Picks and Pans Review: My So-Called Life

updated 08/29/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/29/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ABC (Thursdays, 8 p.m. ET)

Grade: Pilot A+ Series A-

Lord knows, I don't ask much of you. But this week I'm beseeching you to watch the pilot of this new series. It's not just extraordinary TV—it's the best piece of filmmaking I've seen anywhere this year.

The drama is a lyrical coming-of-age story told through the eyes of 15-year-old Angela Chase, a Holden Caulfield for the '90s. As she bluffs her way through those excruciating teen years, Angela shares with us her solipsistic ruminations, including such observations as, "Cafeteria is the embarrassment capital of the world. It's like a prison movie" and "It's so strange how parents can, out of nowhere, turn psychic. It's unnerving." Whereas most TV shows transpire in some vague, undifferentiated time warp—could be the '50s, could be the '80s—My So-Called Life is very much of the moment, set in a world of raucous mosh pits, where girls rakishly wear backward baseball caps and bands have cheerful names like the Frozen Embryos—a world in which high school students have to pass through metal detectors in order to get to their classes.

As Angela, newcomer Claire Danes, 15, gives a luminous performance, perfectly conveying the adolescent paradox of halting awkwardness and blinding grace. Angela is painfully self-conscious everywhere but around her parents, with whom she is a disdainful know-it-all. Along with the acid-dipped Darlene on Roseanne, this is the only authentic portrait of a teenager a TV show has ever presented. (Okay, and maybe Zelda on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.) Bess Armstrong, a fine actress finally getting a shot in a decent show after a string of turkeys, nails the role of Angela's exasperated mother. But the cast is uniformly strong, particularly the teen contingent of Wilson Cruz, A.J. Langer and Jared Leto.

In subsequent weeks the series settles into a more predictable and sentimental mold, reminiscent of The Wonder Years, but it is still superior TV The debut episode is so poignant and so powerful, however, it deserves separate consideration.

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