If you've ever wondered what's so secret about The Secret Life of the American Teenager, watching one episode might convince you that very little is—especially when it comes to sex. Show creator Brenda Hampton (of 7th Heaven fame) told Variety magazine that the original title was The Sex Life of the American Teenager. Frankly, that moniker would have been more appropriate.
Right from its birds-and-bees-laden title sequence, the show has always been preoccupied with sex and all its many, many trappings. Teens hook up, break up and make up with startling frequency, ushering into the show a host of hot-button issues ranging from promiscuity and abstinence to abortion and child abuse. While the first season focused primarily on teen pregnancy (the upshot of Amy Juergens' and Ricky Underwood's one-night stand at band camp) and a whole lot of "will-they, won't-they" tension, the show's scope has subsequently broadened.
No longer do viewers worry about who's going to have sex with whom, as most of 'em have already had it. Now, the overarching concern is who'll stay together, and why. As such, we have teens getting married. Teens getting divorced. Teens living together. Teens raising kids of their own while trying to finish high school. But really, all of that is still a derivative of the show's original DNA, which blended adolescent sex, love and commitment into a curious stew—one that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
Back in 2008, when this series premiered, ABC Family vice president Kate Juergens told the Parents Television Council, "We're not sugar-coating teenage pregnancy, but dealing with the very real consequences of it." Since then, as the show has soldiered on, its stilted dialogue does sometimes try to grapple with sex, love and commitment with a sense of vague responsibility, even foisting a low-grade moral or two on its viewers. An example: When Ben mulls leaving his new wife, Adrian, Ricky tries to talk some sense into him. "Just wait it out, Ben," he says. "Just wait it out. You got married for the wrong reasons, maybe you'll stay together for the right reasons."
But little glimmers of conscience like that don't mitigate the fact that Secret Life is a servile soap—as explicit in its own way as Gossip Girl (and with far less artistic merit). It halfheartedly tries to convince viewers that sex comes with a set of consequences, but the tawdry final product seems more like a salute to children making adult-size decisions and searching for happiness, even though what makes these teens happy may change next week.
And while the teens do have parents who sometimes get semi-involved in their lives, rarely do they do much more than shrug their shoulders (or occasionally scowl) when it comes to their children's salacious exploits. Instead, they help to keep the focus on that "happy" quotient, rather than on what might be the right decision.
In addition to all that sexual stuff, Secret Life has also been known to take a sideways swipe or two at Christians. Grace had been a poster child for True Love Waits, yet in Season 1 she tells a classmate, "I can no longer wait, because I need sex. I want sex. I feel like having sex! And you know what? Those feelings come from love. And God is love. And I feel sure that God is OK with me making love!"
Grace does have sex, and her mother catches her and her teen lover immediately after learning that Grace's father has died in a plane crash. "You killed him!" Grace's brother yells at her, introducting some seriously muddled theology (premarital sex equals bad, parent-killing karma) to the mix.
Author and youth culture expert Walt Mueller believes the show's themes and blatant sexual dialogue could inspire healthy discussion between parents and teens. But he also warns, "If that doesn't happen, the show could function as a pretty powerful mentor and map for kids looking for sexual and relational guidance."
Plugged In's Bob Smithouser turned that thought into this analogy when the series got started: "In Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park, scientists clone dinosaurs by using DNA extracted from prehistoric mosquitoes. But there are gaps in the genetic code. So they substitute frog DNA in order to complete the strands and finish the job, which seems to do the trick—until that shortcut yields disastrous results. The same thing can happen with children and entertainment. Like Crichton's geneticists, young people attempt to make sense of their world by piecing together bits of information. When they face a decision and lack firsthand experience or a thorough understanding of an issue, they can subconsciously fill in those gaps with what they've seen in the media. Their frog DNA. That can be a risky proposition, especially for preteens developing expectations for their high school years based on TV dramas like The Secret Life of the American Teenager."
Some things on Secret Life change with the times, other things never do. The former is illustrated by a reporter hitting Jack with a Tim Tebow jab, you know, because they're both Christians and all. The latter by the fact that 90% of the conversations in this episode have to do with sex, just like they did four years ago when this series premiered.
Jack admits that it was sex with Grace that wrecked their relationship. So now that they're back together, they're "committed to abstinence for the time being." That's as committed as he gets. Sex is still A-OK for others, he says. Which brings us to Anne, Amy's mom. She's "newly gay" now, spending most of her time fishing for a girlfriend. "You need friends. Girlfriends. Lesbian girlfriends," she's told. And the next thing you know, there's a lesbian-only AA meeting going on in her living room. Really.
High school girls talk about smoking pot, and trying to hide it. And when one girl thinks she might have to switch schools, she says she won't. "I don't care what my parents say," she says. (She might as well be speaking for everyone on the show.) And what about those parents? When it comes to helping their kids make good decisions, George sums it up like this: "I can only be responsible for myself."
We hear about pregnancy fetishes and a sly wink at threesomes. Promise rings are deemed gateway drugs to sex. We hear a long talk about the perceived differences between moving in together and "staying over."
Jack gets threatened by a guy with a bat.
"Another One Closes"
George is upset that his daughter, Amy, is living with Ricky. "They were already having sex if that's what's been bothering you," ex-wife Anne tells him. But that news doesn't mollify Dad, and he tells Amy that she's not old enough to make this sort of decision. "We're not old enough or mature enough to have a 2-year-old son, either," Amy retorts.
Meanwhile, Adrian grieves a stillborn baby. "Do you think she exists in some way?" she asks new husband Ben. "In some other dimension or something?" "I'd like to think so," Ben says, adding that he'd like to believe those who've died are watching over them. But Ben is also telling friends that he's ready to end the marriage. And Adrian is scared he might follow through, admitting to her mother-in-law that she wouldn't blame him if he did. "I would!" the older woman tells her. "When you're married, you're married. And he was in it for better, and now he's in it for worse."
Elsewhere, Ricky and Amy make out on their bed. Several characters make sexual double entendres. "Fricking" stands in for the f-word.
Ben considers proposing to pregnant Adrian. He hopes to live with her and the baby, but she squelches his plans, saying, "We're just friends." Grace and new boyfriend Grant talk about having sex once she gets tested for STIs. She regrets losing her virginity to a boy who'd slept around and even calls herself a "disease-carrying skank." But Grant encourages her, saying, "This STI thing is a downside, but there's definitely an upside to having sex." Ricky awaits word on his STI test, and he and Amy are planning to have sex again based on the results.
Ricky's recovering alcoholic and drug-addicted birth mother is out of prison and back in his life. He wants to help and avoid her dysfunction, so he finds her a new place to live with supportive people … away from him.
Teens talk about skipping school, and a couple of them either do or lie about their reasons for arriving late. Ashley wants to homeschool herself, but when her school counselor visits the teen she has no books, no plan … and no consideration for others. God's name is misused a few times.