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Reviewed by Will Harris
th Heaven” was one of those long-lived family-oriented series that skewed to an older demographic, so it’s somewhat surprising to find the show’s creator, Brenda Hampton, unabashedly going after a younger audience with her new drama, “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” But while the show may be about and for the youth of today, it’s clear that it’s designed for their parents. Not that the kids won’t enjoy it, but it’s nothing like “90210,” “Gossip Girl,” or any of the other teen dramas being pitched to the current generation of TV viewers. It’s – gasp! – wholesome.
But how, you may wonder, can a drama be wholesome when its predominant focus is on a pregnant teenager? Because it’s not really about teen pregnancy. At its heart, “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” is about family. Granted, this isn’t exactly a huge shock, what with the series airing on the ABC Family Channel, but Hampton would seem to be on a mission to provide an approximation of reality, something that’s sorely lacking from typical teen fare.
Amy Juergens (Shailene Woodley) gets pregnant during a one-off encounter during band camp with Ricky Underwood (Daren Kagasoff), who literally charms the pants off of her. It wasn’t very good, though, so she doesn’t even tell her best friends, Lauren (Camille Winbush) and Madison (Renee Olstead), about the not-very-momentous event until she discovers the repercussions of the experience. Even then, she immediately goes into denial mode, deciding to just pretend that she isn’t pregnant. That plan doesn’t work very well, of course, and we soon follow Amy down a path of different decisions. Should she get an abortion, should she put the baby up for adoption, or should she try to raise the child herself? And if she decides to carry the child to term, can she stand the gazes of her classmates as she walks down the hallways? It takes Amy the better part of the first season to find her path, which may test the patience of some viewers, but it’s hard to argue that matters like these should be rushed solely for the purposes of plot development.
Simultaneous to her pregnancy, Amy is being pursued by Ben Boykewich (Kenny Baumann), who starts off like a cross between Ducky Dale (“Pretty in Pink”) and Ronald Miller (“Can’t Buy Me Love”) but ends up as very much his own character. He’s a sweet guy in the throes of first love, and although he briefly struggles with the realization that those nasty rumors about the object of his affection are true, he’s the kind of fella who immediately steps up to the plate and offers to marry her. It’s a gesture that would seem over the top if you hadn’t met Ben’s dad, Leo, but man, if you thought Steve Schirripa wasn’t capable of escaping from his role as Bobby on “The Sopranos,” you need to see his performance as Leo. He’s a widower with economic stability, thanks to having earned the title of The Sausage King, but he’s also a realist who has an open relationship with his son about how good and bad life can be, and when Schirripa delivers Leo’s monologues to Bobby, he’ll make kids wish they had a dad like that.
For someone who spent their adolescence watching John Hughes’ coming-of-age films of the 1980s, there can be few experiences more surreal than turning on the ABC Family Channel and seeing Molly Ringwald playing Amy’s mother. Not that she hasn’t been plenty old enough to play such a part credibly for quite some time (and, indeed, played a teenaged mother herself in “For Keeps?” way back in ‘88), but playing the mother of a teenager? Ouch. Suddenly, I feel the onset of arthritis. Ringwald does an okay job in the role, but it’s a situation where, although you’re glad to see her, you can’t help but think that it was her familiarity that won her the role moreso than her ability to play it well. Mark Derwin is actually more enjoyable as Amy’s dad, playing the character in such a manic manner that you can readily believe that he might have an affair, as opposed to doing it because it’s necessary to the plot. My favorite member of the Juergens family, however, is probably Ashley (India Eisley), a 13-year-old girl with gothic fashion sensibilities and a caustic wit; she’s a snide little thing, but Eisley’s ability to shift from sober to emotional makes Ashley into more than just a one-note character.
Despite all this emphasis on the Juergens family, they aren’t the sole focus of the show. We find out about Ricky’s past as a victim of sexual abuse, though the series in no way goes out of its way to make him a sympathetic character; we also meet his current fling, Adrian (Francia Raisa), who’s known throughout the school as an easy lay. There’s also Grace Bowman (Megan Park), whose steadfast religious beliefs clash with the libido of her jock boyfriend, Jack (Greg Finley II), particularly when Jack learns of Adrian’s tendencies; things get really odd when Grace decides to befriend Ricky, whose interest in Grace is decidedly less than Christian. (It’s worth noting that Grace’s parents are played by Jon Schneider and Josie Bissett, with the former turning in a strong performance as a pissed-off father.)
Ben also has a pair of buddies in Henry and Alice, a couple who serve as an approximate parallel to Amy’s duo, Lauren and Madison. All of these characters flow in and out of each others lives, interconnected in ways both small and significant – so much so that there’s almost certainly to be some point where everyone will go, “Oh, come on, isn’t that just a little too convenient?” There are also a few subplots which feel like the series is trying too hard, such as Amy’s mother developing Alzheimers or Grace having an adopted brother who has Downs Syndrome; the latter character, Tom (played by Luke Zimmerman), turns out to be an enjoyable addition, but it’s still hard to get past the feeling that he was added because someone said, “Okay, now we need someone who’s handicapped.”
“The Secret Life of the American Teenager” has flaws, but it’s still very much a diamond of a drama. It will inevitably rankle some viewers because it dares to tackle issues that teenagers experience in real life but for some reason aren’t supposed to see on television, but as a parent, I’d much rather my daughter watch this show than just about anything on The CW.
Special Features: Surprisingly, there’s only a six-minute behind-the-scenes featurette and nothing else. Given the way other ABC Family Channel series tend to be filled with bonus material, a lesser man might dare to suggest that “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” is the bastard child of the network. But that wouldn’t be very funny, would it?