Television: Too good to be continued

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The Independent Culture
CHANNEL 4's My So-Called Life is the new luxury soap from the makers of thirtysomething. If you hadn't read this in the paper, you could have guessed it. The title has the same evocative precision. The setting is familiar (the leafy suburbs of Sophisticatesville, USA), and so is the look - muted and grainy, a sort of modern sepia. When a long-married couple are in bed, talking, earnestly, and the man is wearing a weathered coral T-shirt, you know you're in the land of Hope and Michael. Except that the central figure is their daughter, Angela, 15.

The pilot episode began and ended with Angela's hair, which is dark and fine and curves inwards, as if putting her in brackets. At the start she dyed it red (or rather, as she told her little sister, Crimson Glow) and at the end she said sorry to Mom. In between she traded in her best friend for a wilder model, developed a crush on a Luke Perry type, was herself pursued by a junior Gene Wilder, fought with Mom, flirted with Dad, drifted around the edge of two parties, and went home in a police car after the new best friend had thrown a bottle at a predatory boy.

Part of me felt like responding in teenage fashion - with a cringe. Angela's mother is made of pure cardboard: capable of throwing a fit when Angela describes a boy as "bi", she seems 10 years older than the husband she met in high school. When the family sits down to supper, and the first thing you see is a fork morosely circling a plate, you know you're being served something the writer picked up at the cliche counter.

But most of the show is much better than that. Angela is sharply written and superbly played by Claire Danes (Beth in the recent film of Little Women). Her face is pale, with a hint of putty; rather than being beautiful, which would have been boring, it contains the possibility of beauty. It also places her squarely on the threshold of adulthood. She aches just like a woman, but she breaks just like a little girl.

The opposite of the kids in Beverly Hills 90210, Angela has more wit than confidence. In company, she is tongue-tied and easily led. In voiceover, she combines the perspicacity of her heroine, Anne Frank, with the pith of Nora Ephron. There's a neat inter-play between the way we see her (charming, original), the way her mother sees her (headstrong, sullen), the way her peers see her (young, malleable) and the way she sees herself - confused and alone.

The camerawork is realistic without being mannered as in ER. The dialogue is briskly authentic: the teenagers, like, keep saying "like" a lot. The worst thing is the scheduling - Wednesdays, 6-7pm. In high summer, six o'clock isn't even in the evening. Maybe Michael Grade has been preoccupied fending off the Daily Mail. Or maybe it's because the rich promise of this first episode has already been dashed. In the US the plug was pulled on My So-Called Life after 19 episodes. Airing at 8pm, against the sitcoms, it failed to attract the young Americans it was aimed at. The fact that it drew an adult audience, and rave reviews, couldn't save it from people in suits who care more about market research than quality.

The British are often accused of living in the distant past. Nothing could be further from the truth. We actually live in the recent past - the 1970s. After the Abba revival, the John Travolta revival and the glam-rock revival, here come the Seventies- football revival and the Parkinson-show revival. For a review of Match of the Seventies, see the sports pages. For Parkinson: The Interviews (BBC1), stay with us, as they say.

Last month I was a minor guest on Michael Parkinson's programme on Radio 5. I sat there registering his competence and fluency, his big-name burnish and ability to put small names at ease, and thought: why isn't this man on the telly? The good news is, now he is. The bad news is, he's only presenting his own greatest hits, for a six-week summer filler.

Parky deftly reminded us that Parkinson itself had started like that, "nearly 25 years ago". It went on to clock up 361 editions over 11 years. Some guests were asked back and the compilation capitalises on that, taking a guest a week and following them down the years. So we saw the late Peter Cook with grey hair, brown hair and light brown hair (in that order, curiously), with Dud and without, bareheaded and wearing a hat like a denim profiterole. The only things that didn't change were Cook's wit, which went, in Jonathan Miller's phrase, "at right angles" to most other comedy; and Parkinson's crisp, genial prompting. Clearly fascinated by stardom, he managed not to be dazzled by it. When Cook talked about part-owning Private Eye, Parkinson taxed him about the ethics of gossip, and it was Cook who came off worse.

Today's Parky reappeared to sum up. A proud sadness in his baggy eyes suggested a man in mourning not just for his guest, but for his genre. Of Cook he said: "When people ask me what he was really like, I always say, 'There was no one quite like him'." This was Parky at his worst. "I always say" is always a turn-off. And the fact that there was no one like Peter Cook sheds no light on what he was like. But the lost art of the chat show is about asking questions, not answering them, and for that, there is no one quite like Parkinson. Now that Bob Monkhouse has been rehabilitated, Parky must be next in the queue.

While Brookside was dicing with death, EastEnders (BBC1) was seething with sex. Unity of place was thrown to the winds as Albert Square shut down for the week and David, Ricky, Bianca, Steve, Phil'n'Grant took an apartment in Spain. The sunshine went to the heads of the scriptwriters, who decided to see if they could bridge the gap between Eldorado and Aristophanes.

Phil, in denim hotpants, took Grant off to look for their expat sister, Sam. They got lost, cross and sloshed. Meanwhile Sam was in a bar, getting off with David, whom Phil'n'Grant can't stand. Though by this stage they couldn't stand full stop.

Meanwhile David's daughter, Bianca, was telling Ricky, her on-off boyfriend, his step-brother and Sam's ex-husband, that he was boring. To prove her wrong, he took her skinny-dipping and discovered the subjunctive: "What would you say if I was to propose?" Bianca said she might say yes, if there was a ring.

Then Steve came back with the pain in the neck he had patiently picked up ("You sayin' I'm easy?"). They crashed in on David and Sam, which woke up Ricky and Bianca, who crashed in, too. Ricky and Sam had just had time to say "Ricky!" and "Sam!" when who should walk in but Phil'n'Grant, suddenly restored to the perpendic-ular. Until Thursday I wouldn't have known if it was possible for a soap to be too implausible. Now I do.