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Television Review

In 'Secret Life,' stereotypical teenagers talk about sex

Megan Park, Greg Finley, The Secret Life of the American Teenager Megan Park and Greg Finley star in "The Secret Life of the American Teenager." (ABC Family/Michael Ansell)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / July 1, 2008

Just ask the girls in Gloucester, or the management team for actress Ellen Page: Teen pregnancy has been so glamorized, analyzed, and magnified in pop culture that it was bound to become the subject of a television series. This summer, ABC Family takes on the task. And hands the reins to the creator of the pious WB series "7th Heaven." And if a small knot is forming in your stomach as you read this, it probably should.

"The Secret Life of the American Teenager," which premieres tonight at 8, apparently takes the "family TV" approach to the subject of sexual relations: Instead of watching teenagers having sex, we watch them talk about sex. Incessantly. And not in a pulpy, "Sex and the City" way (which would be decidedly un-family) but in a sociological way, treating its characters like subjects in a textbook.

Since that's clearly the way this series was put together, we might as well go through the standard archetypes of teen behavior:

The Naive, Supposedly-Good Girl Who Gets Pregnant the First Time She Has Sex. How naive? She doesn't know it might be wise to see a doctor. How good? She plays the French horn in the high school band. Amy, the putative heroine of this series, is played with wide and shell-shocked eyes by Shailene Woodley, whose main emotion appears to be confusion. She never smiles. If you're a pregnant teen, you're not allowed to smile. Especially not at the baby's father, who happens to be . . .

The Guy Who Loves a Conquest. He acts like a sleaze, but turns out to be sad, in his own way: a foster kid who wishes he were loved more by his dad. We get this information quickly and conveniently in a scene with a therapist, whose advice he does not take, because he's busy trying to conquer . . .

The Christian Girl Determined to Wait. She's blond. She's desired. Her name is Grace. She offers her boyfriend heartfelt lectures about why Jesus wants them to hold off sex until marriage - and hold off marriage until she finishes medical school. Said boyfriend tries to understand, because he's . . .

The Christian Guy Who Wants to Be Good, But Is Tempted. Because it's hard to wait until the end of your girlfriend's residency when you're being stalked by . . .

The Promiscuous Girl. In this case, she's also a smoldering Latina, who wears tight-fitting outfits and preaches the virtues of hedonism. At some point, she'll probably intersect with . . .

The Nerdy and Virginal Wisecracking Boy Who Thinks He's Falling in Love. With The Naive, Supposedly-Good Girl Who Gets Pregnant the First Time She Has Sex.

There you have it: the premise, the pitch, the varied layers of teen experiences wrapped into a no-nuances package. All that's left are the stereotypical side characters, such as the protagonist's sassy-and-chipper best friends and the Asian girl who spouts teen pregnancy statistics, in what actually passes for dialogue.

We also get casting stunts, most notably the use of Molly Ringwald as Amy's mother. She doesn't look or act especially maternal here; she comes across as Molly Ringwald, looking pouty while she warms up a pot in the microwave. In another casting turn, John Schneider of "The Dukes of Hazzard" and Josie Bissett of "Melrose Place" play the Christian girl's parents, who apparently travel directly from the hair salon to the dinner table.

In short, a series that purports to be realistic and true is as glibly artificial as anything Hollywood could concoct. Nothing about it feels original or even especially timely, and it certainly doesn't reveal any great secrets about society. How about a show that focuses on a starlet who gets pregnant while she's filming a kids' TV show? Or a group of teenage girls who make a pact to get pregnant together? Now that would be psychology worth exploring.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to viewerdiscretion.net.

The Secret Life of the American Teenager

On: ABC Family

Time: premieres tonight, 8-9

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