TV Drama "Secret Life" a Bundle of Joy, Stupidity

ABC courts a world in which the best TV is really the worst TV

It was an unusually warm night in August and I was sitting in my living room, holed up in my own indentation in the couch. The breeze coming through the window was increasingly inadequate and, in an effort to stay cool, I had turned off the ceiling lamps. The only light in the room came from the television in front of me. Tired from work and frustrated by the heat, I was completely still.

But sweat and fatigue weren’t the only things that made me stationary. The reason I was sitting slack-jawed and wide-eyed was because I had just witnessed yet another episode of “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” a show that defies any preconceived notion I once had about what makes enjoyable television.

For those unfamiliar with the ABC Family phenomenon, here’s a short summary: high school freshman Amy Juergens becomes pregnant after a band camp fling with playboy drummer Ricky Underwood and has to deal with embarrassment at school, problems with friends and family, and a relationship with her new boyfriend Ben Boykewich. On top of all that, her dad and mom (played by former teen movie icon Molly Ringwald) are splitting up. Other characters include Adrian, Ricky’s skanky and surprisingly booksmart girlfriend; Henry and Alice, Ben’s best friends who continue to have sex so they can “get it right” despite their recent breakup; Marc Molina, the hip school guidance counselor; and Ashley, Amy’s witty, monotone, pseudo-goth younger sister. I would explain how all these characters relate to each other, but I have to be somewhere by next Tuesday.

Now before you jump to any conclusions like, “This pretentious Harvard columnist is just hating on ‘Secret Life’ because he doesn’t realize teen soaps are supposed to be over the top,” let me make a few things clear. I love teen dramas. In my TV-watching prime, I religiously tuned in to “Everwood,” “One Tree Hill,” “The OC,” and many other similar series. I’ve seen nearly every episode of “Degrassi” and have been known to act out scenes on occasion. Why am I admitting my obsession with these blatantly unintelligent shows in a widely circulated newspaper accessible to my peers? Because I think it’s important for readers to realize that I’m qualified to make the following statement: in terms of sheer base enjoyment, “Secret Life” is in fact superior to all the aforementioned programs.

What makes “Secret Life” a pleasurable success is that it is in every way a failure. If viewers were trying to take the show seriously, they would find it too simple to be a drama, too corny to be a comedy, and too offensive to be educational—which seems to be one of the show’s goals, judging by the public service announcement about having “the talk” that follows every episode. The characters are incredibly one-dimensional, the dialogue is unnatural, and the acting is atrocious. Take Grace, for example, the abstinent and devout Christian who asks, as Ricky licks cookie dough off her fingers, “Does this count as oral?” Or take Amy’s dad, a creepy, tactless adulterer who asks his daughter, “Do you really want to go to school with a bunch of sluts?” as Amy chooses whether to go to a school for pregnant girls. The awkward references to once-popular culture are even better: Ben advises his friends that “Dex isn’t sudoku,” and Graces’ dad angrily advises his daughter’s ex-boyfriend Jack, “Why don’t you buy a vowel and go home?” (I have yet to figure out what this means.)

The writers and actors of “Secret Life” also seem to think their viewers need help interpreting the complexities of their characters and dialogue. Shailene Woodley, who plays Amy, feels the need to constantly brush hair away from her face and look away during trenchant conversations, perhaps in order to really drive home her apparent innocence and frustration (and, probably, to look at cue cards). Or how when Amy sits on the toilet and says “Life stinks,” someone felt it was necessary for her friend to add, “That’s kind of funny considering we’re in a bathroom.”

This may seem like harsh criticism, and it is, but the show’s pitfalls only increase its unintentional self-parody. For 11 Tuesdays during the summer, I sat in awe of this spectacular debacle. The concept of a show being “so bad that it’s good” is certainly nothing new, but it’s rare that a show that intends to have serious qualities is so utterly awful that it becomes one of the most hilarious hours of summer television. Each new episode left me even more in awe, wondering if everyone else watching saw what I did.

I may never know if the other viewers of “Secret Life” enjoy it for the same reasons I do, but consider this: in early August, the New York Times TV Decoder blog reported that “Secret Life” had more viewers than The CW’s “Gossip Girl”—a show that targets irony-seeking viewers with risqué advertisements and flaunts parental advisory groups’ fierce attacks on its sexual content. Keep in mind that “Secret Life” is maintaining this success with the dual disadvantage of being broadcast on cable and making an attempt, albeit a very sad one, to poignantly tackle issues like teen pregnancy.

The fact that this utter failure of a show leaves me wanting more makes me wonder what it is that I—not to mention the rest of America—am actually looking for in their TV.

Would the average American viewer rather see characters make ridiculous decisions, or would they rather watch the results when producers, actors, and writers make their own ridiculous decisions?

I know my preference, and when “Secret Life” comes back in January I’ll be back on the couch watching the absurdity unfold.

—Columnist Jeff W. Feldman can be reached at jfeldman@fas.harvard.edu.