The Husband:

In our recent 90210 post, my wife addressed her issue with watching shows set around high school. Her major problem: she already went to high school, it sucked, so why even bother revisiting it?

I feel the complete opposite, as the best high school TV shows and movies are a very vital part of my creative impulses as well as my critical understanding of how people think and act. That isn’t to say that John Hughes’ 1980s movies are the most realistic depictions in the world, as they are hyper-articulate yet subtle, creating a sort of oxymoronic quiet hysteria. Nor do I think that the aforementioned 90210 or Gossip Girl get it right either, because while teenagers can be very hormonal and, let’s face it, insane, high school life is not nearly as melodramatic as those two CW shows portray.

What I mean is that this is how people would like to view high school, as a sort of training ground for adult life where clichés run rampant and sex is a thematically black-and-white concept. With the exception of the marvelous and grounded-in-reality 90s show My So-Called Life – a sensible, delicate, introspective and painfully accurate representation of the human condition within us at a time when we are hopelessly unaware of what that even means – these works of fiction are pure fantasy. I had a very happy high school experience in an abnormal setting at a school that looks and sounds nothing like the ones on TV. At least, that was my experience. I’m sure hundreds of other teens at Saint Mary’s College High School could give you a completely different interpretation, but isn’t that the point?

The Secret Life of the American Teenager is a show on ABC Family that isn’t by any means a great show. Considered a guilty pleasure of the highest order, it has been attacked online and in print as poorly written, poorly acted and overall poorly executed. That it’s Hollywoodized trash filtered through the more conservative eyes of Seventh Heaven creator Brenda Hampton.

In my eyes, however, I’ve noticed as we’ve approached tonight’s finale – my DVR and the Internet can’t decide on whether or not it’s the first season or the midseason finale – that the show is better than people make it out to be. The problem is that it sort of treads this fine line between fantasy and reality, and its willingness to skirt that line makes viewers uneasy even as they eat it up episode by episode.

Clearly, I do not think it’s poorly written, nor is it poorly acted for the most part. I find this tale of a 15-year-old girl’s sudden pregnancy and its effect on the world around her to be oddly refreshing, simply because of how scattershot it all seems.

People give the show crap for the poor decisions the characters make, what with their constantly changing viewpoints, moods and attitudes. One episode, self-proclaimed stud Ricky – the father of Amy Juergens’ unborn child – is actually earning the viewers’ sympathies when we learn of his family’s situation and his dark internal conflicts, and suddenly in the next episode he’s being a complete asshole, jumping from bed to bed, trying to get into Grace’s pants while at the same time making out with Amy’s soon-to-be-ex-friend Lauren, hate-fucking Adrian for the umpteenth time and trying to awkwardly reinsert himself into Amy’s life simply because he felt like it that day.

Ricky and Adrian, ditchin class for sexin.

Ricky and Adrian, ditchin' class for sexin'.

Some people would call that bad writing. I call that writing a true teenage character. Sometimes assholes are just assholes, and no matter how bad they may feel about themselves one minute – or because of how bad they feel about themselves – they cannot help but succumbing to their hormones and their own ego. Why not? It gets him chicks o’plenty.

Teenagers are slaves to their emotions, and if you remember being their age at all, you know what it’s like to have slingshot mood swings. Teenagers make very bad decisions. They are slaves to their hormones. They treat their parents like shit. But nothing is that simple, and these acts do not necessarily make them good or bad people.

That’s why I love Amy’s little sister Ashley, who at age 13 is viewing the chaos of her sister’s life as well as her parents’ separation and doing her best to take it all in stride, and as she moves into her teens, she is being so horribly affected by things she cannot control or even understand, all she can do is speak in a snarky, ironic monotone. Many bloggers hate her one-note delivery, but I think it’s hilarious and appropriate. How else should she act?

The Jurgens family. You can see why Ashley hates everyone.

The Jurgens family. You can see why Ashley hates everyone.

The show also examines how even when we graduate from high school, many of us never actually grow up. Take Amy’s dad, George, who is probably one of the vilest characters on television outside of something like The Shield. Almost every move he makes, in every hate-filled word he says to his wife, he reduces those around him to emotional wrecks. But I can’t hate him. When given a chance to figuratively tear Ricky a new one for all the damage he has caused throughout the show’s run so far, he relishes the opportunity and yet in the end strikes an assertive, caring tone. He sees himself in that little conniving asshole, and it scares the shit out of him. George has turned his fear into seething hatred, and it’s actually kind of terrifying on a creative level both in the writing and acting.

I also cannot stand it when bloggers, writers and talkbackers call geek Ben creepy. He’s not creepy. He’s a geek. I’m a geek. I know what it’s like to pine after somebody. He’s completely loveable, and I can relate to him all too well. Regular social standards elude us, because that’s who we are. He loves Amy. He loves her. He loves that she loves him, and he is doing everything in his power to not let this opportunity slip through his fingers. He has already lost his mom. Why not put all his love somewhere?

Sure, it’s a bit extreme that he would do absolutely anything for her, that he wants to marry her at age 15 and help her through her emotional hardships now and in the future. But that’s teenage life. It’s confusing, it’s illogical, and it’s seemingly contradictory. Yes, it’s kind of extreme, and can be viewed as a bit of a fantasy, but it’s also grounded in something all too familiar. How many other shows even attempt to do that nowadays?

The Wife:

I was certainly not sure if I actually liked SLOTAT when I began watching this season. In fact, I thought I kind of hated it, but in the kind of way where something so bad becomes instantly good again. Like Rocky Horror. Or, better yet, Shock Treatment.

As I kept watching, however, the show became very endearing. I became involved with the diverse cast of characters (and when I say diverse, I mean that we have Filipino characters, Latino characters, Black characters and a character with Down Syndrome in addition to our standard crop of whities) and their high school drama. Ulysses S. Grant High School is unlike West Beverly and Constance in the fact that the issues faced by the characters on SLOTAT are things that actually affect real high school students: whether or not to have sex with a significant other/stranger, what kind of social identity to construct for yourself, how to display your religious faith or other beliefs, how to balance home life and school life, what face do you prepare to meet the faces that you meet. Now, I don’t expect television shows to have any sort of veracity to them, but I appreciate the “realness” of SLOTAT‘s universe compared to the extremity of the Gossip Girl and 90210 universes. I get that high school contains a lot of gossip mongering and backstabbing and dating your friends’ exes, but it also about establishing identity, and SLOTAT is very much about that.

I appreciate that the show examines multiple perspectives on the teen pregnancy issue. Granted, Hampton’s lessons often feel a little forced as characters on this show often tend to speak only in didactics rather than actual dialogue. For example, cheerleader and Christian good girl Grace Bowman tends to speak solely in parables and rehashed scripture, and Amy’s best friends Lauren and Madison respectively take the “she has to make her own choices” pragmatist approach and the extremely Catholic “abortion is wrong” approach to the subject. But I definitely appreciate that the show includes these varying viewpoints, rather than taking a more wholly conservative view. Sure, Amy does decide to keep the baby. We’re still not sure if she’s going to give it up for adoption or raise it herself, but we knew going into it that abortion would not be an option. The show is on ABC Family, after all. But at least it was a consideration for the character, as it would be for any young girl who found herself in Amy’s situation.

Grace, living up to her name as the schools good girl.

Grace, living up to her name as the school's good girl.

The number one thing that keeps me watching is Amy and Ben’s relationship. Ben, as my husband mentioned, it probably the most maligned character on this show. People find his love for Amy creepy. They find Kenny Baumann’s portrayal wooden. I think Baumann is actually the most perfectly created character out of the entire cast. Baumann plays lovestruck so well with his puppy dog eyes, and delivers his lines in a really genuine way. In scenes with the school guidance counselor, Baumann’s Ben reminds me a little of Dustin Diamond‘s Screech from Saved by the Bell. (That’s funny, but not a favorable trait.) But in his scenes with Steve Shirrippa or with Amy, his Ben is so genuine and honest in whatever he’s feeling. When he tells someone he loves Amy, he means it. Sure, he’s 15 and the love he feels now is likely not the Greatest Love of All Time. I think we all know it won’t last, and certainly wouldn’t outside of the SLOTAT universe. But, when you are 15 and in love with someone, you feel like it is the Greatest Love of All Time, and I think Ben captures that perfectly.

Amy and Ben, the reason Im watching this show.

Amy and Ben, the reason I'm watching this show.

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