I love wholesome family dramas. I like watching a TV dad make pancakes with a dishtowel tossed casually over his shoulder, and I like watching sisters squabble in a mild and cloyingly unrealistic manner for bathroom rights. (Rarely do these conflicts resort to hair-pulling or expletives.) Every day I was on vacation at Surfside Beach, I parked my turkey-on-bagel sandwich in front of the television and ate lunch with the Camden family of that saccharine confection of a sitcom Seventh Heaven.
It’s a little embarrassing, of course, and when the music softens in the last five minutes and everyone on screen convenes in a group hug, happy that they have learned the powerful lesson that love between a middle-class white family conquers all things, I do get a little queasy. But sometimes I need a little bit of cheesiness to balance out the dark and depressing television that I watch elsewhere. Nothing tempers the campy vampire violence of True Blood or the slightly unsettling psychoses of In Treatment like church ice cream socials and first dates to the local Dairy Shack on ABC Family.
Unfortunately, my less-than-premium cable package — while it does include about fifty Spanish channels — doesn’t include ABC Family. It was only recently that I discovered I can watch all of the mushy family television I could hope for online. After perusing the current lineup, I decided to start in on The Secret Life of the American Teenager.
Now, I know this sounds disingenuous, but I chose this show partially because I’m interested in putting together a syllabus exploring representations of teens in the media. I am only kind of rationalizing my decision to spend many, many hours keeping up with Amy, Ashely, Ricky, Adrian, Grace, Jack, and Ben. And this show would actually be a perfect fit for the class.
And bonus points! Molly Ringwald, the quintessential teenager of the 1980s, is “the mom” on this show. No more applying lipstick with her cleavage. She has kids to guide through the thorny back roads of adolescence!
In any case, I’m getting helplessly sucked into The Secret Life of the American Teenager, especially since the secret is… drumroll please… BABIES! And TEENAGE PREGNANCY! Really, it’s not much of a secret. You find out in the pilot.
[Be warned: for those of you who are considering watching the show, the following may contain one or two small spoilers. And for those of you who may, by chance, be watching yourselves, don’t give anything away, because I’m way behind the current episodes. Although neither of those precautions was probably totally unnecessary.]
So. While I definitely had my doubts — well, while I still have my doubts — there are two things thus far that have impressed me. First, I’m surprised by the way the show has handled the Bible-thumping Christian girl (named “Grace,” of course.) In the early episodes it seemed as if her sole purpose in high school was to flaunt her virginity like a carrot on a stick in front of hormone-saturated football players, and her predictable props of promise ring and God-fearing family were presented so deadpan it made me uncomfortable. But I’m almost finished with Season 1, and Grace has become a little more complicated and, therefore, a little more palatable. She’s completely obsessed with the possibilities inherent in the birth control pills her parents have warily put in her possession, and she’s proven to be much more open-minded than these characters tend to be. In fact, in many cases, I find I’m on Grace’s side.
Second, ABC Family nearly let a gay couple adopt Amy’s baby! Nearly, of course. I was happily in shock when Leon and Donovan had a face-to-face meeting with Amy and bad-boy biological father Ricky to explore the possibility of a baby hand-off. While it would have been exciting for them to become the proud papas, that probably wouldn’t have done much for the ongoing dramatic tension of the show. At least ABC Family didn’t nix the whole scenario because Amy decided her baby needed a father and a mother but instead dropped an entire family of troubled foster kids into the Leon-Donovan household.
(Although, just to make sure my enthusiasm didn’t completely carry me away, the writers gave Leon this strange monologue about how he was happy to be the father to these kids because they felt they were “damaged,” or some such word. And there was a slight suggestion that “damaged” people ought to stick together. But I may be reading too much into that. I should re-watch Leon’s “I don’t want Amy’s baby” speech.)
But overall, ABC Family, you kind of rocked my world! As someone interested in adoption as a viable and often misunderstood means of building a family, I was happy to see even an ABC Family drama representing the difficulties gay couples encounter in creating families of their own. (The foster kids Leon and Donovan end up with had been placed with them before but taken away when the kids’ birth parents discovered they were placed with a homosexual couple.) And moreover, Leon and Donovan are only partial stereotypes. While they’re both FABULOUS cooks, Leon makes a point to remind our audience that not all gay men are whizzes in the kitchen.
Of course, Leon does work at a furniture store, a profession suspiciously akin to interior decorator.
Baby steps, I suppose. Baby steps.