Sunday, April 14, 2013

Catchup: 15-year-old Claire Danes stands out in the occasionally flat "My So-Called Life"

     Cast of "My So-Called Life," from L-R: Jared Leto, A.J.
     Langer, Wilson Cruz, Lisa Wilhoit, Devon Odessa, Claire
     Danes, and Devon Gummersall. Not pictured: Bess
     Armstrong, Tom Irwin.

The date? July 20, 1995. The location? Hollywood, California, where dreams go to die. The event: the Academy of Television Arts and Science's announcement of the 47th Primetime Emmy nominations. The category: Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Round up the usual suspects: Angela Lansbury of "Murder, She Wrote"; Sherry Stringfield of "ER"; Kathy Baker of "Picket Fences"; and Cicely Tyson of "Sweet Justice".

The fifth name on that list? 15-year-old Claire Danes of "My So-Called Life," a low-rated show that had left ABC's airwaves in January after only 19 episodes. By God, did the Emmys just get something right? Was there actually a time when these awards were able to recognize quality and not fall into slumps in which the Outstanding Comedy Series trophy has gone to two shows in the last six years, each winning three in a row?

It happened. It happened as much as "My So-Called Life" being loosely adapted into a German sitcom that aired for six seasons in the early 2000s happened. But more importantly, a pretty great and tragically ignored TV show happened.

There's a heaviness that hangs over almost every part of "MSCL" that feels very authentic and original for its time. When you're 15 years old, school and friends and dating are everything to you and when something goes wrong, it's like watching the dominoes of life tumbling to the ground. Angela Chase's unrequited love for bad boy Jordan Catalano is nothing but a high school crush, but it's played and portrayed with the appropriate sensitivity and delicacy that Angela considers it to deserve. After all, for 17 of the 19 episodes, Angela is the voice of this show. She's our tour guide of Three Rivers, Pennsylvania and Liberty High School and offers us the kind of wisdom only a 15 year old can: "I've been kissed three times. No, four times. No, three times. All of them were people I never saw again. Which I hope doesn't, like, mean something."

As Claire Danes breaks down in tears or babbles like a crazy person in "Homeland," I wonder how many people knew she was capable of that same level of performance half her life ago. I don't think I would be a bad actor, but I also know that if someone asked me to cry on cue for 19 weeks in a row when I was 15 I wouldn't have been able to do that even once with any kind of believability. And Danes just nails it, to the point that I felt genuine concern for what real-life material she might have been drawing on for this display of emotion. Some of those tears are shed over relatable teen squabbles with parents or friends that don't feel like too much of a stretch, but there are moments when Angela is put through the emotional wringer in ways no one could have seen coming and in none of them did I feel removed from what I was watching. More likely was that the show and the character took their toll on Danes, who was reluctant to return for another season and has often been blamed for inadvertently killing the show. But can you blame her? This was a hard sell at 15 and she gave it everything she had. A performance like that comes once in a lifetime if we're lucky, and we've been very lucky with a great spectrum of teen characters on TV since then.

While Danes is clearly the lead of the show and its breakout star, creator Winnie Holzman assembled a pretty dynamic ensemble of young actors (Jared Leto, who played Jordan, was the oldest at 23). Angela's new free-spirited best friend Rayanne (A.J. Langer) was often able to walk off with the show's best lines or even whole scenes. The show did well addressing real issues, but occasionally veered into after-school-special territory in arcs like Rayanne's drinking problem, or the domestic abuse of Angela's other new "wild" friend Ricky (Wilson Cruz) in the show's dreadful Christmas episode, which I'll get to later. (By the way, how crazy to think that the inclusion of a flamboyantly gay teenage character on a network show was considered groundbreaking in 1994).

But if there's one character who really stole this entire series, it's Brian Krakow, Angela's neighbour and classmate, tree stalker, bike rider, and all around geek archetype. The focus of the show's best episode "The Life of Brian," the generally clueless and oddly fearless Brian was about as authentic as the "MSCL" characters came: immature, a know-it-all, and hopelessly in love with the even more clueless Angela. Brian was the show's secret weapon in that even through just 19 episodes, he established relationships with basically every main character, becoming unlikely friends with Ricky, Rayanne's favourite punching bag, the brief love interest of Angela's younger sister Danielle, and having something of a romantic tension with Angela's former best friend Sharon (played by Devon Odessa, who is apparently a different person than Betsy Brandt of "Breaking Bad"). He wasn't exactly "friends" with most of these people, or at least not very good ones, so he made for a good sounding board when characters had problems with their real friends.

And oh, they had problems. As mentioned, the show dealt with real teen issues years ahead of its time (an episode about a gun going off in the school hallway aired almost five whole years before Columbine) and was a great show because of that. When it's discovered that Jordan is illiterate, we don't spend an entire hour with him refusing help from his friends, breaking down in tears confessing his shameful secret, and then finally accepting help. Angela finds out, forms a closer bond with him because of it, and then we get to hear a hilarious song he wrote about his car (called "Red," which is disappointing news to Angela).

And sometimes, the show forgot how awesome and groundbreaking it could be in episodes like "So Called Angels," the Christmas episode of "MSCL" that abandoned any sense of reality by sending magical homeless Christmas angels to town to teach the characters about loving each other during the holidays. You see, sometimes kids have stupid fights with their parents and run away from home and freeze to death. Then they will fly down to earth and remind you over and over again how your own child could have easily been in their shoes. I will take as much ecstasy as Rayanne did when she got her stomach pumped if it makes me forget this embarrassing blunder.

On similar sour notes, I neglected to mention that Angela's parents, Patty and Graham, were also main characters in this show, primarily because I'd like to forget they were. They were never able to handle their own story lines very well, especially in one of the show's weakest episodes "Strangers in the House" in which Sharon's father has a heart attack and Graham confronts mortality by sitting on the end of his bed looking sad. Yeah, just lame material wasted on two pretty good actors, even if I found Bess Armstrong nothing but a shrieking harpy on the level of Claire Dunphy.

"My So-Called Life" is no "Freaks and Geeks" (but who is?), which had the advantage of being a comedy and setting its narrative in the past and portraying the time period ironically. Like "Downton Abbey," there are plenty of old fashioned cars to laugh at and they don't got Wi-Fi, and sometimes it's worth a chuckle. But if the Christmas episode couldn't ruin this show, the series showing its age certainly doesn't. Through good episodes and bad, "My So-Called Life" deserves a ton of credit for not only paving the way for spiritual successors like "Freaks and Geeks" and "Veronica Mars," but for surviving as long as it did in a landscape full of flash and big personality. Kinda like high school.