"Teen pregnancy is 100% preventable," Ken Baumann says in the public-service spot that airs after each episode of "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," which began its second season last week. On the show (ABC Family, 8 p.m. Mondays), Baumann plays Ben, the faithful, hypersympathetic, hard-up boyfriend of Amy (Shailene Woodley), who at the end of last season, at age 15, gave birth to a son. The son isn't Ben's; the father is Ricky (Daren Kagasoff), a swarthy teen Lothario with limitless libido and even greater abandonment issues.
So, of course, Baumann would be the cast member to issue that proclamation: He's not having sex! Of the six main characters on this show, his Ben is the only one who remains a virgin, and this season, his understanding ways are beginning to morph into bitterness. Even Grace (Megan Park) and Jack (Greg Finley), the show's most religious couple, gave in at the end of last week's premiere. Grace drizzled her bed with rose petals in preparation for the deed.
"How do you feel emotionally?" Jack asked Grace afterward.
"I feel stronger than I ever have," she replied, almost believing herself. "I feel satisfied. I feel no shame. It's a natural and beautiful thing. And it's fun too."
But the naive glow of the first time didn't last long. Moments later, Grace's mother, Kathleen (Josie Bissett), arrived home in tears: Grace's father, Marshall (John Schneider), has just died in a plane crash. Last season, sex led to the creation of life. Now it's clear: Sex means death.
These open-palm slaps of morality are regular occurrences on "Secret Life," which sells Christian-lite values under a mask of sensationalism and titillation. Indeed, the show it most recalls is "Undressed," the 1990s MTV teen drama consisting of hamhanded sex-themed sketches -- erotic PSAs. Often, the show feels like it was written by and for a gaggle of 12-year-old boys hunched furtively over a tattered copy of Playboy. In other words, its main hot-button issues are discussed in a way that suggests unfamiliarity. A significant portion of last week's premiere was devoted to the (increasing) size of Amy's breasts, with that word being uttered so many times as to be completely desexualized.
Or perhaps its dunderheadedness is a strategy. "Secret Life" features telenovela-level mayhem, including an unreasonably sexualized air, even for teenagers, and a complete breakdown of the family ecosystem. Last week, the only traditional two-parent home on the show was ripped apart by the death of Grace's father. (Though Steve Schirripa, as Ben's father, Leo, remains this show's rock, and its only example of calm, unconditional love and measured acting.)
What's more, the show's ethical center is forever moving. In its first two episodes, this season has set about ensuring the redemption of last season's greatest louts. Ricky has emerged as a responsible and competent father -- the baby only stops crying in his arms -- and a provider, holding down a job at Leo's butcher shop. And Amy's father, George (Mark Derwin), has separated from his wife, Anne (Molly Ringwald), and moved next door, taking the couple's younger daughter, Ashley (the glorious dry wit India Eisley), with him. Out of the house, though, and almost out of the marriage, he's turned into a nurturer, helping Amy with the baby and even comforting Kathleen (his ex-wife) after Marshall's death.
Instead, it's the show's women who are losing grip. Amy is frayed at the edges by balancing motherhood with school, and Anne is portrayed as alternately besieged and bitter. She has a new job and boyfriend, leading her to shirk her grandmotherly duties. And last week, she discovered she's pregnant, thereby negating her last bit of parental leverage. If she's being irresponsible, how can she advise Amy?
It's another broad stroke of moral storytelling: "Secret Life" is allergic to nuance. All dates result in love and serious relationships. Every woman is a potential baby mama -- except, oddly enough, Adrian (Francia Raisa), the show's most promiscuous and sexually assured character. This week, her father, who's returned to her life after years of absence, asks her why she chooses not to use drugs or alcohol. "I want to be stone cold sober when I have sex," she says. "I don't want to make any mistakes. I don't want to make any bad choices. Or forget to take care of myself."
It's by far the most reasonable sentiment uttered on this show to date: Here is someone who takes responsibility for her behavior. Maybe it's a misstep, or maybe it's subversive sex education, but it seems like the best way to prevent teen pregnancy is action, not talk.