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TELEVISION REVIEW

Sex-crazed teenagers

'The Secret Life of the American Teenager' is one-track-mind adolescence as scripted by grown-up television writers.

July 01, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic

What with the infamous teen pregnancies of Gloucester, Mass., and tween queen Jamie Lynn Spears having her baby, and the success of last year's “Juno,” a TV series about a pregnant high school freshman should not come as a shock. Television has been getting young girls pregnant for years, anyway.

Brenda Hampton, of the nearly unstoppable “7th Heaven,” is the creator of ABC's “The Secret Life of the American Teenager," which gives us half-gawky Amy (Shailene Woodley), who has lost her virginity at band camp to school Lothario Ricky (Daren Kagasoff). As the series begins, she returns home with a pregnancy test hidden in the bell of her French horn. Her waiting mother is played by Molly Ringwald, who was once famously an American teenager herself, and indeed played a pregnant one in the 1988 film "For Keeps." She is why some of us will watch this in the first place.

In tonight's opening episode, however, Ringwald is only a fleeting, sub-June Cleaver presence. She microwaves a pot roast, frets that Amy is spending too much time at band practice -- "You're only young once, you should have a little fun," she says as the irony bells ring out -- and agrees with her husband that their 13-year-old younger daughter (India Eisley) should not go around displaying her 13-year-old navel. (We are allowed to see it, however.)

The tone of the pilot careens between an after-school special and "American Pie," with a bit of "Pretty in Pink" grabbed along the way. It is almost all about sex -- and a little bit about family, but the subject there is largely sex, as well, and why it's not for the young. The sexually active kids we meet are either made unhappy by having it, or they're having it because they're unhappy. (Ricky's compulsion to sleep with every girl who crosses his path is shown to spring from his having been molested by his father.) Amy confides of her deflowering: "I'm not even sure it was sex. It wasn't fun and definitely not like what you see in the movies."

Or they're unhappy because they've never had it. In a most improbable conversation (in a show full of them, nerdy wiseacre Ben (Kenny Baumann) -- who has decided almost arbitrarily to pursue Amy by getting himself into the marching band -- tells his guidance counselor: "To be perfectly honest, Mark, it's all motivated by the fact that I'm 15, I'm a virgin, and if I want to have a sex life I've got to start somewhere."

Or, like guilty Christian football hero Jack (Greg Finley), they're unhappy because they want sex in the first place. Jack is distressed by the fact that his purity-ring-wearing cheerleader girlfriend Grace (Megan Park) won't sleep with him until they're married, and won't get married until she's out of medical school. (He inquires whether oral sex is sex, to which she sensibly answers that it is.) In spite of a prayer offered in a pregame football huddle ("Let us not be distracted by the women who are here to lead us into situations that will lead us into hell and destroy our souls forever"), he lets himself be seduced by Adrian (Francia Raisa), the school vamp and drum majorette. (She bites an apple at him, Eve-like.) Then he really goes to pieces.

Two performers stand out. Woodley is appealing as a kid in over her head. There is something quite touching in the way her face provisionally lights up as she hopefully grasps at straws. (No dice, though, she's definitely pregnant.) She's the girl you would usually cast as the little sister thrust into the big sister part.

The other is Park ("Life With Derek"), who makes a person out of a role that could easily read as a joke. She has a nice blend of daffiness, and is self-assured in a way that overcomes her being forced to assert and reassert her churchgoing and belief in Jesus. (It is supposed to make her a sort of brave oddball, I think -- "7th Heaven" was about a pastor's family, after all -- though the last I looked, there were plenty of Christians around.) Her father is played by John Schneider, who was a Duke of Hazzard and, more recently, Pa Kent, and her brother is played by Luke Zimmerman, who has Down syndrome.

For anyone other than a teenager looking for yet another mirror in which to regard a glorified version of themselves, "Secret Life" has, on the early evidence, little to offer. It feels thin, mechanical and confused. Even so, I am keeping my fingers crossed for the sake of Molly Ringwald. I would hope that once Amy makes her pregnancy known, Ringwald -- undoubtedly the only actress to have worked with both John Hughes and Jean-Luc Godard -- will have more interesting things to do, in a variety of flavors.

I have my doubts, though.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'The Secret Life of the American Teenager'

Where: ABC Family

When: 8 to 9 tonight

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14)

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