The Surprisingly Heartfelt Center of The Secret Life of the American Teenager

By Gabby Curran

When people our age talk about the tween TV channel that culturally raised them, the arena is usually divided between Disney and Nickelodeon. Few people seem to remember the hilarious awkwardness that was ABC Family (yes, I still refuse to call it Freeform). It produced and continues to produce some of the most comical, yet sometimes surprisingly thoughtful, teen television shows to have ever aired on the small screen, with dialogue and plot points the likes of which haven’t been seen since Hallmark’s made-for-TV movies. Some of their most successful shows targeted at teenagers include Pretty Little Liars, Switched at Birth, and one of my guiltiest pleasures––The Secret Life of the American Teenager.

The Secret Life first aired in 2008 and continued on ABC Family until 2013, lasting five seasons and 121 episodes altogether. I first saw it at my cousin’s house around age 11, feeling so grown up afterwards because I had just watched a TV show that explicitly said the word “sex” in it. The plot (or rather, one of the many plots because the show inexplicably churned out new episodes for five years) centers around fifteen-year-old Amy (played by Shailene Woodley––yep, the very same), who finds out that she is pregnant in the pilot episode. The first season chronicles her attempts to balance her pregnancy with her life as a teenage student. She goes through a surprising amount of character development, including contemplating abortion, switching schools, and eventually choosing to keep her baby and raise it herself; but don’t get too excited. The maturity train stops there, and her character sees little to no growth in the following seasons as she raises her son with the help of her baby daddy, bad boy Ricky (played by Daren Kagasoff, who unfortunately seems to have faded into relative obscurity despite being one of the better actors on the show).

Supporting characters make their way into the main narrative and eventually branch out to add their own stories to the mix: Ricky’s ex-girlfriend Adrian gets a pregnancy plot of her own in the third season, Catholic poster-child Grace goes through multiple boyfriends and sexcapades as she learns to strike a balance between her faith and her sexuality, and Amy’s mother (played by Molly Ringwald, of all people) comes out as gay after getting a divorce from her husband. Plenty of other minor, and frankly uninteresting, storylines appear over the seasons, and therein lies one of the biggest flaws of the show.

 

Not only is the entirety of the show dreadfully acted (with the exception of a few erratically decent performances), but the many plot points it tries to stuff into one TV show is overwhelming and takes away from whatever message they were trying to send to their audience. One minute it’s tackling teen pregnancy, the next teen sexuality, and the next homeschooling. Don’t get me wrong––these are experiences that teenagers go through and that deserve air time, but on a show where the premise is a fifteen-year-old getting pregnant, these plot points seem hastily and unnecessarily crammed in. If it had been a show about, say, the general experiences of teenagers in America, it would make more sense. But as a show that mainly focuses on sex and its consequences for still-maturing young people, narratives including things like a supporting character jetting off to Africa to study medicine for the summer don’t make much sense.

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The show also makes the mistake of following some of the characters outside of high school. Whether or not you’re still considered a teenager in college is up for debate, but most would agree that the experiences you have as a university student are drastically different from those you’ve had in high school. Having these immensely dissimilar settings in one show––especially one that spends the majority of its time in high school in its earlier seasons––just feels overly ambitious, like the creators tried to fit too much content in too little time.

Despite The Secret Life’s gawky writing and poor acting, I have to give it credit for creating such a direct and accessible platform for teenage pregnancy and sex. At that time, I don’t think any other show targeted for teenagers was quite as open about the topic, with the possible exception of Degrassi. I don’t remember any episodes of Hannah Montana or Drake and Josh, for instance, that discussed sex the way that The Secret Life did––or at all, really.

I also give The Secret Life immense credit for having a supporting character with Down syndrome treated like a normal human being. His disability is present but is not highlighted as an integral part of his personality, and the show has him go through experiences like getting a job, getting a girlfriend, getting his heart broken by said girlfriend, arguing with his sister, standing up for his family and friends, and rebelling against his parents. The show does this without casting him off as a token disabled character, as many other shows unfortunately do when they choose to include a handicapped person in their narrative.

All in all, I’d say this show was the equivalent of having The Talk with your dad as a teenage girl––strange, awkward, uncomfortably funny and clumsily executed. Yet when you take a step back and examine its intentions, you realize that it was just doing its best to start a conversation on a topic that not too many teen TV shows seemed to want to discuss in the late 2000s. In many ways, it did set the stage for other (arguably better) TV shows like Glee, 90210, and The Fosters to prominently feature teen pregnancy as a way to raise awareness of the consequences of sex among middle- and high-schoolers. Despite The Secret Life’s oftentimes ridiculously inept attempts at both humor and gravity, it’s a heartfelt attempt on behalf of ABC Family to make a difficult subject matter more accessible to teens and their parents alike.

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