No matter what you may think of the choices the young people in Teen Mom have made, you can’t accuse the series of taking the easy way out: As the Tuesday-night season premiere proved once again, everyone has his or her reasons, and we all, as viewers, worry about those babies, don’t we?
In following up the documentary story-lines of Maci, Farrah, Amber, and Catelynn, each of them seemed trapped in distinctly different ways. Maci had to seek legal action to get her boyfriend Ryan to pony up some child-support. Catelyn and Tyler are practically zombies after giving their child up for adoption — that is, when they’re not fighting, him calling her a “leech” and enlisting his mother to get Catelyn to move out of his house. Farrah proved to be more grown up than her own mother, who didn’t want to discuss the court-ordered restraint the woman brought upon herself after hitting Farrah. And Amber agonized through much of the opening hour thinking she might be pregnant again.
It would be foolish to think that some of these narratives aren’t manipulated a bit for the cameras. That pregnancy scare was drawn out too long, and I get the feeling that Tyler plays up his tragic-hero mopiness when he knows the camera crew will come upon him looking at photo albums of his now-adopted infant. But that doesn’t mean all of these stories don’t pull at your heart and your mind: Don’t you find it almost impossible to fathom how any of these people are going to pull themselves out of their complex, vexed situations?
Following Teen Mom, the determined uplift of If You Really Knew Me was compelling in a different way. The series is filmed in coordination with Challenge Day, a social program in which trained leaders visit high schools and, in one intensive day, try to break down the cliques and emotional barriers that keep students from getting to know each other.
Again, it would be easy to be cynical about this show: Once the group-therapy sessions begin, the tears flow easily. “I’ve heard everyone always cries,” one girl said before the session… and then later, sure enough, she and everyone around her was pretty teary as they owned up to their deep-rooted feelings and prejudices. Jocks and nerds, straight and gay, black and white — If You Really Knew Me tackles conflicts big and small by breaking down everyone’s defenses quickly.
In fact, that’s why I think the program works to whatever extent it does: When the Challenge Day leaders took the kids through a series of intimacy exercises, it all happened so fast and with such positive energy, most of the students seemed unable to resist its allure. I’m not sure how long-lasting the changes in students’ behavior lasts, but for this night, it seemed like an undeniably positive experience.
Or am I being too gullible about Teen Mom and If You Really Knew Me? Did you watch either? Both?