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THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER (ABC Family)
(Tuesdays at 8:00/7:00c starting tonight)
The network's description: "From ABC Family and Brenda Hampton, creator of "7th Heaven," comes a heartfelt one-hour drama entitled "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," that focuses on the relationships between families and friends and how they deal with an unwanted pregnancy. As the creator of the longest running family drama, Hampton brings an honest and relatable voice to the issues that teens and their parents face every day across America. Within the series, the family unit is represented in several forms � from the typical family of four � both functioning and dysfunctional � to a single parent home and a teen in foster care. Additionally, the teen viewpoint is also represented from a diverse group of characters. The series boasts an incredible case of characters played by Shailene Woodley ("The O.C."), Molly Ringwald ("The Breakfast Club") as Anne, Mark Derwin ("The Bonnie Hunt Show") as George, newcomer India Eisley as Ashley, Kenny Baumann ("Eli Stone") as Ben, newcomer Daren Kagasoff as Ricky, Francia Raisa ("Cutting Edge 3") as Adrian, Megan Park ("Life With Derek") as Grace, Greg Finley ("Cold Case") as Jack and Jorge-Luis Pallo ("Navy NCIS") as Mark. John Schneider ("Smallville") as Marshall and Josie Bissett ("Melrose Place") as Katherine will also guest star. Other recurring characters include Ernie Hudson ("Ghostbusters") as Dr. Fields."
What did they leave out: "Teenager" bypassed the usual pilot process and was ordered directly to series.
The plot in a nutshell: The opening moments show 15-year old Amy (Shailene Woodley) taking a pregnancy test and, yep, it's positive. The action then shifts to Grant High School where Amy confides in her friends (Renee Olmstead and Camille Winbush) about her pregnancy and they quickly figure out that teen womanizer Ricky (Daren Kagasoff) is the Daddy. The three girls weigh the options (abortion is brought up but quickly dismissed) and tell Amy to go to the doctor and not tell Ricky. On the other side of the hall, shy Ben (Kenny Baumann) has a mad crush on Amy but stumbles when he tries to get her attention. Meanwhile, Ricky is onto his next conquest - hottie Adrian (Francia Raisa), who, instead, sets her sights on Jack, the football hunk and BF of Christian good-girl Grace (Megan Park). Grace tells Jack that she isn't having sex until marriage so Jack becomes much easier prey for Adrian. The kids then take turns talking to various adults and show viewers what's brewing beneath the surface: Ben talks with new guidance counselor, Mark (Jorge-Luis Pallo) about sex and asking Amy out; Ricky talks to his therapist (Ernie Hudson) about his issues with having sex with as many women as possible as a result of the sexual abuse he suffered through with his father before he entered the foster care system. Back home, Amy tries to tell her doting parents (Molly Ringwald and Mark Derwin) about her predicament but is interrupted by Ben asking her to the school dance. At Grace's home, her parents (John Schneider and Josie Bissett) explain the importance of Grace's promise ring to her down syndrome's brother, Tom (Luke Zimmerman). At the school dance, Ben and Amy hold hands for the first time and share sheepish smiles. Ricky, however, thinks about horning in on their budding romance until Ben stands up to him. Adrian and Jack, however, reveal at the dance that they've slept together and, when they kiss, Grace's brother sees them and everyone soon finds out. Meanwhile, Ben and Amy dance alone on the dance floor, with Amy's forlorn eyes knowing her life is going to drastically change very soon.
What works: Most of the young supporting cast have their own distinct spark that should serve the series well. Standouts include Raisa, Park and Kagasoff, who promise to bring more depth to their stereotypical roles as the series progresses. The teens in the series also do something refreshing that teenagers don't traditionally do - they talk to adults! Ben has counselor Mark, Ricky has his therapist and though Amy attempts (but is interrupted) to tell her parents her big secret, they're sure to find out her little secret soon enough. ABC Family also takes on new ground by unabashedly featuring talk about oral sex, virginity, abortion, sexual abuse, and religion without coming off as preachy or condescending. Also, since ABC Family has collaborated with The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, there will be online content, which will offer teens and parents various ways to explore, discuss and learn about show-related themes.
What doesn't: "Juno" she ain't. Woodley doesn't (yet) exhibit the acting chops to pull off the heaviness of the plight that Amy has gotten herself into. While maybe working hard to make her the anti-Juno, the character has been stripped of anything overly interesting other than her predicament. There's hope that Woodley will grow into her role but the character could use some of Ellen Page's sass and edge to make the Amy character more memorable. Also, with her return to series television (she was in the early years of "The Facts of Life" in case you forgot), Ringwald doesn't get a chance to show much range in the pilot outside of the caring Mom of Amy but her role is sure to develop once Amy's tummy starts to grow and the secret is out of the bag. Finally, the tone of the series seems to purposely steers away from delving too much into the dramatic undercurrent of the various storylines when embracing that drama would ground the series more in reality and make it overall more entertaining.
The bottom line: "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" has a lot of potential beyond the pilot and I'll be checking it out again to see where things go. Woodley is going to have to amp up her acting skills to anchor the series effectively but, like the series, she shows promise.