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GUEST BLOG #27: Ed Martin on a wholesome show that's full of sex
June 25, 2009  | By Ed Martin

Bianculli here: Contributing writer Ed Martin is back, raving about last Monday's second-season premiere of ABC Family's The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and trying to recruit viewers in time for next week's episode two. He does a fine job, by playing the sex card...

secret life shailene molly.jpg'Secret Life': It's not just about the boobs

By Ed Martin

There is no other series with so split a personality as ABC Family's The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a genuinely entertaining family drama that is more wholesome and heartwarming than just about anything else on television -- and yet so sexually supercharged that it borders on the surreal. Seriously, this show puts so many hormones in play it makes Gossip Girl feel like Gidget.

True to form, Secret Life's second season began on Monday night with its main characters obsessing over breasts. The episode had the makings of a great drinking game. Had viewers of legal age downed a shot every time one character commented on another's boobs, they would have been blotto by the first commercial break.

Much of this talk was centered on Amy (Shailene Woodley), the 15-year-old who found herself pregnant at the start of the series, gave birth (seemingly without breaking a sweat) in the Season 1 finale, and is now struggling to care for her son while continuing in high school; and her mother Anne, who is pregnant by a male acquaintance, or possibly by her estranged husband (and Amy's father), George, in the unlikely event that George's long-ago vasectomy failed last year around the time the two of them hit the sheets.

Naturally, Amy and Anne are both a little top-heavy right now, prompting a broad range of responses from their loved ones. Other breasts made themselves known, too, including those of happy hooker Betty (the jubilant Jennifer Coolidge in a recurring role) and a number of Amy's teenage friends and acquaintances.

Secret Life-grace-jack.jpg

As any loyal viewer will tell you, the very likable characters on Secret Life never miss an opportunity to share their thoughts about wanting sex, having sex or abstaining from sex -- and the overkill can be problematic, to say the least. In Monday's episode, the only breaks from talking about baby-making came when talking about babies themselves -- especially Amy's 2-month old bundle of love, John, who has turned his bad-boy baby-daddy Ricky (Daran Kagasoff) and Amy's too-understanding-to-be-real boyfriend Ben (Kenny Baumann) into buckets of gooey man-mush.

One subplot veered from talk about sex to talk about abstinence to an actual act of intercourse (occurring off-screen) as sensitive jock Jack (Greg Finley) bedded cheerful cheerleader Grace (Megan Park), a devout Christian who prayed for months before deciding to lose her virginity. In a scene that I am almost certain was not intended to be amusing (but was), Grace couldn't stop complimenting Jack after they did "it," sounding not for a second like a teenage first-timer as she told him how "skilled" he was at lovemaking.

The only other time that the cloud of all-consuming sex talk parted was for the delivery of devastating news -- the sudden death of Grace's dad, Marshall (John Schneider), which happened at approximately the same time she was having sex with Jack. Grace's character trajectory promises to be the most dramatic on the show this season.

secret life daddy.jpg

The many responsibilities that come with and consequences that may result from youthful sexual activity have always been the driving forces of Secret Life. I watched this episode in the company of adults and young teenagers, and while the old folks were slack-jawed at all the sex talk, the kids (all of whom had seen every episode of this show at least twice) just brushed it off and made clear (to the adults' collective relief) that real life is nothing like Secret Life (a series they nevertheless love more than any other).

Apparently, tweens and young teenagers have other things on their minds, like music and video games and social networking and school and sports. A healthy curiosity about sex fits in there somewhere but it doesn't dominate -- no matter what ABC Family would have us believe.

As over-the-top as it can be in its strident determination to explore all facets of teen sexuality, there is something strangely comforting and gently appealing about Secret Life. It may be the storytelling, which, if one puts aside all the super-frank sex talk, resembles that of a soap opera during the glory days of daytime drama. (That would be the '70s and '80s, when record numbers of tweens, teens and twentysomethings fixated on the genre.)

It's all about a complicated community of ordinary people making their way through life. The characters screw up constantly, but when one gets in too deep, he or she is rescued and comforted by family and friends. Teens and their parents are often at odds, but they just as often find themselves connecting, even when they don't expect to do so. (On this week's episode, Ben's dad Leo, aka the Sausage King, brought happy hooker Betty home after dinner and had to rouse his son out of bed to borrow condoms. "I'm optimistic," geeky Ben offered as his dad opened his overstocked condom drawer. "So am I," Leo smiled, grabbing a fistful.)

Secret Life is greatly enhanced by its simple production values, which are as retro as the show's approach to storytelling, if not to the stories it tells. In other words, it looks like a beloved television drama from decades past: There's no hand-held camera work, no rapid-fire editing, and no elaborate on-location shooting. People refer to it as edgy and contemporary, because of all the sex stuff. But in every other way it feels as old-fashioned as a Hallmark Channel original movie, except for all the sex stuff.


Another reason that Secret Life resonates with viewers (consistently bringing ABC Family some of its highest ratings ever, and often outperforming competing broadcast and basic cable fare in teen and young adult demos) is that while the narrative focus is clearly on its multi-dimensional teen characters, the adults on the show are similarly well-drawn.

There isn't another couple on television quite like ever-quarreling Anne and George (played to comic perfection by one-time box-office teen queen Molly Ringwald and the always appealing Mark Derwin), nor a single dad as genuinely grounded as Leo (Steven Schirripa, in a perfect turnaround from his Sopranos role as hit-man Bobby Bacala). These are just a few of the many grown-ups who add so much to this show and avoid every cliche about TV moms and dads while doing so. They're as much fun to watch as the kids.

I'll end with a question for Brenda Hampton, the creator of Secret Life and the producer of the long-running WB hit 7th Heaven, another family-focused drama that appealed to young people. Why is this series titled The Secret Life of the American Teenager? No matter how intimate or potentially embarrassing, the kids on this show have no secrets from each other or the adults in their lives -- none that last, anyway. That may be the most laudable of its many fine qualities.



Ed Martin is the television critic and programming analyst for the media industry Web site JackMyers.com. The former senior editor of the award-winning, much-missed television and advertising trade magazine Inside Media, Ed has also written for USA Today, Advertising Age, Television Week, Broadcasting & Cable and TV Guide.

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