There is no other series quite like ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a genuinely entertaining family drama that is more heartwarming than just about anything else on television -- and yet so sexually super-charged that it borders on the surreal. This show puts so many hormones in play it makes Gossip Girl feel like Gidget.
For example, Secret Life’s second season began with its main characters obsessing over breasts. Much of this talk was centered on Amy (Shailene Woodley), the often bratty 15-year-old who found herself pregnant at the start of the series, gave birth (seemingly without breaking a sweat) in the Season One finale and is now struggling to care for her son while continuing in high school, and her mother Anne, who is pregnant by a male acquaintance, or possibly by her estranged husband (and Amy’s father) George. Naturally, Amy and Anne are both a little top-heavy right now, prompting a broad range of responses from their loved ones.
As any loyal viewer will tell you, the very likable characters on Secret Life never miss an opportunity to share their thoughts about wanting sex, having sex or abstaining from sex. In the season premiere, the only breaks from talking about baby-making came when talking about babies themselves – especially Amy’s two-month old bundle of love John, who has turned his bad-boy baby-daddy Ricky (Daran Kagasoff) and Amy’s too-understanding-to-be-believed boyfriend Ben (Kenny Baumann) into buckets of boy-mush. One sub-plot veered from talk about sex to talk about abstinence to an actual act of intercourse (that occurred off-screen) as sensitive jock Jack (Greg Finley) bedded cheerful cheerleader Grace (Megan Park), a devout Christian who prayed for months before deciding to lose her virginity. In a scene that I am almost certain was not intended to be amusing, but was, Grace couldn’t stop complimenting Jack after they did “it,” sounding not for a second like a teenage first-timer as she told him how “skilled” he was at lovemaking.
The only other time that the cloud of all-consuming sex talk parted was for the delivery of devastating news: The sudden death of Grace’s dad Marshall, which happened at approximately the same time she was having sex with Jack. This lead to a whole new kind of sex talk in the season’s second episode for this somewhat single-minded show: A devastated Grace put the blame for her father’s death squarely on herself, convinced that God struck him down because she committed a sin. Everyone weighed in on Grace’s crisis, but none so movingly as Jack, who after failing (like everyone else) to get through to her went off by himself, guzzled a beer and broke down.
I wonder why this series is titled The Secret Life of the American Teenager? No matter how intimate or potentially embarrassing, the kids on this show have no secrets from each other or the adults in their lives – none that last, anyway. Everything is in play with everyone all of the time, just like it was in the best contemporary-for-their-time family series of yesteryear, from The Brady Bunch to Family to The Cosby Show. That may be the most laudable of its many fine qualities.
The many responsibilities that come with and consequences that may result from youthful sexual activity have always been the driving forces of Secret Life. I have watched many episodes in the company of adults and young teenagers, and while the old folks have been slack-jawed at all the sex talk, the kids just brushed it off and made clear (to the adults’ collective relief) that real-life is nothing like Secret Life, a series they nevertheless love more than any other.
Although it is very often over-the-top in its strident determination to explore all facets of teen sexuality, there is something strangely comforting and quietly appealing about Secret Life. It’s all about a community of ordinary people making their way through complicated challenges. The characters screw up constantly, but when one gets in too deep, he or she is rescued and comforted by family and friends. Teens and their parents are often at odds, but they just as often find themselves connecting, even when they don’t expect to do so.
In a recent scene that pretty much defines the tone of the show, Ben’s dad Leo recently brought home good-time girl Betty (the invaluable Jennifer Coolidge in a recurring role) after taking her to dinner -- and he had to rouse his son out of bed to borrow a few condoms.
“I’m optimistic,” geeky Ben offered as his dad opened his overstocked condom drawer.
“So am I,” Leo smiled as he grabbed a fistful.
Another reason that Secret Life resonates with viewers (consistently bringing ABC Family some of the highest ratings in its history and often outperforming competing broadcast and basic cable fare in teen and young adult demos) is that while the narrative focus is clearly on its multi-dimensional teen characters the adults on the show are similarly well-drawn. For example, there isn’t another couple on television quite like ever-quarreling Anne and George (played to comic perfection by one-time box-office teen queen Molly Ringwald and the always appealing Mark Derwin), nor a single dad as genuinely grounded as Leo (Steven Schirripa, in a perfect turnaround from his role as hit-man Bobby Baccala on The Sopranos). These are just a few of the many grown-ups who add a good deal to this show and avoid every cliché about TV moms and dads while doing so. They’re as much fun to watch as their mixed-up millennials.