I've been trying to make a change in the television shows and films I review. I've become known for attacking television shows and certain films so I wanted to make an effort to find things to write positive reviews for. Then I watched The Secret Life of the American Teenager.
I'll try to keep this short and non-preachy.
This show is about a young woman who has a baby at the age of 15, keeps it and dwells within a group of friends who are focused on sex, God, blind faith, gossip, death, pregnancy and sex. This is a teen / preteen drama with comedy mixed in to make things seem a little lighter. Keep in mind that this series is viewed as a positive, enriching form of entertainment by the religious right TV Networks.
I won't profile the characters here. They're not worth the effort. The characters are shallow, single minded, emotionally parasitic simpletons. I'm not just talking about the 'ensemble' of teenagers, but the adults as well. If I were reading it in screenplay format I'd need to keep cast notes close at hand to continually remind myself which characters are adults and which are teens. There's little difference for the most part. There are few adults who display any social intelligence or seem to have evolved past high school. Another big problem with this show is that the characters don't have hobbies, many talents or traits that help them stand out. They're all cardboard cutout archetypes with no depth.
I've seen school plays and short stories from the desks of nine year olds that manage to cram more craft into their work. The dialogue is flat. The lines focus on a topic and repeat the core word over and over again. Example:
Adult 1: “What's your real reason for moving out? Is it so you can have sex anytime you want?”
Ricky: “Well I would like some privacy for those times when I want to have sex. You know I have sex.”
Adult 1: “I know and I don't like it.”
Adult 2: “But we know it's a fact of life and we can't ignore it.”
Adult 1: “Why don't you give up having sex for a while and see how that goes. That is an option. A cheaper option that moving out of the house so you can have sex.”
Ricky: “It's not just to have sex, I swear! I want some time alone for myself too. It's healthy to be alone sometimes. I'm never alone! I love you both and I love that you take care of all the kids who ussually are all around here. But I have no time alone. Not here, not at school, not at work, not at Amy's (His baby mamma), it's never just me. Or just me and Amy and John! And it's just going to get worse. Her mom's having a baby.”
For clarity, Amy is the Teen's baby momma, John is his newborn son. The show resolves this plot line with his boss (his baby momma's boyfriend's dad), giving him a one room apartment above his place of work for “a few dollars towards utilities.” Oh, and I'm sure you guessed it, the focus word here is sex.
Entire conversations go on like this.
I understand the motivation behind this kind of writing. There are a lot of names for it, but let's call it 'keyword writing' for the purpose of this review. They drop keywords (like sex), to ensure that their audience always knows what the topic is and so those keywords keep hitting certain psychological triggers. They used to do this for material written for developmentally challenged children (in the 60's to the late 80's), but most educational writers don't anymore because it becomes a barrier to reading normal material. Developmental children need to be challenged a little so they can eventually read at a grade nine or higher level. This show is written at a grade four language level.
The major plotlines include; A girl whose father dies on the same night she loses her virginity. She believed that God punished her out of wedlock activities by killing her father for several episodes until a cardboard cutout of a Priest / Reverend told her everything was fine. Another major plotline focuses on a woman becoming pregnant after sleeping with her soon to be ex-husband, who lied about getting a vasectomy. She's engaged to another man. My third example involves the star of the show telling one adult after another that she and her newborn son is going to Italy for the summer with her boyfriend (not the father), and that no one can stop her. No one seems to realize that this girl needs a reality check, it happens so often that it's a running theme.
The direction in this show is actually very good. They make good use of the sets, props and of subtle background motion to establish a scene fast and show all the performers in the appropriate light for the scene. I hope the directors and the rest of the background crew are just padding their resumes so they can move on to a much better show. I've seen work from most of the directors who have signed up to do episodes of this series and the performances on the other series are much, much better. That leads me to conclude that the script and lack of acting talent is exactly what's killing every single scene, not the directing. To quote Harrison Ford; “You can write this shit but you can't say it!”
Most performances on this show are equal. They're beneath amateur. I've seen better puppet shows. I could do better wearing a hockey mask while being water boarded and I'm not known for my acting for good reason. A few of the better performers include: Ken Bauman, Jorge Pallo, Steve Schirripa, John Schneider (who left the show), and a couple of others. They don't get enough screen time to enrich the quality of the show. In fact they only get enough time to give you a momentary relief from the exasperatingly bad performances rendered by the other actors.
Soap Box Statement:
Okay, so I said I'd keep this review un-preachy. Not bloody possible. If the average North American teenager is as breathtakingly stupid as the characters in this show the western world is utterly, hopelessly lost. Doomed. North America will look and feel like one great big trailer park in twenty to thirty years thanks to television shows like this that make teenage pregnancy look like it's not a big deal, dresses up thirteen year olds like prostitutes, and takes the art of conversation to a low unlike I've ever seen.
Thankfully, I know that this show isn't a reflection of teenage life in America. There are a lot of teens who are very energetic, intelligent and adventurous. They enjoy texting, reading, interaction with people of all ages and socializing intelligently while engaging in a wide variety of hobbies.
The most frightening thing about this series is that there are teens and pre-teens whose parents are so absent or incompetent that they aspire to be like the teens in this show. They're out there, teenage pregnancy is on the rise, high school completion is in decline and yet more of this sort of television is being produced every year because the most desperate, unchallenged teens tune in like the little lost people they are.
In my opinion, there are no redeeming points to this television show. If archeologists find a copy in the rubble three thousand years from now and they use it as a record of our cultural behavior they'd conclude that we were a bunch of gossiping, single minded, selfish, rutting idiots who were doomed from the start.
I hope they find Gilligan's Island instead. They might come to appreciate our sense of humor.