ABC Family is rebranding itself with a vengeance, folks. "A new kind of family," promises the ad campaign. How's the target demo going to feel about an original series with a parental discretion advisory up front? A show on a family network that the family shouldn't watch — it's like a televised Klein bottle.
The Secret Life Of An American Teenager promises an up-to-date angle on fictional adolescence. But there's little on display in the first episode that wasn't done more convincingly — and more entertainingly — in Pretty In Pink. It's unfortunate that Molly Ringwald herself is around to remind us of the unflattering comparison. She plays Amy's mom, and Amy's just found out that her unsatisfying one-night-stand at band camp with the drummer has left her pregnant.
Amy and the rest of her freshman class are forced to carry around props to signify their roles. Amy: French horn. Adrienne, class slut and girlfriend of drummer Ricky: batons. Jack, boyfriend of super-Christian and purity-ring-bearer Grace: letter jacket. I'm stunned that class Lothario Ricky doesn't have a pair of drumsticks jammed in his back pocket, and that Grace isn't toting one of those Bibles that zips up.
Instead, Ricky lugs around a permanent ogle, which we learn from his psychiatrist Ernie Hudson is a defense mechanism against his horrible childhood filled with sexual abuse from his father. By the way, Ernie Hudson? Excellent ghostbuster, very poor shrink. Someone should tell him that the talking cure only works if the patient talks; it's not supposed to be the professional telling the patient what's wrong with him. And Grace has a backpack full of abstinence cliches like "true love waits."
Meanwhile, just to complete the Pretty In Pink picture, we've got a Jon Cryer type named Ben who lusts after Grace — seriously, there's a scene where she walks down the hallway in slow motion and Ben turns slack-jawed to keep her in view while a pop song plays on the soundtrack — but has been advised by his geeky friends to start with Amy, who's more his speed. And a new counselor has just started at Burnt Orange High School, whose single status will undoubtedly get him in trouble with the oversexed fifteen-year-olds (but doesn't have much to do this first episode).
A couple of nice moments do not a promising show make. The two I liked: Amy's mom waiting for the microwave to ding while reheating Amy's dinner, cross-cut with Amy waiting for the pregnancy test results; and Jack trying to wrap his mind around the idea of waiting until marriage when marriage isn't going to come until after Grace gets out of medical school ("Excuse me me if you think this sounds vulgar, but I think we can be totally open and honest with each other, right? Do you think oral sex is sex?").
But Secret Life has a weird, caricatured quality. It's obviously not meant to be naturalistic, as evidenced by a pregame prayer where Jack reveals too much about his temptations and all the other players back slowly away. On the other hand, it's supposed to reveal some essential truth about these characters, despite the fact that they're pretty much all surface traits. Maybe it's too much to ask for some interesting depth the first week, but it's hard to be optimistic when all we've gotten so far is a seating chart for the cafeteria — cheerleaders here, jocks here, nerds here, band campers here.
- Are there only two Christians in the entire school?
- The first episode actually introduces too many characters, which may be why we needed the property department equivalent of nametags. In addition to those mentioned above, we have Amy's two friends (the pudgy white one and the moral-to-a-fault black one), Ben's two friends (the Asian statistics-obsessive and the wisecracking unidentifiable ethnic type who secretly loves her), and Grace's Downs-syndrome brother Tom (by means of whom she proves her pure, charitable heart by dancing with him at the big post-football bash).
- Also the new counselor is Latino. This is one seriously multi-culti secret life these American teenagers are living.
- I did think it was a nice touch that Amy has to go see her pediatrician to confirm her pregnancy; fifteen-year-olds often find themselves between doctors. Not so likely: a mother in the waiting room pushes her wailing baby into Amy's hands, ostensibly so she can root around in her purse for something, but actually so Amy can contemplate the unpleasant side of motherhood during the waiting-room montage.