Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Secret Life of BeansTalk's Managing Editor

An Oh-So Reluctant Omission

A look at how teens at a Midwestern high school struggle with decisions about sex and relationships. One model student and daughter succumbs to the charms of the school Romeo and finds herself knocked up; another good girl, a popular, ambitious virgin, doesn't realize her boyfriend's stamina for abstinence is not as strong as hers; and one good boy determined to become a bad boy finds that pursuing the object of his affection only brings out the good in him.

It’s like a car wreck on the side of the freeway. You can’t stop watching. Well, this doesn’t wholly apply because we actually can not look at accidents we pass in traffic, but what what we reluctantly admit is that while the rest of the staff sleeps, we watch ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of The American Teenager,” promoted as “a new kind of family.”

Yeah, right.

The ideal way to describe this series? A several hours long after-school special. They don’t make those anymore, do they? Well, they actually do, but now they’re aired in prime time on cable. On ABC Family, in fact.

SLOAAT features 80's icon (and one-time Time magazine cover girl) Molly Ringwald. But since she’s long past her own 16 Candles, she plays the mother of Amy, the unluckiest high school sophomore ever portrayed on television.

We hope that somewhere between Gossip Girl, The Hills (we’re not even sure if they’re supposed to be in high school or if it’s a reality show), the forthcoming “new” 90210 and this dreary dreck of a show, lies a series, somewhere, that will present something nominally resembling actual high school.

Our big beef about the original 90210 was that it was set at Beverly Hills High School (or the fictional West Beverly or whatever it was) and yet there were no Persian students. We're assuming that Aaron Spelling and co were familiar with Beverly Hills High, so we can only assume it was a blatant, conscious omission. (The sharply witty 1995 Clueless not only got cliques dead on, director Amy Heckerling’s star Cher (Alicia Silverstone) explains, “And that’s the Persian Mafia. You can’t hang with them unless you own a BMW.’" It's not clear in the slightest what city, state or universe (or year, for that matter) SLOAAT is set.

In this invention, sweet band geek Amy (think of a taller version of the proverbial “girl next door”), played by Shailene Woodley, finds herself pregnant and deeply regretful after an unsatisfying one-night de-virginization at band camp (yes, it does lead one to think "One night, at band camp...". Amy's erstwhile slick seducer is the school sex addict (and, of course, drummer), Ricky Underwood (Daren Kagasoff), a foster child fighting the trauma of sexual abuse from his father. Ricky, blasé about his relentless sexual predatory ways, has sessions with his earnest, emotional therapist (who really, really cares) (played by one-time Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson).

The scenes with Hudson and Kagasoff ring so profoundly phony and was undoubtedly part of creator Brenda Hampton’s pitch to give the series (albeit superficial) depth. TSLOTAT cad may not exactly have a heart of gold, but he’s getting help, damn it. Ricky may further be reformed through his burgeoning "friendship" with born-again Grace. Ricky comes complete with politically correct foster parents -- his foster mom is African American and his foster dad is East Indian. They deliver rote platitudes from a kitchen table, a set so temporary in appearance it looks like it was set up for Candid Camera or the Jamie Kennedy Experiment.

Amy has a goth-y 13-year-old sister Ashley, played by India Eisley who has a bland completely unemotional delivery. One can only assume that Eisley, a Mia Tyler look-a-like, must be related to someone affiliated with the show. Ah. We’ve looked her up. She is a Hollywood "legacy." Her mother is Olivia Hussey (Franco Zeferilli’s classic Romeo and Juliet). While certainly beautiful, Eisley’s extraordinarily emotionless acting doesn’t resemble, in the slightest, her mother’s depth and passion (at the time of Zeferilli's film, her mother wasn’t that much older than Eisley).

The good girl, played by Megan Park (actually a pretty good actress), comes complete with a promise ring of chastity given to her by her Ken and Barbie parents (played by extremely blond 70s/80s TV stars John Schneider and Josie Bissett), is named, unsubtly, Grace. Poor Park. She is given the series’ emptiest, unrealistic, most cringe-inducing lines.

Hampton’s original collaboration with Aaron Spelling (for 7th Heaven) was curious given his previous productions and Hampton’s obvious Christian agenda. Yet that teaming was a rounding success.

ut Grace, her Melrose Place mother and her Dukes of Hazzard dad offer up such an insipid agenda, it seems ludicrous that the intent of the series is anything but to turn audiences off. Since the Jonas Brothers all wear those chastity rings, does that mean it should translate into credible family television? Schneider aka Bo Whoo-Hoo Duke, the Billy Ray Cyrus of his time, plays a doctor. A medical doctor. The kind who cures people.

Despite the fact that this is ABC Family, a blatant “message” series with a pro-Christian message, it is not recommended for children ("viewer-discretion advised") – and rightly so. BeansTalk readers know we are not prudish in the slightest, but we have to say it does give us slight pause the way smart-but-slutty Adrian Lee (Francia Raisa) seduces Grace’s blockhead boyfriend and how her “friends with benefits” relationship with Ricky is depicted. Adrian's stewardess mother (played by former Miss Universe runner-up Paola Turbay, who looks the exact same age as Raisa) brings a rotating door of lovers through their apartment and often leaves Adrian alone. Is it no wonder that Adrian turns to sleazy Ricky for love?

Meanwhile, Amy finds "true" love with geeky Ben Boykewich (Kenny Baumann), who not only offers to marry her (knowing the baby is Ricky’s), but with his father’s support and enthusiasm. Again, a return to the “what universe” file – what dad would cheer on the marriage of his 15-year-old son to a 15-year-old girl, pregnant with another boy’s baby? For that matter, Baumann (who is adorable, by the way) is such an odd cast – he seems like he should be in a half-hour comedy. Each time he delivers a line, we half expect a joke to emerge – but the lines he's given are so heartily earnest and it just doesn’t suit the actor.

Baumann also comes complete with two best friends, an Asian couple who decide to "wait" to have intercourse. (Just an aside -- the male half of the Asian couple, Henry Miller, is played by a Filipino, Allen Evangelista. Shout out to the peeps.)

Amy laments how fat she’s getting, mom Molly Ringwald says, “It’s O.K., Amy, your dad loves you, your sister loves you, and I love you.” Amy to her 13-year-old sister, "You don't need condoms Ashley, just say no!" Inane much?

Did we mention that Amy’s dad has left her mom to live with the woman he’s having an affair with, who happens to be bad-girl Adrian’s mother?

They’ve been telling this tale forever. They’re still making them. They’re called soap operas.

It’s all so icky, but if we endure it, we want to share.