The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Not-So-Secret Formula: 'The Secret Life of the American Teenager'

THE LONGERThe Secret Life of the American Teenager” is on the air, the more it becomes obvious that the ABC Family original series shares a creator with the painfully wholesome “7th Heaven.”

This is most certainly not a good thing.

When Brenda Hampton dreamed up “7th Heaven” in the mid-’90s, it portrayed a goody-two-shoes family caught up in the modern trappings of raising seven kids. The girls wore too much makeup, the guys were obsessed with sex and the religious parents — including a father who was a reverend — didn’t know what to do about it, except to tackle each issue head-on with a standard Danny Tanner approach of peace, love, understanding and firm discipline.

Somehow, that expectedly monotonous format pleased viewers for nine years — and it seems that the exact same thing is going to happen to “Secret Life,” no matter how unbearable it is.

Since premiering in 2008, the show has won big with audiences, gathering 4.68 million viewers for the second season’s premiere in June 2009. And now, after being on hiatus since September, the show’s second batch of episodes will premiere Jan. 4 at 8 p.m., a week before a previously announced Jan. 11 start date. Hold off on the excitement, though — it’s just as trite, slow-moving and uncomfortably cliche as ever.

The second season had already delivered some plot developments: Anne (Molly Ringwald), Amy’s mother, just delivered her baby, while Amy (Shailene Woodley) is struggling to raise her child with Ricky (Daren Kagasoff) while also maintaining a relationship with boyfriend Ben (Kenny Baumann).

But Ben may have strayed from Amy during a summer in Italy. Ricky — who seems similar to what Luke Perry would have been like if he’d really been a teenager while playing Dylan on the original “Beverly Hills, 90210” — finds his time divided between spending time with his son and tending to his high-maintenance girlfriend, Adrian (Francia Raisa), who holds a reputation as the school slut. And Anne’s estranged husband George (Mark Derwin) is unsure of whether baby Robbie is actually his or the son of Anne’s ex-boyfriend David (Ben Weber, who some may recognize as Skipper from “Sex and the City“).

In contrast to all that, however, the season’s first episode back, “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got …,” is a torturous tease. Instead of answering any of the questions left from September, it just reopens old wounds and serves up a harebrained plot that sidesteps any attempt at closure.

Things start off with Ben, who is talking to a couple of his friends about whether he should break up with Amy. “If you loved her, if you ever loved her, break up with her,” advises friend Alice, but Ben is under pressure from Ricky to keep the relationship going — if Ben and Amy break up, Ricky thinks that Amy will take their son and move away, keeping him from having any time with the baby.

Similarly bossy are Amy’s friends, who tell Ben that he’s “not breaking up with her, not now, not ever” and make some snippy jokes about swine flu (which probably would have been funnier back when H1N1 was on the brink of becoming a pandemic). Barely 10 minutes in, and the show is already laboring over the same plot points it did almost four months ago — bad sign.

As the episode drags on, lots of sex-talk is had (“No one is not good at sex; there’s not really a good or bad, there’s just … it did make you feel good or it didn’t,” are the wise words wisdom of skanky Adrian). And three different groups of students decide to cut class for no real reason at all. This mass cutting leads to the introduction of new castmember Mayim Bialik (anyone else remember “Blossom?”), who serves as new school counselor Dr. Bink, a woman who was fired from her old job for taking a student to the prom and is now out for teenage blood.

Oh, and then, in a surprise twist, there’s even more uncomfortable erotica conversation, the kind where a mom tells her religious daughter to masturbate (“take it into your own hands” is her cutesy pun) instead of having sex. Seriously. It happens.

Overall, the whole episode is dealt with such a heavy hand that everything about it — from the wholesome characters to the skanky ones — becomes dreary and grating, just like “7th Heaven” used to be. Whether it’s horrendously trite dialogue like “I just want every time to be like the first time” (you’ll never guess what those two hormone-heavy teenagers are talking about) or the introduction of Ben’s Italian girlfriend (finally, a plot twist!), the return of “Secret Life” is just a poor waiting game. After four months, fans will still be trying to figure out when something is actually going to happen.

Stay strong another week, kids — you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Written by Express contributor Roxana Hadadi
Photos courtesy of ABC Family