TV Preview: Tom Shales on 'The Secret Life of the American Teenager' Season 2

Ken Baumann is a standout on the show as Ben.
Ken Baumann is a standout on the show as Ben. (By Randy Holmes -- Abc Family)
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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 22, 2009

Those of us who wonder about things that don't really deserve wondering about have asked ourselves, "How are soap operas going to survive the rise of the cellphone?" After all, soaps depend on characters dropping in on each other willy-nilly, but who drops in when they can just place a call from anywhere in Springfield, or Pine Valley, or Peyton Place or wherever?

One answer presents itself in a scene from the Season 2 premiere of the surprise hit "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" on ABC Family tonight. One guy opens a door to find a friend of his standing there. "Hi," says the friend, and then, by way of explanation, "My telephone battery's dead." Aha! And when your battery's dead, you rush right over to somebody's house and have a big dramatic confrontation with them.

The cellphone reference is one of the few things about "Secret Life" that identifies it as being of our time, the early 21st century, when nearly everything else about it suggests the 1970s. It's a bald and unabashed throwback to soaps of ages past; only the prosaic topics of the conversations, and the level of candor, have been changed -- and not to protect the innocent, since there are precious few of those around.

How to explain the popularity of a show that makes no apparent attempt to camouflage artifice and superficiality? Easy: Those are its strong points. Among the many escapes that cable provides is an escape from modern times -- whether letting a viewer take refuge in the golden age of Hollywood on Turner Classic Movies or in the simple sitcoms of a slightly saner time on TV Land, Lifetime, the Hallmark Channel or others. "The Golden Girls" is a big smash all over again (and, it turns out, still wonderfully funny).

"The Secret Life of the American Teenager" is steeped in sex talk, especially on tonight's episode -- called "The Big One" -- but not really gritty or realistic sex talk. Characters say things like "Let's have sex tonight" and all we see of that are prefaces and postmortems, with most of their clothes on. It's a family show about the biology that makes families possible, with sex so heavily neutered and pasteurized that people might as well be talking about new flavors of yogurt.

The nominal star of the show -- at least its best-known performer -- is Molly Ringwald as Anne. Once a great American teenager herself in the now-classic movies of John Hughes, Ringwald is old enough to play the mother of a teenager, as depressing as that may be. The season premiere does blaze one new trail in terms of candor: Characters talk freely about how much weight Anne has put on and how she looks heavy enough to be pregnant, until the cat leaps out of the bag (and the rabbit dies, as used to be said a long time ago) and we learn the truth.

There's a sweet-natured banality to this series; it comes with its own comfort zone built in. So while high-tech prime-time crime shows dabble in hyperkinetics and sophisticated editing techniques, "Secret Life" is shot just as soaps used to be: overlit scenes of people planted to the floor, mostly, and talking talking talking -- reeling off exposition and inner thoughts in surprisingly rapid array. Most shots are one-shots -- a single character occupying the frame, then cut to the other person in the room, back and forth like table tennis.

On tonight's episode, there's only one scene with "exteriors" in it; most of the action take place indoors, staged in a series of interchangeable rooms that look as pristine and tidy as a new model home. The only disarray is in the characters' lives. Conversations tend to dwell on life, death, pregnancy, large breasts and sex, and you know someone will drop a nice, safe, fairly predictable bombshell every now and then.

The cast includes a large number of fresh faces (fresh except to those who are already fans of the show) and only a few familiar ones. In addition to Ringwald, the recognizable actors in tonight's show include the poignantly goofy Jennifer Coolidge as Betty, who the younger characters say looks like a hooker. Her boyfriend, Leo, looks like a character out of "The Sopranos" -- and he is, Steve Schirripa, formerly Bobby "Bacala" Baccilieri, gangster and model train enthusiast, in the wilds of New Jersey.

Among the young performers, Shailene Woodley as Amy, India Eisley as Ashley, Ken Baumann as Ben and Luke Zimmerman as Tom Bowman are all standouts -- among many others. It's hard to keep an accurate flowchart on who's sleeping with whom, who's related to whom, and who wishes who were dead; there's a huge slew of minor and major characters, not all of whom are seen in every episode.

In no appreciable way does "Secret Life" tax the brain or exhaust the emotions. It's meant to be enjoyed on a superficial, self-spoofing level, with lots and lots of plot and not much character development getting in the way. The creation of executive producer Brenda Hampton (whose production company is called Brendavision), "Secret Life of the American Teenager" is a charming, nutty and habit-forming retro sensation.

The Secret Life of the American Teenager (one hour) airs tonight at 8 on ABC Family.

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