Babies having babies! Seriously, have you had your fill of this subject yet? As most of you know by now, tonight heralds the premiere of The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a one-hour drama created by the same woman who created 7th Heaven and has nothing to say on the issue of teen pregnancy. The plot is fairly standard after-school special fare: a good girl (Shailene Woodley) gets pregnant after her first sexual experience at band camp (I know) with her school's would-be Lothario (Daren Kagasoff) and she can't tell her fetus' father because she barely knows him. Molly Ringwald plays the good girl's mom. All caught up? Good, check out the reviews after the jump.
The tone of the pilot careens between an after-school special and "American Pie," with a bit of "Pretty in Pink" grabbed along the way. It is almost all about sex - and a little bit about family, but the subject there is largely sex, as well, and why it's not for the young. The sexually active kids we meet are either made unhappy by having it, or they're having it because they're unhappy. (Ricky's compulsion to sleep with every girl who crosses his path is shown to spring from his having been molested by his father.) Amy confides of her deflowering: "I'm not even sure it was sex. It wasn't fun and definitely not like what you see in the movies."
Or they're unhappy because they've never had it. In a most improbable conversation (in a show full of them, nerdy wiseacre Ben (Kenny Baumann) - who has decided almost arbitrarily to pursue Amy by getting himself into the marching band - tells his guidance counselor: "To be perfectly honest, Mark, it's all motivated by the fact that I'm 15, I'm a virgin, and if I want to have a sex life I've got to start somewhere."
ABC Family's latest original drama wants to be a slow-motion version of "Juno" but settles for being an obvious, stereotype-laden teen soap, albeit more "North Hollywood, 91607" than the story of what happens in flashier, better-known SoCal zip codes. Series creator Brenda Hampton made family drama with religious underpinnings a long-running success on "7th Heaven," but teen pregnancy - especially on a youth-oriented network - is too important a subject for such shallow, ham-fisted treatment. The topic may find a receptive audience, but based on first impressions, "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" should probably stay a secret.
For a generation of young viewers raised on "The Simpsons," "South Park" and "Degrassi Junior High" (not to mention reruns of "Sex and the City") this kind of earnest, sound-out-all-the-syllables agitprop is almost comical, a parody of an after-school special. The occasional lapses into portentous symbolism are inadvertently hilarious. While Amy sneaks into the bathroom to take a home pregnancy test, her mother, played by Molly Ringwald, reheats Amy's supper in the microwave. At the exact moment that the oven timer rings and reads "End," Amy stares at the test results that will end life as she knows it.
That part is kind of fun. "Secret Life," however, actually tries at times to be funny, and that makes it painful to watch. The peripheral presence of Ms. Ringwald, once the teenage heroine of John Hughes classics like "The Breakfast Club" and "Sixteen Candles," is almost taunting, a reminder that these teenage morality plays have been made many times before, much better.
Eschewing subtlety for overt exposition at every turn, "Secret Life" fairly screams, "This is a middle-age adult's fear-mongering perception of high school life circa 2008." And just in case we weren't feeling quite old enough, it co-stars Molly Ringwald as the mother of our teenage protagonist. (Add your own "Oh, the humanity!" moan here.) An awkward cross between "7th Heaven" and "Grey's Anatomy," it stars Shailene Woodley as Amy, your basic band geek who naturally becomes pregnant after her very first sexual experience - this with the school stud, Ricky (Daren Kagasoff). The screw-'em-and-leave-'em Ricky also carries his own dirty secret, because this is the age of abuse and dysfunction and everyone is driven by internal demons too numerous to even imagine.
he Ben character is a smart move. But the real question is whether the writers can make Amy's story compelling or whether they will retreat into all those other soapy dramas.
For what it's worth, about half the teen actions and exchanges in the first episode ring true. So this could go either way.
On the bright side, the show treats the religious teen with respect, not giggles, and a Down syndrome child has an honest and sympathetic role as part of a family. It almost deserves an extra star just for having Ben refer to Blind Lemon Jefferson, a blues legend from the 1920s.
Although the dialogue in the pilot episode was somewhat stilted, possibly owing to the need to hit all of the important issues in the choices teens face in being sexually-active or not, the episode did an excellent job in establishing characters and their familial relationships. Although some older teens might find the show preachy, "The Secret Life..." seems strongly suited to help spark dialogue between junior/senior high school students and their parents.
'The Secret Life of the American Teenager' premieres tonight on ABC Family at 8 p.m.