Series Premiere Review – The Secret Life of the American Teenager

Learning that ABC Family was airing a new series, I was of two minds. On the one hand, it’s ABC Family – a network not exactly known for its high-class programming. On the other hand, I’ve been enjoying their fare as of late – I was a big fan of Greek which had its season finale a few weeks back, and I’m slowly but surely going to be posting Middleman commentary in time (And I’m quite enjoying it as well). So, figuring that I should at least give their latest series a try, I dug in.

What I found, however, is that the network is not the issue here: airing on ABC Family is no longer a curse, but Brenda Hampton certainly is. Best known for her eons-long stint running 7th Heaven, one of my most hated shows of all time, she brings to The Secret Life of the American Teenager a bag of tricks so lifeless and emotionless as to emaciate any interest the series could have driven. The show looks, feels, like 7th Heaven, and while it isn’t quite as preachy that seems more like pilot sins that will later be repented.

What Teenager lacks is what Greek had: for all of the show’s stereotypical storylines and love triangles and everything else, it was willing to treat all of it with both a sense of humour and a sense of respect. While there is some humour in the show’s first episode, and I think that it does respect a few of its characters, the former is isolated to one character and the latter is only created through hackneyed bait-and-switch mechanics. At the end of the day, there’s a central secret, but it doesn’t have any of the life that its title alludes to.

I won’t spend too much time recounting its numerous failures, but for the most part the biggest one is that the performance of the show’s central character just isn’t good. I’m not saying that Amy (Shailene Woodley) is an unredeemable character, but she bland to the point of nothingness: she went to the 7th Heaven school of acting, which does no one any favours unless they’re playing a more emotional role. For someone going through a teen pregnancy, her emotions are downright strange: she’s anxious, a little spaced out, but we don’t see any of the more extreme emotions that you’d expect someone to feel. Not seeing those kind of robs us of a chance to empathize with her character; instead, I just kind of pondered how unrealistic that reaction can be when it was never attributed to shock (An explanation that would have made her character far more interesting).

And with a better actress, not to fully discredit Woodley, I think the part could go somewhere: unfortunately, the script doesn’t even give Woodley anything to work with, with its long glances at the child’s father or her horror at hot dogs entering into buns at the post-game party, so an actress would need more experience to make it something to relate to. While the comparisons to Juno are always going to be unfair, what Ellen Page brought to Juno (even beneath the <!– /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-parent:””; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”;} @page Section1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;} div.Section1 {page:Section1;} –>
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colloquialisms) was something who was forced to mature too fast and was having issues with it. Here, we don’t see anything that gives us a window into how this character is really affected, and it hurts.

Especially when the other characters all essentially get better characterization, which seems odd considering the scenario. Yes, they’re all horrible cliches, but at least they feel fully formed. Grace and Jack’s “Waiting for Marriage” storyline is as predictable as they get, but we get the full story: Grace is waiting, Jack’s willing to wait, but he’s also really horny. I don’t necessarily like either character, but I get a better sense of who they are. Similarly, I cared more about Ben’s two asian friends, whose names I don’t even know, than I did for Amy by the end of the pilot.

And this gets worse when you consider Ben and Kenny both, two characters that get either a lot of time to establish their characters or an intricate back story to explain their behaviour. Amy’s home life is awkward, sure (Plus, it has Molly Ringwald in it!), but it’s nothing when we compare it to Kenny’s sexually molestive father that has left him with serious sexual issues (Hence his promiscuous ways, including with Amy). Yes, it’s a highly manipulative way to avoid having a villain (Like 7th Heaven, the show will likely never show someone as just mean for no reason), but at least it’s a perspective.

Similarly, with Ben, he’s just charming; if there’s a character in the show who’s interesting on his own right, it’s Kenny Baumann’s take on a fast-talking, horny (Yes, everyone is horny in this world) kid who’s really a romantic at heart. It’s plenty simplistic, but I like the kid: he’s smart, he’s charming, and if the other actors were delivering Hampton’s tired dialogue with his energy I think the show could improve tenfold.

But they’re not, and the show depends on this changing – I don’t think I’ll have the patience to stick around, but if I was it would be based mostly on the fact that eventually Amy will have to tell her parents she’s pregnant, and that perhaps in that moment real emotion can be found and the show’s trajectory can be altered. But if they are going to drag this out as far as possible, the show is on the wrong track: they’re using what should be the core event of the series as a cultural catalyst for teenage sex in general, and when I care more about that then the main character’s teen pregnancy something needs to change.

For now, it’s just the channel.

Cultural Observations

  • Molly Ringwald doesn’t do much here in the first episode, and to be frank? It was pretty bad. I’m not saying it’s her fault, the dialogue is painful to listen to, but Molly Ringwald should not be cracking Kim Jong Il jokes, nor should anyone else on this show outside of Ben. It just doesn’t work.
  • I couldn’t help but be reminded during the family scenes of how much I enjoyed the early episodes of Aliens in America before I grew tired of the series. In fact, I might finish it out at some point if only to get a better and more interesting glimpse into high school life from that CW series.
  • I’d be curious to see where they take the Guidance Counselor – do they go the route of Dawson’s Creek, or the underlying sexual tension of Six Feet Under, or leave him as the admittedly quite good sounding board for Ben and others? Regardless, only time will tell.

1 Comment

Filed under ABC Family

One response to “Series Premiere Review – The Secret Life of the American Teenager

  1. Tess

    Hey everyone!!! Take a look at my blog about the secret life of the american teenager – weekly polls & updates on the show – please comment!!!

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