We were supposed to hang out tonight anyway. So, why don’t we just get married instead?”
Sex. Deceit. Conflict. Crying. Fighting. More sex. Sadness. Shouting. Tension. Heartache. Even more sex. It’s all another day in The Secret Life of the American Teenager.
Fifteen-year-old Amy (Shailene Woodley) is pregnant. This has, understandably, complicated life. Her loving boyfriend Ben (Ken Baumann) is willing to do whatever it takes to support her and the child, but he’s not the biological father. That would be Ricky (Daren Kagasoff), who’s dating nice girl Grace (Megan Park) while secretly cheating on her with bad girl Adrian (Francia Raisa). Along for the ride are Amy’s feuding, divorce-bound parents Anne (Molly Ringwald, The Breakfast Club) and George (Mark Derwin), as well as her sarcastic little sister Ashley (India Eisley). With the question of whether to put the baby up for adoption on everyone’s minds, Amy and Ben decide to take their futures into their own hands by eloping. Armed with fake IDs, the young couple and their friends head off to a cheesy get-hitched-quick chapel for a secret wedding.
I’m always up for a good high school show. Why? Because the genre is such a potent source for so many great stories. Comedy, drama, romance, and even horror all have genre landmarks in a high school setting. So it was with a lot of hope that I approached The Secret Life of the American Teenager. A look at the various day-to-day struggles and triumphs that today’s teens face? The potential was there for a great show. Unfortunately, outside of the initial hook of “pregnant teenage girl,” this is just another campy nighttime soap opera, all about who’s sleeping with who, who’s cheating with who, who’s lying to (and lying on) who, and so on.
Just as the big attention-grabber of the first season was the pregnancy, the show’s creators go for another big attention-grabber this time with the secret wedding. It should come to no surprise that it’s not the happy ending the characters hope for, but it still came and went awfully fast. It’s over almost as quickly as it happens. If the creators were insistent on following this path, then why not stretch it out for a while? How dramatically interesting would it have been for the characters to have to keep this secret for a while? What storylines could have been derived from this? We’ll never know, because it the whole marriage thing ends quickly, so the series gets back the usual “who’s hooking up this week” shtick.
Like most soap operas, there are numerous other plot threads to keep track of. Adrian gets into a romantic relationship with her stepbrother, Ricky confronts his psycho recently-out-of-jail father, Grace’s parents break up and then make up, Grace’s ex-boyfriend Jack (Greg Finley) starts dating the 20-year-old sister of a kid he’s mentoring, and Ashley starts up a flirtation with a (gasp!) cigarette-smoking boy she meets at a bus stop.
The plotting isn’t the show’s main dilemma, though. That would be the dialogue, which is overloaded with needless exposition. Take this example:
Anne: “I don’t know, Amy. It seems like ever since I talked to you about finding a job and taking on the responsibility of being a parent, you’ve just distanced yourself from me. I can’t help that you don’t like what I said, but it just needed to be said. Are you doing anything about it? About finding a job?”
Nobody actually talks like this!!! Nonetheless, scene after scene after scene contains clunkers like these. I know, TV writers often have to work “reminders” into the dialogue to keep viewers up to speed week after week, but there’s got to be better ways to do it. Not to mention that a lot of these reminders are references to things that happened in the same episodes. It’s as if the writers feel that the viewing audience has such a short attention span that no one can remember what happened before the last commercial break. It’s true that the actors tend to come across as wooden, but how could they not with these scripts?
The show’s attempts at humor are more awkward and uncomfortable than genuinely funny. Ann and George’s constant sniping at each other is played for laughs. It seems to me that this should be serious business, threatening to tear their already struggling family apart. Instead, George is portrayed as some sort of party-loving man-child whose spends most of his time causing mischief around the house. Instead of finding his pranks and schemes hilarious, I kept wondering what his deal is. Even weirder is a subplot about Grace’s older brother, who is mentally challenged. The joke here is that he’s constantly horny, and his parents worry about what he’s doing with a mentally challenged girl. Turning a mentally challenged kid into comic relief is more like something out of South Park than this show. Making him a horndog comic relief in the style of Larry from Three’s Company or Vinnie from Doogie Howser, M.D. or Quagmire from Family Guy, well, that’s just strange.
Despite the stale plotting and dreadful dialogue, something interesting happened to me after I was two or three episodes into this show—I wanted to see what happened next. By far the most interesting storyline is the ongoing question of whether Amy will put the baby up for adoption. About half the characters want the adoption, and the other half wants her to keep it. This makes for a lot of interesting tension and character dynamics. It’s too bad the rest of the storylines couldn’t be as interesting.
A handful of reliable and likable actors show up here and there throughout the series, and their work stands out above the regular cast, including John Schneider (Smallville), Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters), Kathy Kinney (The Drew Carey Show), and Bianca Lawson (Kendra from Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Another standout is Renee Olstead (13 Going on 30) as Madison, another friend of Amy’s who sort of floats in and out of the series. Unlike the other regulars, she has a knack for making the clunky dialogue work. The whole show picks up energy whenever she’s on screen.
• The size of Amy’s belly varies from episode to episode, and not in a “gradually getting bigger” way, but in a “how is she going from more pregnant to less pregnant back to more pregnant?” way. At one point near the end of the season, she mentions being at eight months, while not looking large at all. I’m no expert, but shouldn’t she be in full-on Hutt mode by that point?
• These characters randomly run into each so much, it had me wondering if this town has a population of just these fourteen or so people.
• You know that thing where two characters are talking and then a third character happens to be walking by, hears part of the conversation, and joins in with perfect timing? This show does that several times per episode.
This three-disc set contains all twelve episodes of the show’s second season. The picture and audio quality is just fine. This is not a show with a lot of flashy visuals or room-busting sound, but there were no obvious flaws. There are two short featurettes, “Character Secrets,” and “Cast Close-ups,” which are high on fluff and low on substance. These are followed by music video by The Strange Familiar.
This could have—and should have—been a great show. The real secret of this secret life is how it doesn’t live up to its potential.