The Secret Life of the American Teenager: Volume 5 collects the first fourteen episodes from the popular ABC Family show’s third season. The on-going popularity of this teen-oriented soap opera is not difficult to understand. The show is compulsively watchable, thanks to the arch melodrama surrounding the teenaged mother Amy Juergens and her friends.
Brenda Hampton (creator of the mega-popular television show 7th Heaven) conceived The Secret Life as an exploration of the issues surrounding teen pregnancy and subsequent motherhood. High school student Amy Juergens (Shailene Woodley) had a baby with another student, Ricky Underwood (Daren Kagasoff). Amy and Ricky have not been romantically linked throughout the series (outside of their one-time dalliance that produced baby John). Amy’s boyfriend Ben Boykewich (Kenny Baumann) has attempted to be a sort of father to young John, despite Ricky’s responsible efforts to help Amy rear their son.
Things changed dramatically at the conclusion of season two, which set up a number of complications for the third season. Amy was not interested in having sex with Ben, who grew increasingly frustrated with the chaste nature of their relationship. So Ben sought gratification elsewhere and in the process knocked up Adrian Lee (Francia Raisa). Most of Volume 5 focuses on this development, with Adrian contemplating whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. Adrian has been in love with Ricky for years, both before and after he fathered a child with Amy. Meanwhile, Ben foolishly hopes to continue his relationship with Amy despite his cheating with Adrian.
For longtime watchers of the show, all of this makes perfect sense. If you’re new to the show, expect to be lost among the various entanglements between a large ensemble cast. One of the problems with this show is its sprawling array of subplots. Amy’s younger sister Ashley (India Eisley) has fallen hard for Ricky, even though he’s the father of her sister’s child. Amy and Ashley’s parents, divorced yet living together, are considering remarrying. Adrian’s friend Grace Bowman (Megan Park) has her own boy troubles to deal with. Grace’s brother Tom (Luke Zimmerman) is disappointed to discover that his girlfriend from the previous season has gotten married.
That only scratches the surface, as there are numerous additional side characters with their own problems. To the show’s credit, the focus shifts frequently during the course of each forty-five minute episode. Nothing ever has a chance to become boring. On the other hand, not much resonance sets in either. The writers do not instill a sense of realism in the characters, always maintaining a generally light tone.
The actors often struggle to bring something approaching depth to their roles. Rather than beat up on the various one-note characterizations, I will try to focus on the highlights. Francia Raisa delivers the strongest acting of the cast as the ever-conflicted Adrian. Megan Park is also quite effective as Grace, raised as a strict Christian yet questioning her religion’s rules. Mark Derwin and Molly Ringwald continue to turn in satisfying performances as Amy and Ashley’s parents.
This needs to be said: Ben Boykewich is one of the most repulsive leading protagonists ever created. He verges at times on coming off as a sociopath; a robot incapable of expressing genuine emotion. One of the most fun aspects of Volume 5 is watching Ben’s father Leo (Steve Schirripa) finally realize what a monstrosity his son has become. Ben’s simpering mantra “I love you, Amy,” has finally run its course. Now he’s turned his false affection towards Adrian, tricking her into thinking he’s emotionally mature enough to be a loving father and potential husband.
The most unusual aspect of the show is that it apparently endorses the view that two friends can parent a child together just as effectively as two people in love. If the parents “learn to love each other,” that’s just gravy. In other words, The Secret Life (a misnomer if I ever saw one, as absolutely nothing about these characters’ lives is kept secret) is all about forcing relationships only after a child is conceived.
The arc of Amy and Ricky’s relationship simply doesn’t make sense, with Amy suddenly yearning for Ricky. Now Ben and Adrian appear to be headed along the same path. As trashy, soapy nonsense, the show has a certain appeal. But I shudder to think what mixed messages younger viewers might be drawing from the irresponsibly unrealistic portrayal of teen sexuality and relationships on display.