Well guess what? They don't make teen programming like they used to--especially on "family" channels. It becomes clear in the opening scenes of the first episode that Secret Life... isn't afraid of sex talk, and a lot of it. It's appropriate that Molly Ringwald and Josie Bissett are in the cast--you can see the influence of Sixteen Candles and Melrose Place (did I mention that Jason Priestly directs a few episodes?). There are boys with one-track minds, girls who put out (and those that don't), and lots of questions we can all relate to:
Jack: "Is oral sex allowed before marriage? I mean, if two people are committed to one another and in love with each other..."
Oh yeah, it's funny, too. Its smart yet sexy sensibility cracks the sugar coating of safe shows like Saved by the Bell, a series this one has very little in common with other than the setting and the archetype high school characters (which are far more developed here). Show creator Brenda Hampton honed her craft on 7th Heaven, although I prefer her work from the underrated Fat Actress, a show with similar snap and wit.
It's just another day in the life of 15-year-old California high school student Amy Juergens (Shailene Woodley)--until she confirms her worst fear. She's pregnant, the result of a band camp mistake with drummer Ricky Underwood (Daren Kagasoff), a smooth talking ladies man with a troubled past (after being sexually abused by his father, he wound up in the foster care system). He's "bed buddies" with flirty majorette Adrian (Francia Raisa), another troubled kid from a broken family. Like Ricky, she uses sex as a weapon (even flirting with the school guidance counselor)--but deep down wants something more.
Ricky soon sets his sights on chipper "Jesus freak" Grace Bowman (Megan Park, who had a small role in Diary of the Dead!), a devoted Christian who vows to remain a virgin until marriage--much to the delight of parents Kathleen (Bissett) and Marshall (the one and only Bo Duke, John Schneider). Grace is dating jock Jack (Greg Finley), who becomes increasingly frustrated with her chaste ways. Meanwhile, rich geek Ben Boykewich (Ken Baumann) can't keep his eyes off Amy, slowing breaking down her defenses until she submits to his quirky charm.
Back at home, Amy has to contend with parents Anne (Ringwald, looking as young as ever) and George (Mark Derwin, who I fondly recall from another funny short-lived series, Life with Bonnie), who is also Kathleen's ex-husband. At Amy's side is acerbic 13-year-old sister Ashley (India Eisley), whose deadpan demeanor hides a kind heart. Back at school, Amy is joined at the hip to best friends Madison (Renee Olstead) and Lauren (Camille Winbush). They're the counterparts to Ben's sidekicks (and couple) Henry (Allen Evangelista) and Alice (Amy Rider), a walking sex statistician: "Most people don't have good sex: 52 percent of Americans 16 and older are not fully satisfied with their sex lives."
Got all that? I won't begin to relay the shifting loyalties, crushes and friendships--but life isn't easy for any of these characters as the peer pressure, double standards and rumor mill of high school are in full force. Thankfully, the show isn't just about Amy--everyone here gets lots of time to shine, including the adults (who frequently behave like children). Secret Life... is an odd yet endearing mixture--the show is clearly aimed at young adults, and has plenty of cheesy developments and dialogue to prove it. But for every ounce of cheese, there's a powerful pound of intelligence and respect for the audience--adults included.
I was surprised at how quickly I was caught up in the show's web--it works as a juicy (yet smart) soap opera, but also as a meaningful look at friendship, relationships, love and sex. Despite the show's glossy upper-middle class focus (I'm betting most pregnant teens aren't as well off as Amy), the characters, situations and lessons that are as applicable to adults as they are to teenagers. The show is also frequently funny--each episode made me laugh with plenty of subplots (Jennifer Coolidge has a hysterical scene in Episode 9, featuring a reference to The Grifters that had me laughing out loud). There's also memorable exchanges between horny teenagers, along with witty one-liners and snappy comebacks--many at the hands of Ashley (Eisley is a frequent source of comic relief):
Amy: "Mom's been waiting for you...you're gonna be late for school."
Oh, snap! The cast is all-around excellent: Woodley situates herself well in a demanding role--it has to be exhausting being so somber all the time, and she handles the material mostly well (she hasn't quite mastered Amy's nervous stuttering). Baumann is like a Topher Grace in training--Ben has a small hint of Eric Forman's nerdy charm, but is still too one-note to stand out, a little too single-minded and whipped. I guess if you're young and in love, you might act like he does, but I could do without the affected rich-boy speak, even if it's in jest: "People are talking about my woman. They're saying she was cavorting with the drummer at band camp one summer's eve!"
The real strength of the show comes with the arcs involving Ricky and Adrian. Underwood (an acting rookie and instant heartthrob) is a natural as the charismatic, slick and sly Ricky--you will instantly love and loathe him. He can sweet talk his way into (and out of) anything: After meeting him for the first time, Ashley admits to her sister: "Okay, now I see how it happened..." (And watching Ricky work his magic during a phone conversation with Grace in Episode 3 is frightening and fascinating.) He uses lies and flattery to gain sympathy and trust, and you're never quite sure if he's ever being sincere. Of all the characters, he is the most complex and flawed--with Adrian running a close second. Raisa's passionate performance is one of the show's highlights, and Adrian matures with each episode.
But not everything is perfect. Some of the characters and performances are too exaggerated, bordering on cartoonish: Derwin is a little too angry as Amy's dad, but he warms up as the series progresses; Schneider sounds a little too patronizing and phony as he delivers advise to daughter Grace ("You beware, young lady!"); Ben's dad Leo (Steve Schirripa) is shockingly unflappable, and far too serene with his son's declarations of love; Madison is a little too outwardly annoying and socially inept; and a character introduced late in the season shows surprisingly little love to a relative.
Other developments feel out of place (like a stupid decision by Amy's dad in Episode 9) and convenient (characters may connect in ways you don't expect), especially considering the more realistic tone the bulk of the series uses. The final episode of the season is the weakest--it tries too hard to be cute and clever (especially in the first half), straying from its successful formula.
But when you're dealing with a show that has shades of Gossip Girl and American Pie in its makeup, it's understandable and forgivable. The show has dialogue, behavior and developments that feel mostly authentic--and some of the arguments between characters (about sex, abortion and a variety of other serious topics) are pointed and refreshing.
Secret Life... isn't for everyone--while aimed at a younger crowd, I'm betting plenty of parents will find it too risqué for their children. It's a unique blend of material that's sometimes routine yet still realistic, sometimes predictable yet still fresh and funny. For those mature enough (both young and old), this high school "romcomdram" proves to be a responsible and relatable look at life, love and relationships. I was instantly hooked, so bring on Season 2!
1. Falling in Love (aired 7-1-2008) In the series premiere, 15-year-old Amy finds herself facing an unexpected pregnancy after a onetime hookup at band camp with Ricky, the school cad. Then she meets nice guy Ben, who's so enamored with her that he joins the band. Elsewhere, popular cheerleader Grace starts wearing an abstinence promise ring to show her commitment to her Christian values, causing much anxiety for her boyfriend, Jack.
4. Caught (aired 7-22-2008) Amy can't stand Ben's clingy behavior, especially in the face of her parents' increasingly strained relations with one another. Elsewhere, Ricky continues to play a part in Grace and Jack's ploy to see each another, but as things backfire, Jack seeks comfort from Adrian.
8. Your Cheatin' Heart (aired 8-19-2008) Amy's grandma visits the family and offers to help out with Amy's situation. Elsewhere, Adrian makes sure her budding friendship with Grace is on display for all to see.
Megan Park notes its fun playing someone so cheery and positive, while Francia Raisa admits that she--like Adrian--was a flirt in high school. "Everyone's going to be able to relate to one person in this cast," says Greg Finley (Jack), a sentiment shared by Ken Baumann (Ben): "These characters and very three-dimensional, well-written characters, so they are what you will see in a cross-section of an American high school."
Despite the wise observations, the featurette is quick and generic, and doesn't explore enough ground for a show that deserves it. Trailers are also included.