22 January 2009

The Secret Life of the American Teenager: Season 1

STARRING Molly Ringwald, Shailene Woodley, Kenny Baumann, Daren Kagasoff, Francia Raisa, Megan Park, India Eisley, Greg Finley II, Renee Olstead, Camille Winbush, Jorge Pallo, Mark Derwin
CREATED BY Brenda Hamptom
11 episodes, 43 mins., 3 Discs

*1/2 (out of ****)

When I added this show to my Netflix Queue, all I knew was that it had quite the following and a plethora of positive reviews. Hardly a single negative thing about it, and if there was, it usually was related to the dialogue being Juno-esque (which I don't see, but I digress). Premiering on the ABC Family summer 2008, The Secret Life of the American Teenager was a ratings extravaganza (not like Lost numbers, but it beat its own Kyle XY as the channel’s highest ratings yet; in fact, it even defeated The CW’S premiere of their “re-imagined” 90210!), and that, in part, is due to the show’s ability to appeal to pretty much an all-age audience. Created by the ‘mastermind’ behind 7th Heaven [the WB’s landmark series that lasted eleven seasons too long], Secret Life attempts to address and tackle teen topics – mostly in the realm of sexuality – in a dramatic, corny, yet educational and lesson-learning way.

I actually may not be the best person to watch, much less review this show. I’m the type of bloke who enjoys their show to be dark, gritty and realistic. Now, obviously the topic of teen pregnancy is far more real than a genetically engineered superhuman or a young adult becoming the Devil’s bounty hunter, but they were grounded and written in a form of realism that created the illusion that this was all possible. Secret Life exists in a heightened reality where students and adults alike speak in a novel-like fashion with perfect sentence structure and the occasional word that I’m sure not even the actors know what the frak it means. If people thought there was one false note in Juno, then Secret Life must take place in some alternate reality.

Ultimately, Secret Life is a good show. Its family friendly, it raises questions that ignorant teens can contemplate, and attempts to tell a real story – just not realistically-ish. I just wish the show was created by someone else than Hamptom who wanted to make this into a Hallmark/Lifetime series, and that virtually every ‘actor’ was recast; that’s not too harsh, is it? If you don’t mind the corniness factor, and how they completely blew a potentially great show, then Secret Life of the American Teenager is right up your ally.

Amy Juergens (Woodley) is the quiet, reserved fifteen-year old band geek who you wouldn’t even think would entertain the idea of sex, much less have yet. And yet that she did, with the resident school sleezbag Ricky Underwood (Kagasoff), having a one-night stand at band camp. [attempting to withhold American Pie jokes] Returning home, she tries out a store bought pregnancy test, and her worst fears are confirmed – her eggo is preggo. She confides to her friends about her predicament, which they in turn violate the whole friendship-equals-trust rule and end up telling a bunch of people. In between hitting on girls and sleeping with them, Ricky catches word that Amy’s pregnant with his child, and after some contemplation, he wants some part of the decision-making process. After a while, the parents find out and after a lot of ‘You can’t be serious!’, they help her with this ordeal. Meanwhile, Amy has also started this relationship with the good-spirited Ben, who after one date realizes that he loves her, and upon finding out that she’s pregnant, proposes to her. Talk about going fast.

Other students of the school pretty much have the same problems. Grace, the kind-hearted Christian virgin, is being manipulated by Ricky, of whom she is developing a crush on. Adrian seeks to find her real father. And speaking about fathers, Amy’s parents take a break to re-evaluate their marriage. Madison is also finding out that she has feelings of Ricky [that boy’s pretty much got all the girls whipped], but wants to stay loyal to Amy. And finally, Henry and Alice, who have been dating practically since the beginning of their friendship, wonder if there’s still any sparkage left in the relationship. It feels like there’s more, but I guess not. Essentially, it’s a big web of sex, cheating, complications, secrets, and a overabundance of religion and moral questions.

There are a few passable actors in the cast, thank God. The most convincing performer would be Jorge Pallo as Marc Molina, the school guidance counselor. He’s one of the few who can deliver his lines whilst sounding convincing, and puts a bit of emotion into his performance. In fact, Marc Molina is, in retrospect, probably my favorite character from the show, as he’s very straight-to-earth, very real, and very relatable; I woulda been one happy dude if my high school’s guidance counselor was anywhere near that cool. As Amy’s father George, Mark Derwin (currently playing advisor to President Taylor in 24’s seventh season) does a respectable job, but occasionally is too over-the-top with his performance, emulating a Jim Carrey-esque cartoon character. And lastly is Francia Raisa as Adrian Lee. Francia has created a real character; whereas pretty much everyone else feels directed by script, minus any sort of personality, Francia makes Adrian – who could easily have been a one-dimensional hated character – vulnerable and relatable; or at the very least, you give a damn about her. Without question, she is the best actor in the cast, capable of experiencing a variety of emotions and getting out sympathy out of it, despite the fact that she is, at times, a manipulative evil biatch.

As Amy, Shailene Woodley (who was evidently on The O.C., but I can’t recall what character) does an admirable job, but I find her sorta of annoying. Now as a character, I find Amy overall to be weak. She seems almost forced into certain things without making her own decisions or evaluations. And despite the pregnancy, which I reckon would make her grow up a bit; she remains rather immature and sorta whiney. But of course, that’s just my view of things. Her boyfriend, Ben, played by Kenny Bauman, has this freaky Edward Cullen-Twilight vibe; if the script didn’t have our main female lead think Ben’s act was “cute” and/or “sweet”, she would – if she’s retained any form of sanity – get a restraining order because Ben’s too clingy and a borderline stalker-in-training. I’m serious, his behavior is strange, and not in a “cute supportive boyfriend” way.

One thing Daren Kagasoff does well is use his voice to manipulate the girls into doing what he wants. Overall, I wasn’t all that impressed with the bloke, but I did find his ability to sway these characters – and make it believable – surprising. But that doesn't mean the guy can deliver the majority of his dialogue remotely well; there are some truly cringe-worthy moments. But he was successful in making me not give two hand shakes of a crap about his character; his subplot involving his father is supposed to elicit sympathy from the viewer, and I just found myself not giving a shit. Worst performance without debate is India Eisley as Amy's sister Ashley; that girl is dreadful, her voice akin to nails on a chalkboard. She sounds sad and depressed at all times, even when she's supposed to deliver comedic lines (which, admittably, there are a few). In summation, she's annoying. The Hannah Montana-wannabe Grace (Park) is actually quite good, once you can get past the obvious Disney inspiration.

Concerning the Grace character, there's something that's more related to the mediocre writing I feel compelled to bring up: in one of the early episodes (S01E04, "Caught"), Grace defends herself against two jackasses who are quite ready to threaten her life and her virginity, and her parents response to this action is dissapointment! For most of the episode, I'm thinking to myself, Alright, so you want your daughter to get beat up and raped? That's the Christian way? By episodes end, they reveal that they were really not happy that Grace was rescued by Ricky, who she said she'd stay away from. Now, perhaps they deleted the scene, but wouldn't any normal set of parents in the entire universe say kudos to their child for saving their knecks? She threatened them, she didn't blasted kill 'em! And additionally, they were threatning her, and she gets scolded for that? Alright, my little rant's over with.

The critics, the cast – well, pretty much everybody – find this to be a realistic depiction of high school life, even going so far as to say the dialogue is about as real as you’re gonna get on TV. Hate to say it [actually, nah, I don’t], but, like I said above, Diablo Cody’s wise-cracking Juno script is far more real with teen speak than this program will ever hope to be. No one talks like this – zilch. And I know I may be nit-picking far too much, but there are two things that bug the hell out of me: why does everyone have to refer to people they already know with their full names? “Hey, Amy Juergens is having a baby,” or “That Adrian Lee is gonna have her ass kicked!” It’s a similar ridiculous trait that still survives around Smallville: everyone knows who Lionel Luthor is, but instead of simplifying it to Lionel, they say the whole name. Why? I don’t get it. Also, whenever someone references Amy’s “condition”, it’s almost always “having a baby.” Is saying “she’s pregnant” too difficult? They say the word “pregnant” only a few times throughout the eleven episodes, but I’m quite sure you could fill an entire 43-minute episode with a character saying the line “…is having a baby.” It’s stupid and annoying, and I feel stupid for bringing it up, but it annoys the hell out of me. There’s no more hell in me left to complain about that. Ugh.

As a wonderful bonus feature, ABC Family was kind enough to include a 6-minute, fullframe “On the Set”-type feature with all the cast and crew congratulating each other and talking about how wonderful of a show this is; the normal hype stuff. I may not like the show all that much, but for a program that gets high ratings and (mostly) critical praise, you would think they’d try to put a little effort into the release. A few commentaries would have been appreciated, especially on the pilot (that’s nearly mandatory). Hell, there’s not even a promotional sneak peak of Season 2 (well, technically season 1.2 or something). Dissapointing, to say the least.

Well, there's my glowing opinion about the show. Not everyone feels this way, of course (some do - with an even better review!), but that's the beauty of blogs, no? Despite everything I've said about the show, I still recommend people give it a check. I've heard girls at my school say how Juno changed their life in some ways, so perhaps this show - no matter its many, many, many, many flaws - can do the same. I guess, when it comes right down to it, this just isn't how I woulda done it, and I'm still waiting for that show that comes along which deals with this topic truthfully and realistically (and not to mention characters to bloody relate to).

1 comment:

TohruROX2221 said...

I can see what you're getting at. I haven't seen that many episodes (even though I think the show is terrific), but it kinda bug me when they say 'having a baby' instead of 'pregnant'. IT'S HIGH SCHOOL, PEOPLE KNOW WHAT PREGNANT MEANS. However, you said most teens don't talk the way they do on the show, but I do, and I'm a few years younger than the Secret Life characters are.