By: Allan Tong
With Juno making teen pregnancy palatable to mainstream American audiences, ABC Family’s THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER seems to have struck a chord among teens looking for a TV drama that talks about sex and parenting on their terms. Well, they’ve found it here, though the overall show could be better.
The DVD cover says it all: star Shailene Woodley (as sweet 15-year-old Amy Juergens) in profile gazing down at the bulge within her blue maternity dress. That’s the result when she lost her virginity to fellow marching band member Ricky Underwood (Daren Kagasoff) at band camp over the summer.
Early episodes find Amy struggling to tell her parents (including her mother played by former teen movie queen Molly Ringwald) and current boyfriend Ben (Kenny Baumann) who is a nice kid who offers to marry her. In later episodes, it gets harder for Amy to hide her pregnancy, and her circle of family and friends at Ulysses S. Grant High School have to deal with her situation.
Meanwhile, Amy’s ex and the father of her child, Ricky receives counselling to treat his rampant promiscuity. His therapist (Ernie Hudson best known for Ghostbusters) traces Ricky’s condition to sexual abuse inflicted by Ricky’s father. Ironically, Ricky is now dating the school’s blonde cheerleading babe, Grace Bowman (Megan Park), who is a devote Christian committed to abstinence until marriage. That’s right: the school nympho and the Born Again are a couple.
The show scores points for talking about teen sex and pregnancy openly in a society that’s still debating whether to make sex ed and contraception obligatory in all its schools. There’s no cheap innuendo on this show. Instead, this is a rare and honest reflection of teen sexuality on American TV.
The show’s diverse casting also deserves credit. By this I mean seeing not only Asian and black faces, but those with handicaps (Down Syndrome), single-parent households (Amy’s) and foster care (Ricky). THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER is more realistic than the bland whitebread cast of say THE OC which in the age of Obama suddenly look old.
That’s not to say THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER is perfect. It’s a soap opera driven by various storylines about relationships, cheating and betrayal threaded together as in so many other series. The show needs more laughs to relieve the melodrama and speed up the sometimes plodding tempo, but ABC Family may fear that would trivialize the show’s issues.
The DVD set is threadbare. The first 11 episodes are presented on three discs, and the only bonus feature is a forgettable on-set peek at the cast. Really, this set is to warm up viewers before ABC Family broadcasts new episodes in a few weeks. While I applaud this series for having integrity I hope it sharpens its edges and finds its voice.
THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER hits shelves on Tuesday December 30, 2008