The new ABC Family hit The Secret Life of the American Teenager (already renewed for a second season) was created by Brenda Hampton, the auteur behind 7th Heaven. Like Heaven, Teenager is filled with didactic messages and a lotta wooden acting. It also makes you realize that on TV these days, the concepts of chastity and shame can seem thrilling, if only because they so rarely arise.
The secret held by 15-year-old, straight-arrow Amy (Shailene Woodley) is that she’s pregnant after losing her virginity during a one-night stand with a smirky suburban playa, Ricky (Daren Kagasoff). Mortified, she hasn’t told her parents, and can only hint at it to the boy she really loves, charming wise guy Ben (Kenny Baumann, who looks like a young Bob Saget). There’s also a major subplot about a Christian couple, classmates Grace (Megan Park) and Jack (Greg Finley), who pledged to God that they won’t have sex until they’re married. A pent-up Jack promptly went out and hooked up with the local floozy, Adrian (Francia Raisa).
Hot buttons are pushed all over this series. Grace’s religiosity gets her called a ”Jesus freak.” Amy’s dad (Mark Derwin) is having an affair. Randy Ricky was abused by his dad and now lives with foster parents; it’s implied he acts out sexually (he also beds Adrian) because of his trauma. Then there are the jokes one can’t quite be sure are meant to be jokes, such as a gas station with a sign reading ”Free Tampons With Fill Up.” There’s scant doubt Amy will keep her baby (an abortion would be one button too hot for ABC Family to push, I’m guessing). Instead, Teenager is one long public service announcement for responsible sexual behavior — solid advice barely transmuted into drama, let alone art — and following each episode is an actual PSA on the subject, read by Amy — er, actress Woodley. The whole thing feels like Juno…without the irony.
Teenager follows the 7th Heaven tradition of casting familiar faces who aren’t at the peak of their careers: ’80s teen figurehead Molly Ringwald is Amy’s mother; Melrose Place‘s Josie Bissett and Duke of Hazzard John Schneider play Grace’s parents. Everyone is saddled with speechifying lines like ”You’re in charge of another life now.” But Woodley — who played The O.C.’s Kaitlin (before being replaced by another actress) as well as Felicity in the 2005 TV movie Felicity: An American Girl Adventure — is utterly beguiling: an anti — Gossip Girl. Like a great silent-film actress, she has a face that conveys shades of anguish and joy. Her performance lifts a well-meaning, rather brave, but ramshackle show a notch. And it needs all the notch-raising it can get. B-