Amy Juergens (Shailene Woodley) has been fighting with her mom, Anne (Molly Ringwald) — and not about stupid teen stuff like cleaning her room or making curfew, either. No, this little spat is over whether to give 15-year-old Amy’s unborn baby up for adoption. To a gay couple. Who work with her father, George (Mark Derwin) — who, by the way, cheated on Anne. And now the warring factions have finally called a truce in a huggy moment on the living-room sofa: ”I know I can be a good mom,” Amy says through tears. ”I have the best one.”
Awwwwwww. The cast and crew of The Secret Life of the American Teenager, who are busy shooting this scene on a soundstage in Burbank, are used to such feel-good moments. And they have reason to feel good themselves: The starkly earnest ABC Family drama about the repercussions of a generally good girl’s accidental pregnancy — think Juno sprinkled with lots of saccharine — became a surprise breakout hit last summer. Secret Life’s 4 million weekly viewers easily topped the first season of another buzzy teen-centric show, The CW’s Gossip Girl(2.8 million), and when Teen returns Jan. 5 at 8 p.m., it’ll go head-to-head with those Upper East Side troublemakers. Thanks to this little bundle of joy, the cable channel built on youthful hits like Kyle XY (returning Jan. 12) and Greek (back in March) is now a major player. ”Secret Life put us culturally on the map,” ABC Family president Paul Lee says. ”On cable, it takes a Sopranos or a Shield or a Secret Life to really crystallize a network for the audience.”
It’s not just Secret Life’s unique blend of sex and sap that has drawn in viewers. There are also plenty of familiar faces for the — ahem — postteen crowd. The ensemble includes John Schneider (Dukes of Hazzard) and Josie Bissett (Melrose Place) as parents of the school’s resident Christian virgin; Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters) as Amy’s baby-daddy’s shrink; and Steve Schirripa (The Sopranos) as Amy’s boyfriend’s dad. But the fledgling show made its biggest splash when it landed former teen icon Ringwald. ”I wasn’t sure I was ready to play the mother of a teenager,” says Ringwald, 40. ”It felt like I skipped a few steps.” Thankfully, she came around: ”She was critical,” says Lee. ”She triggered a huge nostalgia audience.”
The young fans, meanwhile, have found an onscreen friend in 17-year-old Woodley, and are constantly spilling their guts to the actress. ”There are a lot of high schoolers who are going through this every day,” she says. ”What we’re showing is like real life.” Well, maybe a touch more dramatic than that. The January episodes will kick off with a wedding, ”and not one of those weddings where someone rushes in at the last minute and stops it,” promises creator Brenda Hampton (7th Heaven). Anne and George, however, will move toward divorce. Amy and her ridiculously understanding boyfriend, Ben (Ken Baumann), will grow closer while she continues to negotiate how much to involve her baby’s cocky father, Ricky (Daren Kagasoff), in her life. And, of course, there’s that little matter of giving birth, which will happen in the March 23 finale.
Despite all the talk of sex — and the evidence of its results — Hampton envisions Secret Life’s ultimate trajectory as not too different from that of her squeaky-clean WB hit 7th Heaven. ”I see all my shows as family shows,” she says. ”I grew up on Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, and that’s what I like to compare them to.” A Father Knows Best in which Princess gets knocked up and Bud goes to therapy? No wonder this thing’s a hit.