I'm inherently suspicious of any channel or program with "family" in its title. Too much well-intentioned flotsam gets lumped under that banner, whether around-the-clock airings of "Short Circuit" on HBO's no-booze-or-boobies offshoot or teen town meetings about A Very Important Issue moderated by Linda Ellerbee. This doesn't even begin to mention all the after-school specials affixed with the "family" tag -- the ones in which a single toot of cocaine sends sweet blonde Belinda into delinquency and disrepair, "Billy Likes Ballet," etc.
That's why it pissed me off when my cable provider added ABC Family to its hi-def tier ahead of highbrow LD favorites like Comedy Central and ESPNews. Every time I flipped by, I got a low-rent vibe from the channel, owing both to its after-hours infomercials -- don't miss "Slimming Jeans" at 2:30 a.m. ET tonight! -- and to its worship of sitcoms that make me want to punch the fictional protagonists in the throat.
I should've tuned in during prime-time before forming an opinion, as ABC Family has done as much in the last year to carve out a distinct identity as any media entity on the planet. To this end, I direct you toward its flagship program, "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," which should bolster the net's creative and commercial cred in much the same way that "Mad Men" did AMC's.
The show hinges on a premise as familiar as a pep rally: 15-year-old nice girl/virgin Amy gets knocked up at band camp (ain't that always the way?) by brooding rebel with well-carved cheekbones Ricky. Alongside her largely supportive family and friends, she struggles with the short- and long-term implications of her pregnancy, all the while attempting to maintain some modicum of normalcy in her young life.
What distinguishes "Secret Life" from most other teen-centric dramas is the thoughtfulness with which it tackles the subject matter. It doesn't preach or moralize or dote on the keep-it/abort-it debate (though it does plug StayTeen.org at the end of each episode). Rather, the show says, "Here is this character's reality" and nonjudgmentally observes the impact on everybody in her personal orbit: chaste pals, slutty pals, straying moms, straying dads, earnest boyfriends with slightly distended Adam's Apples, etc. Think the "Beverly Hills, 90210" update, but with heart, conscience, brains and appropriate body-mass indexes.
I can't vouch for the authenticity of the teen scenarios -- I'm an oldfella whose high-school experience revolved around Van Halen and stickball -- but "Secret Life" feels real to me. The young characters come across as naïve, defensive, warm, optimistic and glum, often within the same scene. The dialogue sounds true, even during the too-frequent romantic tussles. Whoever's writing this stuff has obviously spent a lot of time soaking up prattle and lingo at the mall (or at Chez Facebook, or wherever the hell teenagers congregate nowadays).
I wish the producers would've spent more time developing the show's secondary characters and selecting actors to inhabit them. "Secret Life" loses punch when they take center stage, whether Amy's male classmates (mostly bland jock/stud types) or her obnoxiously manic father (the problem lies in the performance, rather than in how the character is drawn). The show redeems itself with the sound casting of Amy (Shailene Woodley, in one of the truest portrayals of teen frustration since Claire Danes roamed the small screen) and especially her perceptive younger sister Ashley (India Eisley, a bundle of nerves and hurt). And heck to Samantha Baker, it's jarring to learn not only that Molly Ringwald has evolved into a fine dramatic actress, but also that she's aged enough to be cast as a TV mom. I'm going to die soon, aren't I?
I'm not sure why "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" hasn't migrated to over to ABC proper. No, family-friendly programming hasn't thrived in network prime-time since the heyday of "7th Heaven" -- but then, neither has quirky fare like "Pushing Daisies" or "Eli Stone." I'd give "Secret Life" a shot during the 8 p.m. hour and see how it performs. It's far from a great show -- it could learn a few things from the slyness and subtlety of "My So-Called Life" -- but it's smart, edgy, sweet and just plain different in a way that could connect with the young-adult set. Better this than another WB-ish tart-fest, anyway.