Arts & Culture

‘7th Heaven’ Creator Comes for the Jews

I used to love the show 7th Heaven. It represented all the best qualities of many of my favorite guilty pleasure TV shows: it was corny, tried to have a ‘message,’ featured terrible acting and worse dialogue, and was — … Read More

By / January 7, 2009

I used to love the show 7th Heaven. It represented all the best qualities of many of my favorite guilty pleasure TV shows: it was corny, tried to have a ‘message,’ featured terrible acting and worse dialogue, and was — well, kind of — about religion. Series creator Brenda Hampton never missed a chance to rail about the hardships she’d faced as a Christian in Hollywood, and created her Aaron Spelling-produced dramedy about a minister, his wife, and their five (later, seven) children in response to the evil liberal programming out there. The show aired on the WB and was one of the then-fledgling network’s first hits.

For the first few seasons, the show was realistic and yet wholesome, with the Camden kids coping with school, new friends, and first loves. However, a close watch of the show showed hints of Hampton’s true character. Like many evangelicals, Hampton was simultaneously disgusted by and obsessed with sex — the show preached a message of abstinence until marriage, yet often sexualized and fetishized the show’s teenage girls. The oldest Camden child, Matt, married a girl after their first date because he wanted to sleep with her. The second oldest, Mary (played by Jessica Biel, who famously posed for a lad magazine in order to sex up her image — and get out of her contract), went from being an apple-cheeked star athlete to being a ‘bad girl’ who drank a beer before driving and couldn’t commit to a part-time job. By the show’s end, it had become an over-the-top, unintelligble mess where entire storylines revolved around show sponsor Campbell’s Soup or devolved into a D-grade Afterschool Special where kids learned important lessons about being nice to black people (who disappeared after the episode, natch).

Now, not content merely to embarrass the Christians, Hampton’s new show, The Secret Life of the American Teenager (which was originally pitched with the word "sex" between "secret" and "life"), has decided to bring the Jews into he mix.

Secret Life airs on ABC Family and stars Shailene Woodley as Amy, a fifteen-year-old girl who became pregnant during her first and only sexual experience — at band camp. The show was obviously designed to capitalize on success of the hit movie Juno, as well as the furor surrounding the real-life teen pregnancies of Jamie Lynn Spears and Bristol Palin.

Because Amy’s loss-of-virginity happened before the show took place, it’s unclear how consensual the sex was — or if the blisteringly naive Amy even understood exactly what was going on. After learning of her pregnancy, she’s too scared to tell anyone, but luckily her friends and classmates are always talking about sex. Obviously, no actual teenagers were consulted for the show, because Hampton writes dialogue as if she were a 1950s housewife who has never seen her own sex organs trying to teach her kids about the birds and the bees. The actors read what seem to be paraphrased sections from sex ed manuals, complete with statistics. One of them, Ben, is a Jewish boy who is in love with Amy and remains so even after her pregnancy becomes public knowledge. Ben is obsessed with marriage because his mother passed away when he was young and his father — an incredibly wealthy man, of course — loved her dearly and has never moved on. Ben’s father, "The Sausage King," [he seems to earn his fortune from the sausage industry, although that’s as much explanation as we get] approves of not only his son’s crush on a teenage girl pregnant with someone else’s child but completely endorses Ben’s idea that they get married after mere weeks of dating. Amy, who despite the best efforts of her portrayer comes off as spineless, goes along with Ben’s marriage plan because she thinks it’ll be best for her unborn child.

Clearly, only in Brenda Hampton’s world is it ever a brilliant idea for two fifteen-year-olds, who have been dating for a few weeks or maybe months (the show’s timeline is sketchy), one of whom is pregnant by someone other than her current boyfriend, to get married. [I’ll stay out of the discussion about whether it was smart for the show to barely touch on abortion as an option because, without the baby, the show’s entire reason for existing would disappear.] Nary a character on the show — including Amy’s unhappily married mom (played by Molly Ringwald), who wed Amy’s dad at 18 because she was pregnant — has come right out and said that perhaps marriage is a bad idea in this case. In fact, the upcoming wedding episode is being used as "buzz" for the show, whose second season just started. As a lover of all kinds of bad TV, I might try to sit through an episode or two. But if Brenda Hampton really thinks that a wedding between fifteen-year-olds is cute, romantic, and even inspirational, I don’t know how much longer I can last. And I watch The Real World/Road Rules Challenge, people. Obviously, I can put up with bad television – but when it veers from ‘fun to laugh at’ to ‘is so implausible and badly written as to be offensive,’ it’s time to change the channel.