Tom Shales Previews MTV's Documentary Series '16 and Pregnant'

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 2009

Although they tend to be scheduled erratically and under-publicized, the documentaries that pop up on MTV are often respectable, eye-opening and imaginatively produced. In the case of the latest, "16 and Pregnant," the relevancy of the topic is inarguable, and yet it's also something of a hardy perennial, since teenage pregnancies have long inflicted onerous practical and emotional burdens on the young women, and men, involved.

In fact, says MTV, teenage births are "on the rise for the first time in 15 years," making the six hour-long case studies that make up "16 and Pregnant" especially urgent. The first, at 10 tonight, tells the story of Maci and Ryan, two kids from Chattanooga, Tenn., who try to cope with parenthood years before they're ready.

Maci, who has beautiful long red hair and misty eyes, faces the problem realistically, perhaps inspired at least a little by the heroine of "Juno," the 2007 film about a girl (played by Ellen Page) in the same basic situation. Unfortunately, Maci's boyfriend, Ryan, though well-meaning at first, isn't as supportive, or at least as sweet-natured, as the boy played by Michael Cera in the film.

He's all right during the pregnancy, it appears, but soon after little Bentley is born ("Bentley"? Well, "Rolls-Royce" would have been worse), Maci starts feeling as though she is "taking care of two babies." In her voice-over narration, the only spoken commentary in the show, she vows that "I'm not going to let having a baby slow me down," signing up for courses at a community college, working part time in her father's office and taking ample advantage of her mother's availability as a babysitter.

But though Ryan shares an apartment with Maci and their son, he won't share parenting duties. He's petrified of changing a diaper and not much more comfortable at feeding time, finding it convenient to run out and play pool with friends. At home, he's not so much couch potato as couch zucchini, lying down and staring sideways at the TV. When the baby cries, he always sees it as Maci's problem, then complains that arguing with her about the baby is "wearing me out."

Ryan's idea of being a good father is to have the baby's name tattooed on his torso.

The tone is not preachy; nor does the documentary have "cautionary tale" plastered all over it. It is intriguing just as a slice of American life, even for those who are not targets for its message. We all know that being parents younger than 18 is no picnic, and that it cuts short many pleasurable things about the last sweet years of youth. What happens to Maci and Ryan in the show -- from the time she is 32 weeks pregnant until the baby is 4 months old -- may be predictable, but it's undeniably real.

While they try to live as "normally" as they can, Maci and Ryan learn quickly that a baby doesn't go away on business trips or even out for long walks or nights on the town; they are very rarely alone. And Bentley is too young to cut commercials for E-Trade. Basically, he cries, eats, sleeps and fills diapers, those quintessential baby specialties, so it's little wonder Maci finds herself "going stir-crazy" and feeling trapped.

We don't really learn whether she considered alternatives to having the baby or raising it; Maci certainly has no arrangement with a childless couple as Juno did in the movie. Future episodes in the series, profiling other teen mothers and fathers, will broach additional issues likely to arise. To judge from the first entry, the project -- executive-produced by Morgan J. Freeman -- merits an "A" for effort and for execution as well.

Cable channels abound with quickie documentaries on easily sensationalized subjects -- 1,100-pound slugabeds, people who have humongous "elephant man" tumors, everything but the proverbial two-headed calf. And many of MTV's own "reality" shows are nothing but weird and kinky adventures in voyeurism. "16 and Pregnant" is in a far more reputable, well-intended and potentially helpful realm, proving that Good TV can materialize even where least expected.

16 and Pregnant (one hour) premieres tonight at 10 on MTV.

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