"I hate being the Hot Dog Girl.
As if being pregnant at 15 isn't humiliating enough."
If you're not familiar with The Secret Life of the American Teenager, adapting to its unique blend will take some getting used to. For some, it might even be a little jarring. This series airs on ABC Family, which makes it even harder to accept that it's anything but harmless fluff aimed at teenagers. On the surface, Secret Life looks like a modern day Saved by the Bell--it chronicles the lives of cool kids from well-off families, and if you aren't paying close attention you might think it's equally innocuous. But check under the covers, because this show is equal parts Melrose Place (hey, it even has Josie Bissett!).
Here at California's Ulysses Grant High School (aka Sex Valley High), things are a lot more scandalous than they ever were at Bayside. Teenagers are having sex left and right, and when they aren't having sex, they're talking about having sex. That's just one of many heavy issues in this series, which demands you overlook its overall absurdity if you have any hope of enjoyment. If you can't do that, you'll most likely laugh at these unrealistic teens and their silly adult situations. A 15-year-old convinced he's in love with his pregnant sorta-girlfriend? Who wants to marry her and raise the child as his own? With a father who thinks it's all so darn cute? Or how about the sexpot who sleeps with her stepbrother (that is, when she isn't banging her f-buddy, who has already impregnated the aforementioned classmate)?
Somewhere, Judy Blume is smiling. Some might consider this a guilty pleasure, but there's too much heart and soul in the series to dismiss it. It provides what I'm assuming is a rare, refreshingly honest (if exaggerated) portrayal of teenage life for many viewers--and is probably a lot more effective than disgruntled gym teachers (thanks for nothing, Mr. Bryant) at educating young adults on some serious issues.
I enjoyed the first DVD collection, my introduction to the series. But it still took me a few episodes to acclimate myself in this volume (labeled the second season, the 12 shows are considered by some to actually be the second half of the first season). In fact, I was beginning to think the freshman campaign was a fluke--I wasn't digging this set's debut episode and started to wonder if the honeymoon was over. The kids were getting on my nerves, especially Amy Juergens (Shailene Woodley), the 15-year-old in the middle of a scandalous pregnancy that serves as the show's central story and driving force.
But as I continued to watch, I warmed up once again to the show's charm. While these episodes aren't quite as strong as what preceded them, they're still entertaining--and still semi-educational, at least for the impressionable youngins' out there (which, in all fairness, is the show's intended audience). And even for older viewers too embarrassed to admit they watch this show (*cough*me*cough*), the life lessons imparted here still provide valuable reminders to more seasoned (jaded?) viewers.
With Amy's due date drawing near, life in the Juergens family isn't getting any easier. She still isn't sure if she wants to keep the child, and the stress has spilled over to the rest of the family--including acerbic younger sister Ashley (India Eisley), who is desperate to keep her parents from getting divorced. That's a challenge considering she is becoming more invisible to them by the second: "I can pretty much get away with anything because my sister's pregnant."
Mom Anne (Molly Ringwald) soon kicks dad George (Mark Derwin) out of the house after learning of his infidelity, forcing her to find a new career path and start life anew. But the easily irritated George isn't cooperating, and the jobs don't come easy: "I'm a woman on the verge. My 15-year-old daughter is having a baby, my husband's having an affair, I'm getting a divorce after 16 years of marriage, I gotta get a job and my mom has Alzheimer's...and I can't take it anymore!"
Meanwhile, Amy's boyfriend Ben (Ken Baumann) continues to push her into a relationship she may not want (her emotionless "I love you, too" replies are never convincing). Baby daddy Ricky (Daren Kagasoff) continues to slut it up with bad girl Adrian (Francia Raisa) while also trying to get into the virginal pants of good girl Grace (Megan Park). That concerns her ex-boyfriend Jack (Greg Finley), who is trying to ignore his hormones and focus his energy on volunteer work. The other supporting players don't have as much screen time (or importance) this season, which is good in the case of Madison (Renee Olstead) and Lauren (Camille Winbush)--two gnats I never warmed up to--but bad in the case of Henry (Allen Evangelista) and Alice (Amy Rider), one of the funniest characters on the show.
Amy isn't quite as likeable this season, but I'm guessing her irritability is understandable. Still, the writers could do a better job of making her more endearing; ditto Ben. The two are so absorbed with their own drama and never seem to show any genuine interest in the lives of their friends and family; it makes them easy to dislike. They also feel entitled (again, probably common for spoiled teenagers), and their frequent "Woe is me!" cries are instantly annoying. ("He's just a romantic idiot," says Alice of the whipped Ben. "He's in love with the idea of being in love.")
Ricky and Adrian are also up to their same old tricks, contributing to my biggest criticism of this season: We get very little character growth. Ricky has learned nothing, and you never trust him (he continues to juggle as many women as possible). He's kind of like the boy who cried wolf; just when you think you see some sincerity and growth, he falls back to his familiar behavior. It's impossible to believe for a second that he actually cares about his kid, and the show squanders a few opportunities to really explore how the character's troubled past has influenced his young adulthood. What happened to all of his therapy sessions? And why are Ricky's foster parents virtually non-existent? The writers' odd neglect for them is pretty cowardly; their presence is needed regardless of how serious the show wants to be.
Adrian is equally frustrating and increasingly unlikable ("I'd rather be the one you cheat with than the one you cheat on!"), behaving in unforgivable ways. She's incredibly two-faced in her fake friendship with Grace and starts to take it too far--making their frequent reconciliations (and Grace's na´ve nature) all the more impossible to accept (say what you want, girls...you ain't friends). Her one semi-serious scene--where she tries to break into stone-cold Ricky's feelings--is therefore more laughable than laudable: "How can you be so angry with anyone after what we just did! Ricky, please! This is as close as I've ever felt to you! Tonight, in there!" she cries, dramatically pointing to the bedroom (sell it somewhere else, sister...I ain't buying).
There's also a running joke about how she's in love with newbie Max (the charming Zachary Abel), an attraction that is a tad problematic: "I'm trying to get my brother to have sex with me!" See, he's really her step-brother, so it's funny, right? "You're making me feel icky for being attracted to you!" (uh...ya think?!) It's a bit that quickly wears thin, and while the situation isn't as incestuous as it could be, it still creeps me out--as it does Adrian's dad Ruben (Philip Anthony-Rodriguez), who is trying (unsuccessfully) to get back into his daughter's life.
Another love/hate character is George, played with cartoonish machismo by Derwin. It's almost like he's an annoying guy in an old screwball comedy. He constantly feels out of place, but I nonetheless developed a liking for George. It's still a polarizing performance that may rub some people the wrong way--he's just so darn exaggerated and over the top:
George: "The garage belongs to the man. Didn't they teach you that in women's studies?"
Anne: "What is it that you have against women's studies, anyway? You didn't have a problem with it when I was in college!"
George: "How stupid do you have to be to study women when you're a woman?! That major should be for men only!"
Anne: "You are an idiot!"
I can't help but find Derwin endearing, especially in his scenes with Eisley. The sullen Ashley remains my favorite character on the show, perhaps because her deadpan demeanor and sarcastic sense of humor is so close to my own ("Is everyone stupid but me?! Am I the only one who can see the big picture?!"). I love when Amy and Ben get called out on their BS, something Ashley and Alice (who runs a very close second as my BFF) constantly do: "Amy, there are things you can't really un-see..."
Eisley also has some nice moments with two new characters: Rev. Sam Stone (Tom Virtue) and new pal Thomas (Mark L. Young), who I wish was used more. I also love Park's energetic performance (she's the most convincing with her emotions, including a tearjerking breakup in Episode 4), even though Grace can be a little too silly for her own good (the writers are killing me in Episode 6: "You're the 'B' word!" Oh, no Grace...no!!!)
There are a few other annoyances along the way: guidance counselor Mr. Molina (Jorge Pallo) mysteriously re-appears and remains the show's most unnecessary character; Joe Rogan looks the part but seems to be collecting a paycheck as Ricky's dad, wasting a valuable character; and a subplot with Jack tutoring Duncan (Little JJ) and falling for Shawna (Bianca Lawson) feels like a false alarm from the start (it's also responsible for my most hated part of the entire season, a ridiculous robbery played for comedic effect in Episode 8).
Secret Life moves a little slow; it's easy to breeze through these episodes, and the stories sometimes take a long time to play out, with far too much dead space created by repetitive dialogue and ideas (it's almost like the writers doubt our attention spans). Cases in point: Episode 1, where the fake I.D. gag is run into the ground; Episode 7, where Grace repeatedly professes her love for birth control pills in one of television history's worst subplots and speeches (mom Bissett looks equally confused and annoyed); Episode 8, where the candy bar schtick takes up far too much dialogue; and Episode 10, where a baby shower invitation mix-up takes up way too much screen time. Additionally, the mix of adolescent and adult material doesn't always mesh: Anne's tactics for trying to teach Amy lessons about responsibility feel immensely juvenile and irresponsible for a mother.
When push comes to shove, Secret Life is a kids' show, not an adult show--which, deep down, I was hoping it would become. But even its faults and schizophrenic tone can be entertaining in that trashy Dynasty kind of way (hair-pulling catfight? check!). It can also be very funny when it wants to be, and not just to a young crowd--clever and cute quips ("I like women who don't have a problem with lying") come from a wide range of sources, with well-earned laughs (both smart and lowbrow) constantly making me smile:
"You could be my 'new virgin' friend! Imagine how much your brother would like that, you reclaiming your virginity! And...you know...while you're at it, you could tone down the lip gloss a little bit..."
Or how about nervous Amy losing her cool at the hospital as delivery draws near: "I just don't see how this is gonna work...how do we even know I have a birth canal?" she asks her quiet mom, whose face is as priceless as the question. "What?! I don't know anything about anything other than the French horn!"
Secret Life's heart is in the right place, and the lessons snuck into the scripts don't feel fake. And even with all of its cheese and whine, it still has some moving moments that don't feel manufactured. The series is trying to teach kids how to do the right thing and grow into mature adults: be responsible and respectful, forgive people, work hard ("when you treat a privilege as a right, you lose it"), don't have preconceived notions, be yourself, don't let peer pressure control you, help those in need, have faith, talk about sex before you have it and--when you do--be safe. How can you argue with those messages?
It's also refreshing how the show integrates so many diverse, often under-represented elements into its stories without drawing attention to them: the cast comes from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, there are a few supporting roles for characters with Down syndrome, faith is integrated without being preachy or mocked, families are both traditional and non-traditional, and the show makes a point to show how accepting its characters are of gay people--including one subplot about the plight of a gay couple (played by Alex Boling and Larry Sullivan) wanting to adopt children: "It's all about acceptance...loving the imperfect makes us accept and love our own imperfections."
At its core, the show is about respect and love...and knowing that--in the end, no matter what--we'll all be okay.
"We're both acting like we don't want to be disturbed by life. Maybe we should keep our eyes open, you and me. Maybe we're about to find something exciting and wonderful.
Maybe we're about to find some meaning in all of this."
The 12 episodes are presented on 3 discs; all run about 43 minutes.
1. The Secret Wedding of the American Teenager (aired 1/5/09) Assisted by their friends, Ben and Amy marry in secret. Meanwhile, Tom asserts his independence after meeting a new girl.
2. Baked Nevada (aired 1/12/09) Anne and George are reunited after Amy and Ben's parents find out they got married, and Adrian's dad tries to get to the bottom of where the fake IDs came from.
3. The Father and the Son (aired 1/19/09) Ricky's father comes to town with some advice for him on how to be a parent.
4. That's Enough of That (aired 1/26/09) Amy has the opportunity to find out the sex of her unborn child. Meanwhile, Jack does community service and believes that he sees Bob violate his parole
5. Chocolate Cake (aired 2/2/09) Amy and Ricky consider adoption as a possible option. Meanwhile, George's co-worker shows interest in adopting Amy's baby.
6. Unforgiven (aired 2/9/09) Amy and Ben struggle to get along when Ben tells her he wants some time to himself. Anne and George start looking for suitable adoption parents.
7. Making Up is Hard to Do (aired 2/16/09) Ashley tries her best to get Amy and Ben back together again, while Ricky tries to sabotage the adoption process.
8. Money for Nothing, Chicks for Free (aired 2/23/09) Adrian wants to mix things up a bit and tries to change her look, Jack is still bringing out his thoughtful side by raising money, and Anne might soon be off the unemployment list.
9. Maybe Baby (aired 3/2/09) Amy gets help from her friends on what to do about the baby.
10. Whoomp! (There It Is) (aired 3/9/09) Adrian and Grace have trouble getting everything together for Amy's baby shower. Adrian is distracted waiting for her brother to call, resulting in her forgetting to invite anyone to the shower. Meanwhile on her way to the shower Amy goes into labor.
11. One Night at Band Camp (aired 3/16/09) While waiting for her baby to be born, Amy flashes back to when she met Ricky at band camp.
12. And Unto Us, A Child is Born (aired 3/23/09) Both friends and family come for the birth of Amy's baby, and Amy has some difficulties with becoming a mother. Ashley and George move out of the house.
In my review of the first season set, I was blown away by the transfer. With a newer, better TV, I now realize that was perhaps a bit generous. But the anamorphic 1.78:1 presentation in this set is still solid, with generally sharp lines, fine detail and strong colors, especially in close-ups (watch out for Adrian's super shiny lips!). Dark scenes don't fare as well--there's more apparent grain, and blacks aren't as rich as they could be. But this is still a fine looking series.
The 5.1 track has no problems, although very little use is made of rear channels (I'm surprised more bold music isn't used throughout). Dialogue is always strong and clear, making this a solid effort. Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.
Just meager offerings here. Character Secrets: The Cast Tells All (10:03) is a generic fluff piece that has some of the cast sharing obvious plot developments and character traits, with little excitement. Cast Close-Ups is marginally better, offering nine brief clips (totaling about 20 minutes) with a young girl named Mikaela interviewing cast members on the set. It's mostly awkward, but there are a few cute moments (Mark Derwin tries to be cutely difficult, and India Eisley talks about reading In Cold Blood, which makes me love her even more). The music video "Secret Life (You and Me)" by The Strange Familiar and trailers round out the package.
Sometimes serious and moving, sometimes trashy and fun, Secret Life is an addictive oddity that's part Saved by the Bell, part after-school special and part Melrose Place. A kids' show with very adult themes, it's equally entertaining and educational, with positive messages injected into it sometimes sweet, sometimes saucy stories. While not quite as fun as the first season, this one comes easily Recommended.