[01/12/09 - 12:06 AM]
Interview: "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" Creator Brenda Hampton
By Jim Halterman (TFC)

It may have seemed surprising at the time last summer when ABC Family, known for light fair for families to enjoy together such as reruns of "Gilmore Girls", began airing a series about a pregnant teenager but viewers responded in droves to "The Secret Life of the American Teenager." Best known for creating "7th Heaven," which ran for an astounding 11 seasons on the WB (and The CW), Brenda Hampton shared what's coming up in this cycle of episodes as well as how she handles a large cast and touchy subjects for a teen audience.

Speaking before the new episode debuted last week, Hampton expressed her apprehension about having the series move to a new night on the ABC Family schedule. "I'm hoping that it doesn't throw the viewers off," she said. "I hope people know it's changed to Monday night." Hampton need not have worried. The first episode of what she called "Season 1-B" debuted with ABC Family's best delivery in total viewers, adults 18-49, adults 18-34 and viewers 12-34 in its history. The episode also drew 4.4 million total viewers and bested another series aimed at teen viewers, the CW's "Gossip Girl." Obviously, where this edgy (by ABC Family standards) goes, viewers will follow.

After talking to Hampton, it's clear that the audience for "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" is in for quite a ride with the coming episodes. In the mid-season premiere last week, while Amy (Shailene Woodley) and Ben (Kenny Baumann) made their way to the altar, Amy's parents (Molly Ringwald and Mark Derwin) took steps closer to ending their marriage.

While a teen marriage doesn't happen everyday on series television, Amy and Ben surprisingly did get married in last Monday's episode. "Aren't you just waiting for someone to show up and stop it?" Hampton asked, laughing at the moving forward of the storyline. Asked if this new marriage was something that the writers hedged upon actually happening, she revealed, "It was totally conscious because [Amy and Ben] totally thought they could [get married]." Of course, as in any drama, don't expect their marital course to be smooth. "We'll find out the consequences in the next episode (airing tonight) but I did want them to make the commitment and then we'll see how long it lasts. Teens are very interesting people. Things change very quickly."

Unlike the invincible Camden marriage on "7th Heaven," the Juergens are going through more than a rough patch in their marriage. Asked how far their trials and tribulations will take them and Hampton cheered, "All the way! All the way!" One spoiler she revealed is that their marriage will not return to a good place before the end of the current season. "[George, played by Derwin,] leaves and he's still going to be around but they do split up. They may or may not get back together [but] we don't have a Season Two yet so we haven't thought through where that's going."

As for Amy's pregnancy, which will end with her giving birth in the season finale, Amy has yet to decide whether she wants to raise the baby or not. That turn in the story alone will open up a chance for Hampton and her writers to dive into a new subject. "We go through a couple wanting to adopt the child and we look at the adoption side of this." While dealing with the adoption possibilities, Hampton revealed another opportunity to look at another controversial subject when Amy considers letting a gay couple adopt the baby. All the adoption stories aside, viewers more than likely will guess the fate of the unborn child. "Ultimately," Hampton added, "if she didn't keep the child we wouldn't have much of a series but we do explore adoption with this story."

Another controversial story that crops up again in this cycle is the sexual abuse of Ricky (Daren Kagasoff). Of the often-taboo subject, Hampton shared, "that [storyline] gets pretty dark, as it should. It shouldn't be treated lightly. We did the mention of that in the very first episode that that is [Ricky's] background. In the second half of the season you're going to meet his father and there's going to be confrontations between Ricky and his father, the child abuser." Bryan Callen, who worked with Hampton on her Kirstie Alley series "Fat Actress," has been brought in to play Ricky's father.

Despite these weighty subjects, Hampton explained that she doesn't see the series becoming too dark. Comparing "Secret Life of the American Teenager" to "7th Heaven," she said, "It's the same show in that hopefully it's kind of a serious topic with people � teen pregnancy � but at the same time there's funny things running underneath it and although a lot people never saw the humor in '7th Heaven' I thought there were some pretty funny things about it. It certainly wasn't 'Fat Actress' but still I come out of a background in comedy so I hope there's always something fun about the show but there is the serious and dark side with the teen pregnancy."

Hampton contends that in dealing with topical issues she isn't trying to preach or shove life lessons down the throats of viewers. "We're really just telling the story and I'm not trying to teach anyone anything... and obviously there are consequences to all actions so I'm also saying [that] sometimes people get away with things. Sometimes they do. But a lot of times they don't and so you have to think about things as you do them even when you're young because one decision can change everything. In the next to last episode, we do a flashback to band camp and we see how Amy got pregnant. And it's just that moment when she makes a bad decision."

The censors (or ABC Family) have not been too brutal on the subject matter of the series but Hampton admitted, "there are some things that we don't realize might be offensive and then things we think we'll leave them in there but we'll never get away with that they let us have so it's surprising."

Besides former teen sensation Ringwald and other blast-from-the-past television names like Josie Bissett ("Melrose Place") and John Schneider ("Smallville," "Dukes of Hazzard"), Hampton said she loves having so many actors on the show for some of the advantages it provides. "From a writer's perspective, it's terrific to have this large cast because people aren't always available when you get these top-rated actors like Steve Schirripa ("The Sopranos"). He has other things to do so if he can just give me a couple of days an episode I can make that work so if I have this large cast I can allow everybody a certain amount of freedom and moving about and then they come and work with us a few days, they have a good time, they love it and that shows up on the screen so it's a good thing, I think." Other television names that will appear this season include Kathy Kinney ("The Drew Carey Show") and Constance Marie ("The George Lopez Show").

Finally, in inquiring about where Hampton finds her teen voice and inspiration, the creator laughed again. "I just never grew up! I'm stuck somewhere back there in the 60s."

Regardless where the voice comes from, audiences are responding to "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," which airs Mondays at 8:00/7:00c on ABC Family.

  [january 2009]  


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