Thursday, July 3, 2008

Is “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” Entertaining for Adults?

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

If you are over the age of 30, here is the first thing you need to know about the ABC Family show “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” (Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern): The ads trumpeting Molly Ringwald as the star of the program are nothing more than an old-fashioned bait-and-switch scam, meant, I’m guessing, to dupe adults into watching this teen drama. Yes, Ringwald graces the cast as Anne, mother of the series lead, 15-year-old Amy (Shailene Woodley of “The O.C.”), but she is very much “the mom,” with few lines, and even fewer meaningful moments (unless you find cooking dinner and saying things like “Are you feeling okay?” the height of drama).

“Teenager” is the story of a 15-year-old girl who gets pregnant, so certainly there is mileage to be gained in casting Ringwald as the mother, since she once played a pregnant teen herself, in the 1988 movie “For Keeps?” (her last successful film as a lead). But the show firmly belongs to the kids.

And there are lot of them. Amy, the “nice” girl who gets pregnant, has two best friends, the dramatic Madison (Renee Olstead of “Still Standing”) and the more even-keeled Lauren (Camille Winbush of “The Bernie Mac Show”). The father of her fetus is the troubled serial womanizer Ricky (newcomer Daren Kagasoff), who, despite being a kind of cool guy in high school, attended band camp with Amy. Ricky is dating and trying to bed the sharp-tongued temptress Adrian (Francia Raisa). Meanwhile, Ben (Kenny Baumann, who seems to have attended the Adam Brody School of Acting for Cool Nerds), who is upset about his lack of a love life, has taken a liking to Amy, initially at the prodding of his two best friends, Alice (Amy Rider of “24”), a brainiac girl who never smiles but has a rapier wit and is a treasure trove of information on sexual statistics, and the nondescript fellow nerd Henry (Allen Evangelista of “Zoey 101”).

Are you keeping up?

All the guys go ga-ga over cheerleader Grace (Megan Park), but she is a devout Christian (and virgin) and is dating football star Jack (Greg Finley), who while also a devout Christian, is having trouble reconciling his religious desire for abstinence with his male desire for sex. Before long, Adrian, recognizing Jack’s dilemma, senses an opportunity and turns her attention to trying to bed him. The one adult allowed to regularly interact with the kids is the new guidance counselor (the girl’s think he’s dreamy) Marc Molina (Jorge Pallo), who reluctantly helps Ben in his quest to win over Amy.

With the cavalcade of teenagers, it’s no wonder Hampton decided to throw in some former stars from earlier eras into the mix, even if they don’t have a whole lot to do, to try and lure in the adults. In addition to Ringwald playing Amy’s mom, John Schneider (“The Dukes of Hazzard”) and Josie Bissett (“Melrose Place”) portray Grace’s parents, and Ernie Hudson (“Ghost Busters”) plays Ricky’s hip shrink.

I’m sure that kids will love Hampton’s quippy dialogue, the recognizable high school types, and the edgy pregnant-teen subject matter. (In fact, Tuesday’s premiere of “Teenager” was the highest-rated original series telecast in ABC Family’s history, drawing more than 600,000 women in the 18-to-34 age bracket alone.) So I won’t pretend to assess if the show works for young people. But since ABC Family has aggressively marketed Ringwald and Bissett’s presence in the cast, I think it’s fair to ask if the show works for adults (that is, people who remember Ringwald in “Sixteen Candles” and the “Breakfast Club” and Bissett on “Melrose Place”).

The short answer is: not really. There is something inherently stiff about “Teenager.” All of the young actors are likable enough (especially Woodley), but none of them exhibit the kind of natural performances that are present in the best teenage dramas (think about Claire Danes’s Angela Chase and her friends in “My So-Called Life”). Everything feels “this much” off, whether it’s the football team only having about 15 guys, or the cliché moment when a frazzled mother hands a baby to Amy to hold (and she has no idea what to do), or the on-the-nose, “Good Will Hunting” light scene between Ricky and his shrink.

The sets and performances aren’t up to par for a network drama. And the plot arcs are not sophisticated enough. Everything in the premiere comes together way too quickly. The material in the first episode of “Teenager” was enough to fill the first four episodes of a network program with a more contemplative pace.

The most interesting thing about “Teenager,” though I can’t decide if it’s a good thing or not, is its portrayal of Grace and her religion. In most teen films and television shows, there would be only two ways to go with Grace: Either her faith would be used as a key character trait of a villain (think the evil blonde cheerleader type), or she would be portrayed as angelic, almost actively promoting Christianity to the viewer. Hampton doesn’t do either. While there are plenty of jokes surrounding Grace’s religious leanings (she perkily promotes a post-game dance at her church, her acceptance of a chastity promise ring from her father freaks out Jack, etc.), her faith itself is not played as a joke. But at the same time, Grace isn’t vilified, either. The show portrays her as a Christian in the same way that Ben is presented as a geek or Amy is presented as a nice girl. Just as yet another defining characteristic for a teen.

The film and television fan in me appreciated the fresh approach, but the secularist in me was uncomfortable with long scenes discussing Grace and Jack’s Christian faith. And even if it was truthful to how kids in this situation might react, Madison’s outright dismissal of abortion as an option for Amy’s predicament rubbed me the wrong way. Television has the power to reach a lot of people, and I don’t think the message to send to American teenagers is that terminating the pregnancy of a 15-year-old girl is not an option.

There are certainly elements of the show I admired. It was laudable that Hampton designed Amy’s world as racially and ethnically inclusive, with no discussion as to the fact of anyone’s race or heritage. A typically suburban high school would have African-American, Hispanic and Asian kids, but too infrequently, movies and television programs don’t include a diverse student population.

And I like the tentative courtship between Amy and Ben. It isn’t often that teen romance is portrayed as awkward (something "My So-Called Life" did expertly well), but such an approach feels infinitely more real. The heightened stakes help things along, too, as Amy is falling for Ben with the full knowledge that she is hiding a secret that has to come out eventually.

Most of all, I liked how the show isn’t afraid to address “adult” themes that teenagers regularly address today, including sexuality. Grace and Jack discuss whether oral sex qualifies as sex, and Grace’s approach to the discussion was not what you may expect (again, refusing to portray her as a cartoon religious nut or as a mindless angelic figure). And the source of Ricky’s womanizing is a daring choice by Hampton (I won’t spoil the twist).

But in the end, too much about “Teenager” doesn’t work for adults. While I’m sure the show is top-notch entertainment for teens, there isn’t enough there for the over-30 crowd. ABC Family certainly got some extra eyeballs by featuring Molly Ringwald and Josie Bissett in its commercials, but unless Hampton gives them something of substance to do in the show, the older set is not going to stick around. At least that’s how I feel. My affection for Ringwald was enough to get me in front of my set for the first episode, but I don’t think I’ll be catching next week’s show.