The first season of The Secret Life Of the American Teenager, the latest show from 7th Heaven's creator Brenda Hampton, is now available on DVD. The ensemble drama seems to take its cue from the success of 2007's Oscar-winning film Juno: what happens when a high school girl becomes pregnant after an experience with casual sex? The problem is, no one involved with this show seems to have come up with an answer. Over the course of eleven episodes, not much happens as we track the soap opera lives of a handful of cliched teen characters and their one-dimensional parents.
The premise is simple: fifteen-year-old Amy Juergens (Shailene Woodley) returns from band camp expecting her first child after losing her virginity to percussionist Ricky Underwood (Daren Kagasoff). Ricky is a high-school playboy who has very little interest in taking responsibility for his actions. Unsure of whether to keep the baby or terminate the pregnancy, Amy informs her friends of her dilemma. These so-called friends proceed to spread the news like wildfire, until the only people in town who don't know are Amy's own parents. As Amy hems and haws about whether to let mom and dad know about her predicament, she develops a relationship with the school nerd Ben Boykewich (Ken Baumann). Ben quickly falls head over heels in love with her. Untroubled by the fact that Amy will be having a child, he wants to marry Amy and raise the child as his own.
Of course, Amy's parents eventually discover their daughter's "problem." They blame Ricky entirely, even though as far as we're told the sex was completely consensual. For some odd reason, the fact that Amy was irresponsible isn't really dealt with. Her parents are fairly consumed by their own problems anyway. They're separated, for reasons that aren't fully explained until very late in the season. Amy's father is having an affair with the mother of Amy's classmate Adrian, the school slut. Adrian, a scholarship-worthy student, is sleeping with Ricky (remember, he's the father of Amy's unborn). Then there's Grace, the requisite Christian extremist, who is trying to bond with Ricky because they both underwent psychiatric analysis in the past.
It's all very convoluted and unfocused. Amy is such an underdeveloped character that, even though she's the Juno of this show, she manages to get lost in the tangle of storylines. Her romance with Ben with as unconvincing as I've ever seen. Ben has the very annoying habit of starting every single conversation with Amy by stating, "I love you." Even when she answers the phone, that phrase is the first thing out of his mouth. To her credit Amy never truly returns the sentiment, preferring the more non-committal response, "Me too." The problem is, Amy remains such a blank slate that the only thing Ben really seems in love with is the very notion of being "in love." I wish the show made the reasons for their apparent mutual attraction clearer, rather than lazily presenting them as a perfect match.
The actors do what they can with the wordy, unrealistic dialogue. Molly Ringwald plays Amy's mother, and she is the only parent who comes across as believable. John Schneider and Josie Bissett play Mr. and Mrs. Bowman, parents to Grace the Christian, and are absolutely terrible. Schneider is especially over the top. But there are a few bright spots in the cast, notably Amy's younger sister, Ashley. India Eisley manages to instill some depth of feeling in her deadpan delivery as Ashley, suggesting a teenage Janeanne Garofalo. Developmentally challenged actor Luke Zimmerman also makes a strong impression. He plays Tom, the brother of Grace, bringing an offbeat humor and warmth to all his scenes.
Season two of The Secret Life Of the American Teenager is currently in progress on ABC Family. After slogging through the first season, the only characters I'm interested in following are peripheral ones like Tom and Ashley. Something's wrong when the least interesting aspect of a show about teenage pregnancy is the pregnant girl herself.