ABC Family’s latest original drama wants to be a slow-motion version of “Juno” but settles for being an obvious, stereotype-laden teen soap, albeit more “North Hollywood, 91607” than the story of what happens in flashier, better-known SoCal zip codes. Series creator Brenda Hampton made family drama with religious underpinnings a long-running success on “7th Heaven,” but teen pregnancy — especially on a youth-oriented network — is too important a subject for such shallow, ham-fisted treatment. The topic may find a receptive audience, but based on first impressions, “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” should probably stay a secret.
Credit the network with one highly promotable bit of casting, choosing Molly Ringwald — can it really be that long since “Sixteen Candles?” Ouch — to play the mother of Amy (“The OC’s” Shailene Woodley), a high schooler with a very big problem that began after “one night at band camp.” (For those who remember Alyson Hannigan’s great comic moment in the original “American Pie,” every reference to “band camp” is an unintentional laugh line.)
Amy had a tryst that was “definitely not like what you see in the movies,” and now she’s turning to her girlfriends for guidance, unwilling to puncture her parents’ rosy view of her. Yet she’s just a small part of the Grant High ecosystem, which includes the chaste, outspokenly devout Christian Grace (Megan Park), who plans on abstaining until marriage; the nerdy, wisecracking Ben (Kenny Baumann), who develops a rapid crush on Amy; ladies’ man Ricky (Daren Kagasoff), whose boy-whore antics are apparently rooted more in parental issues than hormones; and the promiscuous, predatory Adrian (Francia Raisa), who throws herself at the new counselor as well as half her classmates.
From the tramp to the Christians, everyone but Amy feels more like a type than a genuine character. Although a degree of shorthand is to be forgiven, these characters are caricatures at best as the series careens all over the place.
Given that Amy hasn’t informed her folks by the premiere’s end, the show apparently intends to take its time unraveling the implications surrounding her unplanned pregnancy. One can only hope, though, that the student body’s parents (including John Schneider in a recurring role) have more to do in subsequent hours and aren’t permanently relegated to the Charlie Brown cartoon role they initially fulfill.
Admittedly, that teen-centric approach could serve the program well in appealing to target demos, but in terms of execution, this is bad “Afterschool Special” territory. As an aside, the series is partly shot at Grant High in the San Fernando Valley, which was the setting 30 years ago for a significantly better skein, “What Really Happened to the Class of ’65?”
To be fair, ABC Family delivered one pleasant surprise this summer with the sprightly fantasy “The Middleman,” but the higher-profile “American Teenager” balances the scales with its own peculiar symmetry: The pedestrian delivery of a show about an unwanted delivery.