by Elli Stuhler
Fifteen-year-olds getting knocked up seems a little real for American primetime television. But with the Knocked Up and Juno trend, one woman, none other than Brenda Hampton of the Christian drama 7th Heaven, decided to clean up the issue and get her preach on. After skyrocketing ratings on ABC the show is now being aired on MuchMusic.
A brief synopsis, if you will: The Secret Life of the American Teenager is about 15-year-old Amy Juergens (Shailene Woodley) whose life is turned sideways after a one-night stand at band camp with troubled ladies’ man Ricky Underwood (Daren Kagasoff). The innocent romp ends in teenage pregnancy and a whole lot of awkwardness. From there, the show follows Amy’s obstacles, her relationship with the adorable Ben Boykevich (Ken Baumann) and the failing marriage of her parents, along with a slew of other characters with problems of their own. Amy’s mother, by the way, is played by Molly Ringwald, who’s the cherry on this teenager-entertainment-sundae, along with sprinkles of pregnancy, PG sex, drama, and divorce. Sadly there is no John Hughes in the mix but I guess you just can’t have everything.
Now that the Secret Life is being aired in Canada, Shailene Woodley, 18, and Daren Kagasoff, 22, paid a three-day visit to their northern neighbours to promote the show. In between appearances on Muchnews and MOD I had a chance to have a sit down with them at the MuchMusic headquarters and chat about The Secret Life.
“The show explores family life as well as high school life and it dives into divorce and child abuse and fathers who leave their kids … it kind of deals with every aspect of life you can imagine at fifteen,” says Shailene. Her hair is dramatically parted to the side; the commas and periods of her dialogue are accompanied by a swift flick of the head to get her hair out of her heavily lashed eyes. The girl’s been acting since she was five; she’s played the role of Kaitlin Cooper in season one of The OC and even had a small part in Not Another Teen Movie. “[Acting’s] always been a hobby,” she says, “It’s always been school and then acting. I never really got into soccer or anything like that …it makes me feel good doing it.”
Now that she’s no longer playing someone’s little sister and has the spotlight on her, she and the Secret Life gang are cleaning up at the Teen Choice Awards. Eleven nominations and two wins, including Choice Summer TV Show and Choice Summer TV Male for Daren, prove what this show may lack in critical acclaim, it makes up for in viewer popularity.
Awards aside, the one problem The Secret Life faces is presenting grim realities of teenage and family life for primetime PG viewing. While it’s not an easy balance, the show does take place in TV-land where insightful piano ballads fade in when something meaningful happens and where 16-year-olds openly talk about losing their virginity with their young, sexy parents. “You’ve got to keep the viewers interested, some things are definitely not realistic the way it’s portrayed,” says Shailene, “I think the basis of the show is very truthful.” The girl has a point. For a show that competes with Gossip Girl and The Hills, it does sway away from the perfect TV lives of spoiled rich kids by presenting problems that would actually happen in real life. Instead, as Daren puts it, it “shows the consequences of what happens when you do get pregnant in high school, how to deal with it and what obstacles you have to overcome to get past it. I don’t think the show glamourizes anything.”
And since it’s a product of Brenda Hampton, the moral value of the show is extreme. Integrated lessons are ever-present and even embedded in the script throughout the show. In the one episode I watched, a scene about sex before marriage takes place and three different characters at different times curl their faces into a repulsed sneer as they dismiss teen drinking. A little redhead even says people who drink smell bad. Ouch.
Having said that, those damn kids could use a little morality- and if it comes during primetime, one slow piano ballad fade-in at a time- then so be it.