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ABC’S `MY SO-CALLED LIFE’ IS AN EXTRAORDINARY SERIES

SHARE ABC’S `MY SO-CALLED LIFE’ IS AN EXTRAORDINARY SERIES

No one can say that ABC saved the best for last this fall.

The first of the network's new series, "My So-Called Life," makes an early debut tonight (7 p.m., Ch. 4). And don't overlook this one, because it just may be the best of the 27 new shows that will debut on the four broadcast networks."My So-Called Life" is nothing less than extraordinary television. The kind of show that viewers can identify with. That can make you laugh and cry, feel pain and joy. And make you think.

Which is all the more remarkable because the show's central character is a 15-year-old girl who's played by a 15-year-old girl, the remarkable Claire Danes.

(We haven't gotten around to handing out this year's Emmys yet, but Danes should already be considered for next year's awards. And she was only 13 when tonight's pilot was shot.)

That this is such a wonderful show shouldn't come as a surprise to fans of "thirtysomething" - Marshall Herskovitz, Ed Zwick and Winnie Holzman, who were the creative force for that show, are the creative force for this one. And the two series have much in common, from direction to style to writing to angst.

But we're not talking the teenage angst of "Beverly Hills, 90210." Danes' character, Angela, comes across as a real teenager - full of that bizarre combination of self-doubt and self-confidence.

She is not the perfect, beautiful, popular teen that infests so many television shows. Angela is not the perfect student, the perfect friend, the perfect daughter.

Angela is a good kid who is also, at times, annoying, whiny and self-centered.

Just like real teenagers.

In tonight's pilot, which is rather darker than subsequent episodes, Angela is trying desperately to find out who she is. She dumps her old best friend (Devon Odessa) for an unconventional new one (A.J. Lan-ger), and she's obsessed with a boy she barely knows (Jared Leto).

At home, her parents (Bess Armstrong and Tom Irwin) are having problems in their marriage. And, like seemingly every teenager, Angela is annoyed by her younger sister (Lisa Wilhoit).

That bare-bones description can't do justice to this show, however. "My So-Called Life" is a show that does an incredible job of weaving the textures of everyday life into an involving, entertaining hour that just gets better and better.

ABC has made available tapes of four of the first five episodes to critics, and this is a show that will find a place in your heart that grows larger with each succeeding installment.

Among the plotlines in those four episodes are stories about friends and peer pressure and sex and marriage and even guns, all handled with sensitivity and intelligence.

Angela and the other teenage characters, without the benefit of much life experience, tend to overinflate the importance of the trivial and trivialize the important. They're both enthralling and annoying. (Again, just like real teenagers.)

Tonight's pilot gives rather short shrift to the parents, but later episodes provide as full and realistic a portrait of them as it does of the teens. "My So-Called Life" fits into the coming-of-age genre, but it goes beyond adolescent angst to adult angst as well.

(Teenagers watching at home might even discover that parents are human, with conflicts and doubts of their own.)

And the teen characters, while they all fit into stereotypes, are more than just that. Yes, there's the brainy boy (Devon Gummer-sall). And the popular girl (Odessa). And the wild girl (Lan-ger). And even a bisexual boy (Wilson Cruz).

But all of them are allowed to be more than caricatures. They're full of conflicting motives and emotions - just like real teens.

"My So-Called Life" is more than just another television show. This is one of the few that transcends the medium.

It's not just TV, it's art.