ABC Family // 2008 // 473 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // January 19th, 2009
Expect The Unexpected.
Grace: "Would you be willing to wear a chastity ring?"
Jack: "That goes on your finger, right?"
Amy Juergens (Shailene Woodley) is 15 and pregnant. Following a one-night stand at band camp, Amy's world is turned upside down as this bright and intelligent young girl struggles to come to terms with the consequences of her one transgression.
Amy is but one of a number of troubled teens at Ulysses S. Grant High School. From teens struggling to come to terms with sexually abusive parents, to those with strong religious beliefs that contrast sharply with modern teen life, The Secret Life of the American Teenager chronicles the formative years of a group of young adults facing up to the real world.
The Secret Life of the American Teenager: Season One comes to DVD in a three-disc set, which includes the following episodes:
* "Falling in Love"
Amy confides in her best friends that she fears she may be pregnant, following a night of lust at band camp. Meanwhile Jack and Grace, a young Christian couple, find their relationship put under pressure when Grace vows to abstain from sex until they are married. Ben notices Amy for the first time and begins his infatuation with her.
* "You Are My Everything"
The secret identity of the father-to-be is revealed to the whole school, while Jack has a moment of weakness with the school bad girl, Adrian. Ben and Amy go on their first date.
* "I Feel Sick"
While Ben and Amy's relationship begins to blossom, with the two sharing their first kiss, the first signs of Amy's pregnancy alert her younger sister to what is going on.
Grace's deceit is caught on camera, landing her in trouble with her father.
* "What Have You Done to Me?"
News of Amy's pregnancy reaches Ben, which results in him doing the honorable thing and proposing to her. Problems in the Juergens' household see Amy's father move out.
* "Love For Sale"
Amy's pregnancy is finally revealed to her mother, while rumors of an abortion sweep the school.
Amy's problems at home continue, while the father-to-be learns of the pregnancy.
* "Your Cheatin' Heart"
While Adrian and Grace strike up an unlikely friendship, Amy's problems at home continue with a visit from her grandma, resulting in devastating news.
* "Slice of Life"
While George makes an attempt to get closer to his daughters, Grace's Down Syndrome brother, Tom, spends a night with a "special" friend.
* "Back to School Special"
Adrian's troubled home life is brought to the fore, while Amy makes her return to school.
* "Just Say No"
When Adrian goes missing, her father visits the school in search of clues to the whereabouts of his daughter. Ben and Amy consider taking their relationship further.
I expected more from The Secret Life of the American Teenager, I really did. With its central character being a 15-year-old mum to be, I had hoped for a show that had the balls to tackle a very real and very tough subject with intelligence and compassion. Instead the show quickly descended into a typical teen soap, with who is cheating on whom becoming more important than the central plot. I'm not angry, just disappointed.
I really felt this show had the potential to be something worthwhile. I'll readily admit I don't watch a great deal of teen-based TV, but something about The Secret Life of the American Teenager intrigued me. Teenage pregnancy and underage sex are both causes of much concern for parents, while the pressures placed on young people to become sexually active, from both the media and their peers, seem to grow greater all the time. To an extent the series deals with these issues, albeit in a somewhat unsatisfactory way. Rather than remain focused on how young Amy Juergens comes to terms with her pregnancy, and her family's handling of it, Secret Life seems more intent on turning the show into a teen version of Desperate Housewives. Before long dirty little secrets are being exposed and affairs amongst the cast seem to be rife.
Now, I'm not one to complain when a young twentysomething chooses to saunter around in not much more than her underwear, but the character of Adrian Lee is so much of a stereotype as to feel patently ridiculous. The "school slut," a title she revels in, Adrian spends most of her time modeling bras while draped over her latest conquest; her character is one glass of chardonnay away from being the Joan Collins style bitch from some eighties soap like Dallas. Countering the evil ways of Adrian is Grace, the "crazy Christian," whose own views on sex are the complete opposite of the liberal Adrian. Sporting a promise ring, which she wears to publicize her commitment to abstain from sex until marriage, Grace is at least blessed with some morale complexities. Grace is often seen struggling to balance her religious beliefs with her parent's wishes and the urges of teenage life. The rest of the characters, with the exception of Amy, pretty much follow Adrian's example and play out as stereotypes.
First there's Ricky Underwood, the school sleaze, who sleeps with anything that moves and, in a really cheap move, keeps a set of drumsticks in his back pocket to remind us he's a drummer. The guy is a total jerk, and, despite a backstory that involves a sexually abusive father, remains one of the most repulsive and unsympathetic characters I've seen for some time. Of course, Ricky gets into the pants of pretty much any girl he sets his mind on, bringing into question how much intelligence the writers credit young girls with. Amy's current beau, total nice guy Ben Boykewich, is Ricky's total opposite. Much like the contrast between Grace and Adrian, Ricky and Ben represent different sides of the coin. In the face of some tough decisions Ben's natural reaction is to do the right thing, even going as far as to propose to Amy upon learning of her pregnancy. Amy herself, played brilliantly by Shailene Woodley, is the most satisfying character in the show. Only fitting considering she is the show's star, but frustrating when the series seems more involved in the affairs of less interesting characters. Shailene Woodley is instantly likeable. She is able to instill a great deal of warmth into the character of Amy, and forms a sweet relationship with Ben, suggesting that had she not made that one fateful mistake, life for the two of them would be perfect. Their blossoming relationship has a hint of the bittersweet, and quickly becomes the most appealing aspect of the show.
The adults in Secret Life are either as pathetically broken as their offspring or seem to lack lives of their own, existing only to lecture on the evils of underage sex. John Schneider, so likeable as Jonathan Kent in Smallville, is reduced here to preaching on the perils of a quick fumble behind the bike sheds. As Grace's father, Dr. Marshall Brown, Schneider is given a very one-dimensional role that, thanks to his interpretation of the character, is frequently the source of much comedy despite effectively having to peddle the same routine each time he's on screen.
Another aspect of the show that caused me frequent annoyance was how each of the families depicted are so dysfunctional. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not so naïve as to believe that family breakdowns and divorce, along with affairs and sexual abuse, are not a sad fact of life. But must everyone in the show have major problems at home? All too often Secret Life seems to suggest that troubles at home are the cause of teen promiscuity, which is clearly not a true reflection of real life. Yes, we are all shaped to some end by the events of our upbringing, but the choices made by the teens in Secret Life are not exclusive to people brought up in broken homes, as the show so often implies. It would have been more interesting to see the influence of the media on teens being explored, but instead Secret Life points the finger of blame squarely at the home.
The DVD contains a decent looking image. Never outstanding, it contains a warm color palette and good detail levels. The 5.1 soundtrack is fine, but like the video does little to make you stand up and take notice. Extras are limited to a single featurette, "On Set With The Cast," which is really nothing more than a fluff piece.
I clearly wasn't taken with The Secret Life of the American Teenager, but I don't doubt for one second that young girls will find the show appealing. Its mix of gossip and scandal, with a cast full of beautiful people, means it has all the ingredients to be a hit. My wife caught a couple of episodes while I viewed the series and ended up watching it herself, declaring it "so bad, but so addictive. To be fair her assessment is fairly accurate. For all its faults, and annoying tendencies, Secret Life is still watchable; just don't expect a show that examines the issue of teen pregnancy with any real depth.
Despite my earlier comments that voiced my displeasure at the poorly defined characters, I have to admit the cast does some fine work. Francia Raisa, as super bitch Adrian Lee, is delightfully devilish and clearly enjoys her role. Commanding the screen with a presence that belies her years, Lee is clearly a young actress with potential, much like the show's star, Shailene Woodley. Should future seasons of Secret Life choose to drop its more soapy aspects and focus more of Amy's struggles, Woodley clearly has the chops to carry the show on her shoulders.
A strong cast is ultimately not enough to save Secret Life. While not completely terrible and not without its redeeming features, the show seems content to be just another teen soap when it could have been something much greater. Shame.
On a final note, with the American Pie movies portraying band camp as a hive of teen lust, and The Secret Life of the American Teenager having Amy get pregnant during a trip to band camp, I'm starting to wonder if I didn't make a big mistake dropping my music classes while at school. It sounds like I'd have scored a lot more than I did during soccer practice.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: ABC Family
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 473 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* MP3 Download
* Official Site