“The Secret Life of the American Teenager” is hardly the first teen-focused story to feature a pregnant high school student, although its gestation period could easily be the longest.
“Years ago, when Susan Daniels was working at Fox, she came to me and said they were looking for the next ‘90210,’” recalls “Secret Life” executive producer Brenda Hampton. Fox passed, leaving Hampton to focus on “7th Heaven,” the show that launched a young Jessica Biel’s career.
“When ‘7th Heaven’ went down, I pulled out other pilots I’d written, and with this one in particular, I felt like I never got to write it the way I wanted to,” she explains. So Hampton penned six episodes on spec and pitched the show to ABC Family (whose “Greek” convinced her the channel might be open to the show’s potentially controversial subject matter).
“ABC Family is the new HBO for teens,” raves Hampton, who tackles everything from teen sexuality to coping with divorce to the upside of therapy on the show. “It’s ridiculous that people don’t talk about sex more with their children,” she says.
“Secret Life” was an instant hit with its target audience, beating both “Gossip Girl” and “90210” in ratings, creating steady work for more than a dozen up-and-coming young thesps in the process.
Hampton credits casting associate Peter Pappas of Valko/Miller with tracking down the right actors for each part. At 16, Shailene Woodley brought just the right mix of innocence and vulnerability Hampton wanted for the pregnant lead, while “India Eisley and Daren Kagasoff are going to be huge film stars one day,” she predicts.
The challenge, Hampton knows from experience, is holding on to her ensemble: “From ‘7th Heaven,’ I learned you have to get the cast to understand the commitment of working on a television show. I don’t want people to think it’s something they’ll do for a couple of years until they get a better gig.”
Recent breakthrough: Tackled touchy issues of adolescent sexuality in ABC Family’s hit show “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.”
Role model: “As far as writers, that would be Fannie Flagg. She’s the greatest American writer. I think she’s the Mark Twain of our time.”
What’s next: Traveling to Oklahoma to visit the Chickasaw Nation for a possible film or TV project. Also developing Flagg’s book “Standing in the Rainbow.”