Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Not-So-Secretly Unwatchable Life of the American Teenager

                When I first developed the idea to begin a blog, I figured a large part of it would be my commentary on things I listen to, watch on TV, or see in my daily comings and goings.  A big challenge for myself, I decided, was going to be whether or not I would be able to stick an event out, even if it was truly terrible, and be able to write about it fully on this blog. My test for this was watching a TV show that I’d seen small snippets of and absolutely despised for its premise, production, and acting.  That show is The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Created by Brenda Hampton and airing weekly on the ABC family channel, this show was produced to give all of American a glimpse into what really goes on with students during one of their most trying times, high school.  It was a monumental task to tackle all 73 episodes available on my Netflix Instant Queue, but tackle them I did, and regret it, even with how pitifully awful the program is, I did not.
                As with any powerhouse TV production, ensemble casts are becoming more and more popular (think Lost or Mad Men). Fittingly, Secret Life chose to incorporate one as well. That being said, a little introduction into the main characters in the show is necessary.
·         Amy Juergens – The poor 15 year old girl who gets pregnant during a summer band camp. She’s the America’s Sweetheart of the of series, and the show vaguely centers around her struggle as a teen mother.
·         Ricky Underwood – The older student (by a couple years) who impregnates Amy. He is the resident bad boy around school, and doesn’t hesitate to sleep around with various women or belittle men who are less masculine than him.
·         Ben Boykewich (BOY-ka-Vich) – The hopeless romantic. Son of a Sausage King, Ben has grown up with a silver spoon, which has turned into a silver room. He is what you would call the anti-tough guy.
·         Adrian Lee – With no better way to put it, she is girl who is not afraid to experiment, meaning she gets around a lot. Secretly though, she only wants to be with Ricky. She’s also a straight A student.
·         Grace Bowman – The “crazy Christian” (show’s quote, not mine).  She is the gorgeous (although unobtainable) devout Christian who initially is into saving herself for marriage, even though she is portrayed to be the prize of every guy at school.
·         Ashley Juergens – Amy’s annoying know-it-all younger sister (by two years).  Even though she’s mature for her age, somehow she magically is included in all of her sister and her sister’s friends' day to day problems.
·         George Juergens – Amy’s dad and my favorite character. Though a bumbling imbecile most of the time, easily the most humorous person on the show and generally tries to do the right thing.
·         Anne Juergens – Portrayed by Molly Ringwald. Amy’s mother and somehow has the right advice and keen sixth sense at critical moments, even though she comes off as a dimwit 99% of the time.
·         Leo Boykewich – Ben’s father. He owns a sausage empire and is wealthy. However, he prides himself on work ethic and tries to instill the same attitude in his son at every turn.
These central cast members along with several other important figures make Secret Life what it is, a poorly acted and wildly unrealistic depiction of America’s teens.
                As Secret Life begins, we learn that 15 year old Amy Juergens is nervous that she is pregnant after a trip to summer band camp. As the early moments of Secret Life progress, it becomes clear that she is carrying child. What transpires after that is Brenda Hampton’s interpretation of what today’s American teenagers go through in high school. I’m not sure what experience Hampton draws from to create her world, but it’s one that takes the aspects of adolescence and blows them so wildly out of proportion, that what evolves is a grotesque depiction of teenage life. What exactly does Hampton get wrong? Pretty much everything, but I’ll go through only the biggest 3 atrocities for length’s sake.
1.)    In Secret Life, it seems that the students of Ulysses S. Grant High School have all the time in the world to stand by their lockers or out in the middle of the hallway and discuss their life issues/plans.  What type of school system is this? Most schools allow around 5 minutes for kids to get to their lockers, put their previous period’s books away, grab their next period’s books, and hustle to their next room.   Secret Life never has a scene that is filmed inside of an actual classroom.   Maybe that’s part of being “secret,” but I remember that many significant conversations took place inside the classroom; hushed whispers that had to fool the teacher into thinking we were paying attention and remain private from other students.
2.)    Regarding students’ conversations, the content in Secret Life is unlike anything I remember. I would predict that nearly 95% of conversations covered between teens in Secret Life, revolve around some kind of sex, be it oral or otherwise.  I can tell you with complete assurance, talk of sex does not dominate actual high school conversation.   So many conversations in high school dealt with a myriad of topics, ranging from classwork to sports.  It seems in Secret Life, that EVERY interaction between students, parents, or students/parents, centers around or involves sex in some way.  I know that California is progressive, but honestly, I think Hampton is pushing the issue a little too hard.
3.)    Not only is the conversation content misrepresented, but the people involved also do not follow the prototypical high schooler’s experience. The Secret Life’s parents are remarkably ubiquitous in all the sex talk between not only their own children, but other students as well. The shocking aspect is the general nonchalance with which adolescent and parent speak about sex. The actual high school teenager is generally afraid to broach such subjects with his or her parents; and telling someone else’s parents? You’ve got to be kidding me.
All of these factors contribute to the overall dilemma with Secret Life. It wants to emphasize the trials and tribulations that America’s youths go through in today’s day and age, but in doing so, it over exaggerates  these hardships while trying to coach the views on what to do. While parents and their kids may have a sex talk every once in awhile, it’s not every day, and definitely not with children other than their own.  Students do not spend every conversation with their friends talking about sex. Other topics (friends, work, cars, projects), also have their place in the day to day dealings of these kids.  While love and marriage are sometimes brought up in students’ pipe dreams, it is not a centerpiece of everyday discussion.  
All of this over-embellishment actually provides the one saving grace of Secret Life, comedic value. On the unintentional comedy scale 1-10, it scores a definitive 10.  I kept roughly 35 pages of quotations and notes that amused me thoroughly for the first 2 and one third seasons of Secret.  I created a page that has all the quotes I noted , but right here I can present a few gems to show you the high comedic value of the dialogue.
Grace: “I had sex and now Dad is dead. And, he had a horrible death because I had incredible sex. Just the way life works, and death. I did this. I did it. And if I hadn’t done it, if I hadn’t had sex, and if I hadn’t enjoyed having sex so much then Dad would still be alive, you know it Mom.”

Anne: “George can you do this, can you really deliver the baby with one hand?”
George: “I can do this with both hands tied behind my back” (he’s not a doctor of any sort, and yes, he delivered the baby successfully).
Such is the depth of content in Secret Life. To compound matters, the actors are awful and give pitiful performances. Molly Ringwald fully shows why she has never been seen for years and years after a string of successful childhood movies. The rest of the cast, while fitting the bill of young, pretty, and handsome faces, gives a collective performances equal to that of a group of nine and ten year olds putting on a play for their hometown. It’s as if every line is delivered with the same inflections, never really pulling us into the gravity of a dramatic scene taking place or the glee of a humorous or joyful event.  If you’re looking for a night of laughter, just tune in and watch how the unrealistic story mixes terribly with the robotic acting to form a truly hideous cocktail of television.  All of this brings us to…
                ...Secret Life’s ultimate failure to accomplish its goal. I’ll be the first to readily admit, there probably is a secret life that most American teens do not want their parents to find out about. Even more, I believe that a properly produced TV program depicting that life would perhaps have a positive impact on families across the nation. Coincidentally, like many sex education videos show to adolescent teens throughout America, this is just another form of media that can be criticized and ridiculed for completely missing the mark instead of praised for presenting us with hard-hitting truths.  To put one final topper on the abysmal Secret Life cake, as I watched the final episode (that was on my Netflix), I found myself actually being drawn in by the story. Another teen girl (Adrian, this time) had become pregnant and married the father (Ben). What riveted me was that near the end of the episode, the baby was coming, but it ended up being stillborn, something that totally caught me off guard. For once, the actors and actresses were putting on a believable show of being completely crushed by such an awful event, and thought to myself “wow, this would be a great cliffhanger to end a season on.”  But did Secret Life do such a thing? No, of course they didn’t. Instead of ending it at that obvious spot, they chose to drag it along to a scene with Ricky and Amy at Ricky’s apartment. The episode ended with the two of them embracing in Ricky’s bed with Amy finally declaring she was ready to have sex with Ricky (the back and forth between them had been a focus of the season).  As the two of them cuddled while the screen faded to black, I couldn’t help but just smile at the ineptitude of Secret Life, for once again, the producers botched up a chance at relevant TV and ditched it for a fantasy world unknown to me.  Secret Life does its best to show us what really goes on with today’s youths, but trust me, if you’re ever thinking about attempting to watch this show yourself, do yourself a favor and let the lives of the teens portrayed in this show remain a secret to you.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree more with all of this!! I think the worst thing about it is the dialogue, really you can't blame the actors for the terrible acting because they aren't given much to work with. I mean I thought Shailene Woodley wasn't a very good actress but then I saw her in the Descedants and The Spectacular Now and well I was pleasantly surprised with her acting- so it definitely has something to do with the writing. The characters on the secret life aren't believable, they are one dimensional and bland, not well rounded people, also they are over exaggerated. They also have far too many flaws and very little redeeming qualities lol