The only episode of Seinfeld I can remember watching live when it first aired was the series finale in 1998. It seemed important at the time to watch the finale at the same time as everyone around the block. But I also remember the hour that preceded the series finale, an hour-long clip show that got me caught up on all the humor I could understand as a elementary school student. As a young kid still steeped in Saturday morning cartoons and not much else, I was surprised at just how much of the callback material in the finale I understood thanks to that hour-long clip show. Along with The Simpsons’ “So It’s Come To This,” the first clip show I remember seeing in syndication, I didn’t find clip shows to be all that bad, refreshers for shows that had been on the air long enough for new viewers to be confused when dropping in for the first time.
I feel the same way about the Secret Life Of The American Teenager series finale. I’ve only seen a handful of episodes, I’d guess 10 over the course of the five-year run. But I have to admit being oddly fascinated whenever I did catch it while helping a girlfriend babysit a cousin or when my iPod ran out of battery at the gym. It’s a strange amalgam of afterschool special and primetime soap that strikes an evangelically-tinged Degrassi tone, with dialogue that feels like it was written in five minutes before shooting each scene. But I am surprised that a show like this would choose to end the whole run with a clip show. It’s a string of small scenes that tell a very protracted story for each major character, and ultimately, it doesn’t do much but recap the entire romantic history of the kids on the show. Unlike the Seinfeld and Simpsons clip shows—two series that obviously reached much higher peaks than that of Secret Life—this was mostly a disaster for anyone who follows the show, but a nice summary of the entire series for someone who hasn't watched an episode in a few years.
When Secret Life debuted in 2008, it was just under a year after Juno won Best Original Screenplay, and the issue of teen pregnancy had crested in prominence yet again. The only publicity I remember seeing for the show decried its contrivances, pitched at middle America with a mix of sexual education and religious values. The former didn’t sit well with conservatives, and the latter made the show laughable for the liberals I knew who watched. And yet, controversy stirs up viewers, which led the show to unprecedented popularity for the network.
Most significantly, this finale is the capstone on a season that exists in defiance of Shailene Woodley’s burgeoning film career—it shouldn’t have happened, but ABC Family got another 24 episodes from her, spaced out over an entire year. After a star turn in The Descendants, holding her own opposite George Clooney, Woodley was cast as Mary Jane Watson in the Marc Webb Spider-Man sequel, and this summer she’ll be filming Divergent, the Hunger Games wannabe with Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, and Mekhi Phifer, based on the novel by Veronica Roth. Secret Life was her ball and chain, tying her to a cable channel dramedy while her movie career took off, leaving her hoping for swift cancellation, sort of like Johnny Depp on 21 Jump Street.
The very little that actually happens in the finale can be summed up quickly. Amy breaks her engagement with Ricky—though the clip show structure means the finale cuts into the middle of that conversation, shows a brief and thunderous fight, then transitions immediately into the “We have to be friends to raise our son,” phase—trails off in a noncommittal way when asked if she still loves Ben, and can’t make up her mind about leaving for New York for good. Ben pines for Amy and continues to compete with Ricky, Grace and Jack sulk a lot about their broken engagement until Grace has a solo dance party out of nowhere, Adrian rejoices when Omar returns, Amy’s parents continue to argue. And the episode ends on the most saccharine note possible, with Ricky reading “And she lives happily ever after” to his and Amy’s son—but this is a show that loves to careen from one extreme to another, always an emotionally manipulative roller coaster. A show that began as an examination of teen pregnancy, which became so bogged down in switching the romantic pairings, switching them back, only to switch them again, ends on an ambiguous note about everyone’s future, cutting off as though this ending was unexpected.
It’s a surprise that Secret Life ends up as the first ABC Family original series to surpass 100 episodes and even more surprising that the show goes dark and dissatisfying in in its finale. Even the characters moving onto good things don’t seem to have a bright future with any certainty. Amy leaves her son behind with Ricky—with encouragement from her mom (Molly Ringwald, still a shock that she returned to work on this show) that everything will be worked out—Ben and his father have one final conversation that doesn’t settle anything for good. Even Adrian’s sudden reconciliation and move doesn’t suppose a happy ending because of how fluid relationships were to this show.
Every year, the night before graduation at my high school, a small group of friends and I walked out on the platforms set up for the seniors, and eventually, someone would bring up the idea that someday soon we’d be on that stage, saying our final goodbyes to our school and setting off across the country for college or other opportunities. If there’s anything in this Secret Life finale that resonates without the sappy montages drumming up emotions, it’s the final high school scene, as all the characters talk, some reconcile, some share hugs, and all, eventually, leave. It’s like the poor man’s version of the Boy Meets World finale, and that’s basically the extent of my praise. Secret Life feels shallow and unpolished, and while it suggests that it wanted to be like other, more engrossing series, all it had going for it was the shock value of constantly switching and reuniting romantic pairings.