Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Column #22: Short-lived TV series created ripples felt today

I come to praise, and to bury.

My focus in this column, generally, is to examine the intersections between culture and real life, while also fighting stubbornly against prejudices and other forms of lazy thinking.

My anger is often aimed at those who continually look back, on past days that they imagine to be better than these today. Because I believe strongly that anyone who thinks that life must have been better in the 1980s, or the 1960s, or the 1920s, is fooling himself.

With that said, let us look back on the mid-1990s, when we were younger and there was a TV series better than most on the tube today, or ever.

“My So-Called Life” began in 1994 and seemed to come from another planet. In the complacent Clinton era, when “Beverly Hills, 90210” passed for an honest teen drama, “My So-Called Life” jumped into the hearts of those of us who quickly fell in love with its funny, frank and deeply thoughtful look at very real, very flawed and very yearning teens, whose parents couldn't pretend to know it all anymore.

After a single, perfectly pitched season, ABC canceled the series, a victim of being scheduled against the new, terrible hit “Friends” and of the Hollywood aspirations of stars Claire Danes and Jared Leto.

The good news though, is that its legacy lives on, and its influence has been felt since, from “Freaks and Geeks” through “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.”

Two of the people behind “My So-Called Life” have brought their vision back to television recently, and we viewers are better off for it.

Writer Jason Katims has nurtured the shows “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood,” telling stories of what right-wingers like to call “real people” — people who are struggling to raise families while holding on to their jobs (yes, on “Parenthood,” even Berkeley yuppies don't have it easy).

The fact that “Friday Night Lights” has lasted through to its fifth season is admirable, as quality network dramas (such as the recent Fox attempt “Lone Star”) sometimes only make it through two episodes.

Do the big networks still have any authentic reasons for producing quality dramas? Cable channels like HBO and AMC are clearly much better at making them work. It took a deal with a satellite provider, Direct TV, to keep “Friday Night Lights” on the air.

It's too easy to blame the networks in this case, I fear. The creators of FX's “Damages” also had to beg DirectTV to keep the show alive, but unlike “Friday Night Lights,” which continues to air on NBC, “Damages” will be enjoyed solely by subscribers to the satellite service.

“My So-Called Life” co-creator Winnie Holzman, who had left TV for Broadway success, returned this summer to help her daughter create a series for ABC Family (the cable channel that most likely would have been the home of “Life” had it begun in the current era).

“Huge” had a great first season, full of some of the most real people ever seen on TV — teens at fat camp. It was funny, smart, moving and, at times, brave. And last week, it was canceled.

It seems unfair. Perhaps this self-described “family” channel is content to build its brand on sexier, less thought-provoking soaps like “Pretty Little Liars” and the cheerleaders of “Make It or Break It.”

(Perhaps that's not entirely fair. ABC Family is also home to the oft-overwrought but overall worthwhile “Secret Life” and the sharp “Greek,” which also includes some awkward young people who don't have perfect beach bodies.)

There is good news here: Even in Hollywood, writers are continuing to tell real stories, against all economic odds. If nothing else, the legacy of “My So-Called Life” continues to influence new generations of storytellers.

c. 2010 Velocity Weekly

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