Just say no.
When defining the genre for The Secret Life of the American Teenager, most reviewers choose to classify it as “drama” or “high school” or maybe even “romance” and “soap opera.” I, on the other hand, feel the category that best describes this show is, “Oh dear God, please make it stop.”
In order to get through this, I’m going to need some help, so please welcome today’s special guest reviewer, Dr. Smith from the original Lost In Space. Welcome, Dr. Smith.
Dr. Smith: Oh, the pain, the pain.
DVD Verdict: This series depicts the day-to-day struggles of a bunch of horny high schoolers and their families. Teen mom Amy (Shailene Woodley) continues to try to raise her infant son with the help of her doting boyfriend Ben (Ken Baumann) and the baby’s biological father Ricky (Daren Kagasoff). Elsewhere, wild child Adrian (Francia Raisa) tries to find happiness through sex, while pious Christian girl Grace (Megan Park) is confused by her longings for the hunky Jack (Greg Finley). At home, Amy’s mom Anne (Molly Ringwald, The Breakfast Club) has just had a child of her own, and is unsure whether to reconcile her marriage with her goofball ex-husband George (Mark Derwin). Amy’s little sister Ashley (India Isley) continues to offer sarcastic wisecracks and wry observations. There are about a dozen other characters and subplots.
Dr. Smith: The pain, the pain, the pain.
Verdict: This show is all about shock value, yet it rarely provides anything shocking. There’s all this buildup with all this promise about sex and sleaze, but then it never makes with any sex or sleaze. I’m not saying I want it to turn into hardcore porn, just that the characters talk, talk, talk about what’s going on, but there are few actual moments in which they make decisions or take actions that move their lives—and, more importantly, the plot—forward.
Dr. Smith: Oh, the pain.
Verdict: Each season has started with some big attention-getter. First there was the pregnancy, then the secret wedding, then one character losing her virginity and learning of her father’s death on the same night. This season begins with…the characters skipping school to spend a day at the beach. OK. As episodes progress, we learn the big theme this time is breaking up. The show’s three main couples—Amy and Ben, Ricky and Adrian, and Grace and Jack—are splitsville. The actual drama of each breakup is appropriately awkward and heartbreaking, but this is diluted with scene after scene of the characters talking endlessly about the breakups.
Dr. Smith: Pain. Oh, the pain.
Verdict: So it’s a dialogue-driven show. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In this case, though, the dialogue is so clunky and exposition-laden that not only does it not sound like anything a human being might say, but it’s repetitive to the point of annoyingness. When Grace and Jack break up, it’s followed by a scene of two other characters talking about them breaking up, then another scene of two more characters talking about them breaking up, and then a third scene of more characters talking about them breaking up. These additional scenes don’t provide any new insights or information. Instead, they are here merely to remind viewers about the breakup and keep viewers up to speed on something that just happened. I know, it’s a girly show, and it’s a girly thing for the characters to sit around and talk about their feelings. I (sort of) get that, but you’re telling a story, so all this emotional hand-wringing should still move the story forward somehow, but it rarely does.
Dr. Smith: The pain. The…pain!
Verdict: In the first episode on this set, there’s a scene in which we meet Dr. Bink, a guidance counselor, played by Mayim Bialik (yes, that Mayim Bialik). The setup is that a character we barely know goes into Bink’s office and tells her, in detail, how the main characters have skipped school, even though we the audience just them do that. Bialik is great, however, and she takes the scene and runs with it. We learn that Bink has a troubled past, and she has no problem speaking her mind with brutal honesty to students, parents and her fellow educators. I wanted to jettison all the other characters out of an airlock and watch Bialik star as Bink in a House, M.D.-style show. Sadly, her screen time is minimal, and we have to go back to people like Ricky or Grace for more…more what, Dr. Smith?
Dr. Smith: Pain! Oh, the pain, the pain, the pain.
Verdict: Is anything good here? Shailene Woodley continues to be the heart of the show. There are a few moments near the end of the season that she breaks down and cries, and her emotion feels real, as opposed to blandness of the other actors’ bland and fakey freakouts. Mark Derwin’s role as Amy’s dad continues to be a Will Farrell-esque man-child type, and this time around he finds a nice balance between the nice guy half of the character and the clownish half. Renee Olstead (13 Going on 30), as Amy’s friend Autumn, continues to be too good for this material, and the creators must have realized that because she gets more screen time than ever. Not nearly enough, though.
Dr. Smith: Oh, the pain. Oh, William!
Verdict: All 12 episodes are here on this three-disc set. The picture and audio are just fine, although this is not a show with powerful visuals or immersive sound. Bonus features include a series of lighthearted short featurettes about the making of the show and the actors answering silly questions. An included booklet contains the first chapter of the show’s tie-in novel, The Secret Diary of Ashley Juergens. So, in conclusion, Dr. Smith, is there anything you’d like to say to Brenda Hampton, the show’s creator?
Dr. Smith: You bubble-headed booby! You ninny! You mental midget! You nickel-plated nitwit! You ludicrous lump! You clattering clank of cogs and camshafts!
Verdict: Couldn’t have said it better.