I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: The Secret Life Of The American Teenager, perhaps the only show I could believably describe as a “guilty pleasure” of mine, feels like something that resulted when an alien race sent emissaries down to the Earth and asked those emissaries to make a report on human beings’ behavior. The emissaries mostly fucked around, watching our television and eating our junk food, then they went back and decided to deliver their report in the form of a teen soap, just like the many that they had enjoyed while sacking out on the couch with Doritos. But in so doing, they had to translate these strange new customs they’d observed into a vernacular where their fellow aliens might understand them. Worse, they ended up utterly missing such normal rules of human drama and interaction as cause-and-effect and believable character arcs, and what they came up with felt like a strange, stilted look at these odd creatures they’d just spent years studying but never really understanding.
All of this is to say that the things that turn other people off about Secret Life—the loud moralizing, the stilted dialogue, the muted acting, the weird plot twists, the strange inability to understand which things lead to what—are what make me keep tuning in when I remember the show is on. (I’m too ashamed of my love to set a season pass.) Where others shake their heads at the show’s awfulness, I find myself howling with laughter. I try not to believe in things that are so bad that they’re good, but Secret Life might just be the show that becomes the exception that proves the rule for me. Under no objective standards can I proclaim this show good. Hell, the actors—including some genuinely talented people—don’t even seem to be trying that hard. But I find the whole thing ridiculously entertaining.
Tonight’s fourth season mid-season finale is a good case in point. The episode revolved around two things: the graduations of many of the characters (central character Amy is a year away from graduating, even if her son—the unplanned pregnancy that kicked this whole shambling mess off—appears to have aged six years over the span of the series) and one-time bad boy Ricky’s proposal to Amy during his valedictorian speech. (Only on this show could the bad boy be in the high school band and the class valedictorian.) Ricky, of course, is the father of Amy’s child, and he and Amy have been living together—chastely, somehow—for a while now, the better to both care for their son, who’s endowed with mutant growing powers and needs the extra help. At one point, Amy’s mom—the still confused about how she got here Molly Ringwald—says that she’ll be attending graduation, and Amy seems stymied. Well, Ringwald says, Ricky’s the father of my grandson and you two are living together, and her blithe smile tells you everything you need to know about just how ridiculous all of this is.
Secret Life has struggled a bit in recent seasons because the hook it was sold around—good girl French horn player gets knocked up by the bad boy—has mostly been eaten up and discarded. Shailene Woodley, who plays Amy, has the makings of a burgeoning film career, what with the rave notices she’s received for the newest Alexander Payne film. And with the fact that Amy and Ricky are now engaged and seemingly blissfully happy, the show has given itself an out should Woodley want to leave the program. The problem is that the show has never come up with anything as preposterously involving as the Ricky-Amy-Ben (about whom more in a bit) triangle, which was the center of the series in its first two seasons. The series keeps trying to come up with love triangles and romantic complications that will somehow compete with that original, primal storyline, but the best it can do is have the football team members all chastely date the same girl and get really huffy about it for no real reason.
The centerpiece of this episode was, of course, the proposal, and the question was whether or not it would utterly ruin Ben—who was once Amy’s friend then wanted to be her boyfriend, then lost out on her heart to the father of her child, and now carries a nerdy torch for her that he seems to be following down increasingly destructive paths, in the only storyline on the show that could be at all interesting or involving in a traditional sense but for the fact that everybody in it behaves like an utter fucking lunatic—and Adrian—a bad girl majorette who was once involved with Ricky. (This show paints in broad archetypes, then refuses to get the archetypes right, making it even more baffling and alien.) Adrian, in particular, has resolved that if she can get just one last kiss from Ricky, she can break him of the Amy spell. Ben, meanwhile, slouches a lot, but once Ricky and Amy are engaged, he seems ready to move on with his life, chatting up a cute neighbor girl. (Ben and Adrian, of course, once almost had a baby of their own, and the show seems to be setting up their long-term character arc as discovering they’re right for each other, because everyone should marry the girl they impregnate in high school. But in terms of this episode, that’s mostly on the back-burner of the aliens’ and/or Brenda Hampton’s surprisingly complicated multi-year bed-hopping storyline.)
The thing you have to understand about Secret Life, the thing that I think has made it a pretty big hit by cable standards, is the fact that everything on the show is simultaneously presented as the height of drama and something that’s not all that important. Sometimes, this makes plotlines make utterly no sense, as when Amy and Ricky get engaged just ‘cuz. (Only Amy’s parents seem at all horrified by this turn of events.) Other times, it makes them preposterously enjoyable, such as when Adrian finally gets the kiss she longs for from Ricky (after he’s engaged and with the permission of his fiancée, mind you), and once the kiss—which is treated as something potentially series altering—is over, she realizes that the kiss really was magical, and she’s free to stop obsessing over Ricky and return to sleeping her way through every guy in Grant High (which she promptly gets back to with a vengeance). It’s a lot of build-up to something that isn’t all that big of a deal, ultimately, and that makes the show much more like adolescence than I think anyone would want to admit.
And yet all along, the show is just utterly fucking stupid and preposterous and wooden, all of which keeps any of its interesting elements—the oddly used archetypes, the big drama that’s not big drama, the central love triangle—from feeling like anything other than a Xerox of a copy of a handwritten tracing of a script of some other teen drama. Secret Life just can’t escape the fact that at this point, it feels like a clone several generations removed from the original, where the original was Juno or The O.C. Worse, the show is now cloning itself, as the increasingly desperate attempts to come up with a storyline that will fill the Amy/Ricky/Ben void lead to a parade of supporting characters that just aren’t as interesting. And yet the show maintains all of its guilty pleasure appeal, which means I’ll probably keep tuning in every once in a while, just to see how stupid things have gotten.
Because, I mean, I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Amy’s friend Lauren listed off a whole bunch of things Amy’s toddler son might have meant when he kept saying “ring,” even though there’s no fucking way a kid that young would have any grasp of the concept of homographs. Or the way that the quarterback’s coach strides up to tell him he has good news, and the quarterback asks if the good news is that he’s flunked senior year and gets to stay in high school another year, to which the coach replies with no inflection whatsoever “That wouldn’t be good news.” Or how Ben and Ricky look so similar that it makes no sense how we're supposed to discern that the two are meant to be polar opposites. Or the way that a plot about prayer at graduation tries so hard to placate both church-state separation advocates and the religious right that it ends up, somehow, advocating for everyone to pray all of the time and never pray ever at the same time. Or the fact that the sad piano music that plays when the characters contemplate the fact that their youth will soon be over and the mantle of adulthood will be thrust upon them is a mournful piano cover of Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend.” Secret Life may not be for everyone (or, really, anyone but me and a bunch of teen girls), but I’m telling you, friends, it’s a cave of wonders indeed.