Articles Irish Times Television

The agony and the empathy – TV teen drama

Saturday, March 16, 1996

Episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 are like 50-minute commercials for a life you’ll never have

‘Yoof’ programming has had a bad press. We’re led to believe that it’s all inane magazine shows with manic audiences, and bronzed bodies on California beaches – visual bubblegum for sullen teenagers too old for safe kids’ telly, and too young for Newsnight.

American teen dramas in particular have drawn a great deal of criticism.  These escapist shows, such as Beverly Hills 90210 and Sweet Valley High, try to tell you that being a teenager is a brilliant thing because you’re beautiful, it’s sunny and everyone loves you.

However, recently a new type of teenage drama has appeared, which explores the difficulties of growing up in a much more considered fashion. More empathetic than escapist, this school is best represented by Party of Five (which won this year’s Golden Globe for best TV show) and My So-Called Life, which has just returned to Network 2.

Episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 are like 50-minute commercials for a life you’ll never have. Being a teenager is shown to be sexy, exciting and as easy as getting your rich LA parents to buy you a Merc for your birthday. Even when there is a problem, it’s a cool one, and it all else fails you can always stride off moodily across a deserted beach.

Having run for several seasons now, 90210 is beginning to show its age.  The characters have left school and are coping with more grown-up (but just as impressive) issues such as running nightclubs. However, a curious shift has happened over the years.

In the early series, the characters looked much too old to be high-school students (no wonder they found it all so easy – they were all in their 20s). Now however, they seem too young to be convincing adults – they’re caught in the Beverly Hills Triangle.

90210 feels like a 1980s soft drink commercial: lots of positive images and perfect smiles. My So-Called Life and Party of Five, on the other hand, feel more like 1990s car ads: caring, understated and attractive in a much more responsible way. However, there’s more to them than that, as both dramas show that it’s possible to make good television about and for teenagers. 

Party of Five concentrates on a brother and sister growing up in affluent but not excessively rich San Francisco. The shift from 90210’s Southern California to the Bay Area is telling – to people in LA (if to no-one else), Northern Californians are serious, introspective and sensitive types, and the show deals with convincing teenage concerns in a considered way.

My So-Called Life is produced by the creators of thirtysomething, and it shows. Following the story of 15 year-old Angela Chase (played by the excellent Claire Danes), the show accurately reflects one of the great ironies of teenage life – at the time when every week brings a new milestone, you’re impatiently convinced that nothing’s happening.

‘Haven’t you ever waited for anything?,’ asks one of Angela’s friends.  ‘Yeah,’ replies another, ‘for my life to start.’

While in 90210, the big crises are always obviously big, My So-Called Life delicately captures how crucial apparently minor events can be. Angela’s father happens by while she’s on her way from the shower towel-clad and dripping, and the new awkwardness of their relationship is shown immediately.  ‘Sad but true,’ reflects Angela, ‘My breasts have come between us.’

The characters are given depth and clarity, and there are impressive performances from the (convincingly) young cast. You might on a bad day envy the characters in the escapist dramas, but you know people aren’t really like that. In contrast, the cast of My So-Called Life are likeably real; they’re intelligent, self-aware and blessed with a sense of humour. 

Occasionally they sound a little too wise for their years, and the show perhaps tries a little too hard to flesh out the characters of Angela’s caring but troubled parents. Everybody all being sensitive and understanding all at once can get a little uncomfortable for buttoned-up Irish people.

Nonetheless, My So-Called Life certainly shows there’s more to teenage drama than bronzed hunks and nascent modelling careers. But if you like the show, you’d better make the most of it while you can – despite critical acclaim in the US, ABC cancelled the show after 2 seasons, citing only moderate ratings and doubts over Claire Danes’ willingness to star in another season.

While the protests over this are still going on (there are web sites on the internet devoted to the show and its longed-for return), perhaps it was appropriate that it didn’t run and run. It was, for example, spared the slow decline of Beverly Hills 90210.

As it is, My So-Called Life fittingly reflects the years between 15 and 18: sometimes difficult, but rewarding and too quickly gone.

(first published in The Irish Times, Saturday March 16th, 1996)