably be gone by Thanksgiving. By Christmas, it'll already be in heavy rotation on A&E or Bravo, where deceased quality shows go to be taped and treasured by their admirers, as if each episode of their tragically curtailed runs were as precious as a Vermeer.

But I won't be setting my VCR. The title and promos were kind of promising; they gave me the wild hope that ABC was going to take us into the realm of phenomenology, by giving us the case study of a teenage girl afflicted with what Heidegger used to call "inauthentic existence"--the metaphysical horror of the dining room table, the existential dread of phys ed. No such luck. What My So-Called Life actually is is yet another damn show about the American family--its problems, its triumphs, its enduring strength as a subject for a TV series.

Of course, it being the 90s and all, we can't buy into the old model wholesale. Mom and dad in particular have had to be reworked. In the primordial Donna Reed version, dad was a smug patriarchal bully and mom a radiant earth mother. By the mid-70s when we all thought of ourselves as especially cynical and burned-out (those were the days), the quality family show was called Family (it was a great age for generic TV; the quality cop show was called Police Story). On Family dad was worried about losing his job and mom was darkly troubled about being, you know, unfulfilled. Now we're in the Clinton 90s: the dad in My So-Called Life is a mealymouthed compromiser and mom is a tough, driven careerist. Younger than their prototypes and too successful too early, they perpetually spout opium clouds of psycho-babble even though they remain basically clueless. At least the daughter isn't named Chelsea.

But everything else is the same. The house is the same house every family in the history of American TV has ever lived in--are they taking turns renting it, or do they successively default on the mortgage? The only difference I can see is that on My So-Called Life the lighting isn't as searingly bright as on the sitcom version, where you get a sunburn from the kitchen scenes. The inky shadows in every room guarantee that anytime there's a desperately serious conversation--about once every five minutes or so--the speaker or listener, whoever's most unreachably lost in despair, can be shown as a moody silhouette melting into the pervading gloom.

This is the sole contribution the show makes to the quality form: it's very big on style. The average TV show these days is so pathetically eager to please that it's more overloaded with plot than a Jacobean tragedy. My So-Called Life tries to get rid of plot altogether. It tells arty, oblique, quotidian stories so thick with verisimilitude your own talk during the commercials starts to sound fake. One whole episode was about an unluckily located pimple. Everybody on the show is always chattering at once, overloading my TV's tinny little speaker with portents and indirections and half-finished arguments--mom wants dad to take dancing lessons, Angela wants to fool mom and dad about where she's going, and the younger daughter has yet to finish a single sentence about anything. I suppose I'm going to have to get Dolby sound to follow it all. The only time the bickering stops is when they get to a "moment."

A lazy scriptwriter's gesture at deep significance, a moment is that sudden pause, pregnant with unspoken meaning, when one family member suddenly understands something about another family member--like why mom was so angry at breakfast this morning about that new haircut, or why the younger daughter's feelings were hurt about not being able to take saxophone lessons. These moments are actually the whole point of each show: the little milestones in the teenage heroine's slow process of growing up.

Quality shows have always made a big deal over moments. In the old days they were given a huge buildup, the sort that Norman Lear used to specialize in (to prove that his dreary screechfests were actually important artistic statements): after 25 minutes of shattering whoops and roars and yells from the aurally enhanced studio audience, the moment would arrive, the camera would focus on an actor's stricken face in a punishing close-up, and the sound track would suddenly grow hushed, as if an explosive decompression had left the studio audience gasping for air. The actor would softly say, "I'm an alcoholic" or "I was an abused child" or "I am Spartacus"--and then, like the rush of fresh oxygen into the vacuum, there would follow a thunderstorm of electronic applause.

The executive producers of My So-Called Life, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, have actually invented an even more annoying form of moment annunciation: a quick guitar reprise of a bar or two of the theme music, like an audio underline. They used it first in their earlier show, Thirtysomething--where the characters were so persecuted by that guitar you thought they were living in a coffeehouse with a really obnoxious live act. On My So-Called Life it's even harder to keep up with all the musical insight.

Young Angela is living on a slippery slope of revelation: every step triggers a landslide of moments about her parents, her friends, the mysteries of human motivation, her whole struggle to grow up and be an adult. In one episode she tried to sneak into a bar and--through a chain of fluky plot ricochets that would have baffled Minnesota Fats--ended up discovering that her father might be having an affair and that her mother was unhappy with her whole dreary life. In another her father tried to break through her shell of silence (I'm not sure I've got this right, but I think she wasn't speaking to him because she suspected the affair--which she didn't know he had in fact decided not to go through with) by giving her a pair of Grateful Dead tickets. In a stunning fit of narrative speed, she immediately scalped them. I can't begin to unravel the concatenated crises that followed--but ultimately father and daughter had a really big moment, maybe the biggest they'd had in years. Not that either of them mentioned a word about what was actually wrong; that would have been too vulgar and straightforward. Instead they stood awkwardly together on the front porch of the house and talked about what music they liked. The scene was so charged with poetic intensity about generational change, I was surprised when it didn't end with the Byrds singing "Turn, Turn, Turn."

I don't know; maybe it's just me. My memories of my teenage years are ancient and drug-hazed, but I don't remember having moments with my parents about anything. Most of my friends back then were reluctant to admit they even had parents, much less that they cared about making some kind of emotional breakthrough in their dealings with them. If we'd made a show about ourselves then, it would have been about a kind of exhilarating autonomy--the rush of sudden freedom so well described by Philip Larkin:

And every life became

A brilliant breaking of the bank,

A quite unlosable game.

It would have been made up of wild gusts of melodrama, a roundelay of sexual entanglements, unforgivable betrayals that were forgotten a week later--and parents who were somehow both marginalized and central, titanic obstacles and remote zones of permanence: a world, in other words, very much like Beverly Hills 90210.

Realism is a slippery business. Nobody is ever going to call Aaron Spelling TV's heir to Zola and Flaubert--but 90210 and Melrose Place in their brief prime (both are now pale self-parodies) really did describe a mental landscape I could recognize. I thought of them as operas: after all, the lurid silliness of an opera is closer to the feel of passion than a naturalistic novel could ever be. Granted, Spelling's shows are corrupt twaddle, but they do, or anyway once did, feel right; My So-Called Life feels like a shell game. All that quality is only there to hide something much darker and nastier.

If a teenage girl wouldn't describe her so-called life like this, an adult might, looking back. Teenagers don't give a damn about their family's psychodynamics. Adults, particularly those in therapy, are obsessed with them. Teenagers don't think about whether this or that event is making them more adult: what makes teenagers so tiresome, even to other teenagers, is that they think they're grown-up already. But adults think of themselves as adolescents and ransack every event in their lives for signs they're finally growing up. Adults are also the ones (especially if they have literary pretensions) who've learned from reading John Updike, or some other old-style New Yorker writer, that quality art consists of those little epiphanic moments surrounded by a lot of naturalistic blather. And adults can't help feeling that their lives would become whole again if they'd only succeeded in attaining their adolescent erotic ideal--and that, I think, is the real point of the show.

David Lynch once said that he got the idea for Blue Velvet from his adolescent fantasies, where the most erotic idea he could imagine was hiding in a girl's bedroom closet overnight. I am absolutely certain that the producers of this show had the same fantasy. Not since Thirtysomething has any show been as neurotic about women. Oh, I know there are a lot of women in the production credits of My So-Called Life; but they were there in the credits of Thirtysomething, too, and it was more oppressively masculine than The A-Team. On Thirtysomething, every cataclysmically jerk-ish failing of the male characters was relentlessly explored, understood, and excused. And as for the female characters--if they were single, they were written off as kooky and harmless; if married, they were seen as loomingly inscrutable and perverse. The message was, the closer you get to a woman, the more unreadable she becomes.

My So-Called Life is even more regressive--it devises an unthreatening female image the producers can understand, cherish, protect, and leer at simultaneously. Claire Danes, the actress who plays the girl, is at once gawkily charming and oddly grave, as though she were in touch with her dark side a little too early--and you can see how she'd be just the kind of girl these brainy producers would have gone for back when they were in high school. They have even made sure that the dreamy guy she's got a crush on is an uncompromising thug, setting her up for heartache before they maneuver into place some more appropriate author-surrogate for her to fall in love with.

Now, I'm broad-minded; I'm not going to condemn anybody for finding a girl as achingly nubile as Claire Danes desirable, no matter how underage she might be. What I object to is the predictability. Every time TV does a quality show with a female lead, sooner or later the only issue is her sex life. The producers stopped caring about the days in The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd; China Beach eventually dropped that whole downbeat Vietnam thing so it could concentrate on conjuring up salacious adventures for its romantically burned-out heroine. If My So-Called Life somehow lasts for more than a season, it will surely focus with laserlike intensity on young Angela's virginity. By then, of course, the show will be long gone from the network, and already revived, with a much lower budget, on cable--so the really big moment, when it finally arrives, will look like Sorority Babes in the Slimeball-O-Rama.

But cable is probably the ideal place for a show like this one, anyway. The fewer viewers, the better--after all, when you're filming your sexual fantasy, the ideal number of viewers is one.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Konstantin Valov.

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