July 1, 2008

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Joanne Weintraub Column: ?Secret Life’ Could Use a Few Surprises

By Joanne Weintraub, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Jul. 1--Watching the first episode of Brenda Hampton's new family drama makes it clearer than ever why her previous one, the 1996-2007 "7th Heaven," ran for so long on the WB and CW networks.

The characters are glib and funny -- Anne (Molly Ringwald) calls her 15-year-old daughter Amy's (Shailene Woodley, "The O.C.") tyrannical high school band director "that Kim Jong-Il wannabe" -- but loving, vulnerable and believably conflicted in their relationships.

The kids are more than just an assortment of "types." Amy's sister, 13-year-old Ashley (India Eisley), is a junior punk cynic to Amy's high-achieving good girl, yet they're not so radically different that they don't even seem like siblings.

And the adults, in contrast to the forgettable parents and teachers of so many teen-focused series, are more than ciphers. If you're going to round up Ringwald, John Schneider ("Smallville"), Josie Bissett ("Melrose Place"), Ernie Hudson ("Oz"), Steve Schirippa ("The Sopranos") and Mark Derwin ("One Life to Live"), among others, you'd better give them something to work with -- and Hampton doesn't fail them.

But for all her expertise, Hampton is fairly conventional, too, and despite its teasing title, the pilot of "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" seldom throws you a curve.

Its population is attractive and securely middle-class, its high school setting full of well-scrubbed faces, those faces principally white -- most notably in the starring roles -- with a careful sprinkling of other colors.

The script regularly falls back on the beloved cliches of family drama, with Anne telling Amy, "I made pot roast -- your favorite," as if a parent has to remind a teen what the kid's favorite dinner is.

The secret lives that Amy and most of her friends are living mostly have to do with sex. Some are having it, while others are thinking about it, but virtually all of them are preoccupied with it.

Now's as good a time as any to note that this isn't unusual for an ABC Family show. The name of the channel may strike more conservative parents as something like deceptive advertising: This is a place where your kids can hear the act of intercourse described with a phrase that's too vulgar for use in this newspaper.

On the other hand, sometimes the frankness is a breath of fresh air. When was the last time you heard one TV teen character maintain that oral sex isn't really sex, and another, more mature one argue: No, that's exactly what it is.

If you've seen the promotions for the show, it's not giving anything away to reveal that, early on, Amy -- a participant in a single night of sexual relations with a boy she barely knows -- learns she's pregnant.

How she, her friends and family deal with this news forms the central plot thread of the series. Woven around this, and expanding on it, are the sexual struggles of her friends and classmates.

Grace (Megan Park) is a beautiful cheerleader and devout Christian who promises her parents -- and herself -- that she'll remain a virgin until she marries. Jack (Greg Finley) is her boyfriend, whose inclinations lead him in a different direction.

Adrian (Francia Raisa) is outgoing, flirtatious and confident, perhaps to a fault. Ben (Kenny Baumann) is a sweet, hopeful nerd who's determined to get closer to Amy, but who doesn't know her secret.

Props to Hampton and the show's other producers for casting an actor with Down syndrome, Luke Zimmerman, as Tom, Grace's brother. Tom's chatty, laid-back presence at the dinner table seems as natural to this fictional family as to many thousands of real ones.

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