Television producers are starting to realize what publishers have long known: Adding the word “secret” to your title makes it sure to attract attention. Whether it’s Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, The Secret Life of Bees, The Secrets of Success, or just The Secret, Americans love being on the inside of a hush-hush operation. So two new TV shows are making the most of their titles: “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” combines “secret” with America, while “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” combines “secret” with sex, both of which are truly excellent stabs at winning titles. The only problem is that television doesn’t work like a bookstore; a sexy title in a bookstore might just land a sale--even if the buyer is disappointed later. But on the tube, a title may get you to watch once, but it won’t keep you watching. Such is the fate of these two disparate and disappointing shows.
“The Secret Life of the American Teenager” is a part of the ABC Family’s ongoing effort at wooing teen audiences with the occasional tip-of-the-hat toward the parents of teens as well--many of whom may appreciate former teen idols like Molly Ringwald, John Schneider, and Josie Bissett in the mom and dad roles. Owned by Disney, ABC Family is poising itself to be the next stop after the Disney Channel for post-tween viewers by airing reruns of good teen shows like “Gilmore Girls” and “Smallville” alongside less promising original programming like “Greek,” a drama about fraternity life at college, and now “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” an episodic drama-cum-after-school-special about the heartache of teenage pregnancy. (That’s the “secret”! Shhh!). And unlike, say, MTV, ABC Family is still wholesome fun, with lots of forced messages and saccharine lessons the whole family can gag over--and, of course, no drunken hot-tub hopping. Originally founded by Pat Robertson as the Family Channel, Disney is contractually obligated to keep the word “family” in the channel’s name, and to “run Mr. Robertson’s ‘700 Club’ talk show in perpetuity,” according to The New York Times. This no doubt has put a damper on the channel's efforts to appeal to teens, an audience sure to be the first to roll their eyes at the slightest sign of preachiness.
Of course, preachiness is the stock-and-trade of “American Teenager,” which seems to take place inside one of those Left Behind books where everything is about temptation and sin and the Lord. The first episode introduces us to each teen character vis-à-vis his or her sex life: Adrian is a slut, Ben can’t wait to get laid, Ricky beds chicks like he’s the Fonz, virginal Grace wears a promise ring, Jack is having trouble waiting for marriage, and poor Amy, our sweet troubled heroine, is knocked up--and she’s not too bright: Despite a positive pregnancy test, Amy claims she’s still not sure it was even sex that she had. And it certainly wasn’t any fun. After all, the only kids on the show who enjoy sex are neglected or have been abused.
But really, what is poor ABC Family to do? Look at what they are up against: Juno portrayed teen pregnancy as kind of hip and subversive; teen mommy Jamie Lynn Spears is on the cover of every celeb ’zine; and then there are those baby-pact gals in Gloucester. It would seem that 2008 is the year of teen baby drama. And as such, “American Teenager” can hardly consider abortion with any seriousness; the point after all is to get straight to the pregnancy plot. Besides, in this crazy Left Behind high school, abortion is only uttered in a You’re not talking about what I think you’re talking about, are you? kind of way. Add to that a generous helping of subplots like “nice girls don’t dress sexy” and it’s pretty hard to like this show. The best one can say about this mawkish soap is that at least it isn’t endangering live children to teach a lesson, à la NBC’s “The Baby Borrowers.”
Meanwhile, Showtime is serving up sex without consequences, babies, or morality blather in “Secret Diary of a Call Girl.” Have you ever wished for a softcore pay-cable show like “Red Shoe Diaries” (“diary” is another titular must) without the nudity and much less sex? No one has. With more emphasis on our call girl’s stories than on her more intimate moments, “Call Girl” is masquerading as edgy fare akin to other anti-hero Showtime successes like “Weeds” and “Dexter.” Unfortunately, unlike those complex offerings, “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” is nothing more than a half hour of actress Billie Piper winking and nodding at the camera while she assures us that her job is the dreamiest because she simply loves sex and that she is “very high class.” (If you have to describe yourself as high class, you ain’t.)
Where “American Teenager” is all heavy-handed consequences and dire warnings, “Call Girl” is no more than carefree prostitution with nary a speck of soul-searching, v.d. shots, scandal, drugs, or abuse. And considering the fall-out from folks like Heidi Fleiss and Eliot Spitzer, there seems to be ample room for good drama here. Unfortunately, “Call Girl” makes selling one’s body seem downright glamorous and blithe, with little plot to speak of--meaning, not all that different from real porn. Throw in a little more skin and you’ve got yourself a new episodic “after dark” winner. Until then, “Call Girl” is nothing more than a hooker assuring us of how much fun she’s having, which is pretty boring stuff. Are there no shows on television anymore that lie somewhere between promise rings and call girls? I miss “My So-Called Life.”
Sacha Zimmerman is the Special Online Projects Manager for The New Republic.
By Sacha Zimmerman