We’re living in an age of feverish reproductive voyeurism, all baby-bump watches and Facebooked ultrasounds, so maybe it’s not that surprising that teen pregnancy has become the go-to TV plot of the day, rivaling even sassy effeminate boys and bomb scares. But it’s fascinating to note that so many teen series aren’t going to the usual go-to conclusion for this plot: the convenient miscarriage.
Instead, last year we got Glee’s disconcerting chorus of big-bellied teenage sirens grinding to “A Man’s World.” That story ended in one of the most surreal and off-putting adoptions on television — Rachel’s mom is raising Quinn’s baby, right? Anyone remember that? — but we’re talking about Glee, so it’s not like I expected, say, the poignancy of Peggy’s plot on Mad Men.
There’s also the ongoing ABC Family curiosity that is The Secret Life of the American Teenager, the strangest television series I have ever become addicted to — a glib, stylized, banter-rich teen utopia in which unplanned pregnancy is just another exciting gleam on the soap bubbles of romance. Getting knocked up in high school has little downside on this series, because it rarely involves the demands of actual babies: Instead, there are special music scholarships for teenage girls in New York. Even the bad boys speak in the self-conscious cadences of a Herskovitz/Zwick hero. The show doesn’t just glamorize teen pregnancy, it regards it with the feverish illogic that 24 used to take toward torture: as something inevitable and titillating, a phenomenon encountered by gorgeous people under pressure, with few aftereffects.
There’s also My Generation — my sweet guilty pleasure, the fall debut you people are about to kill by refusing to watch it with me! The series has about 58 too many revelations, but the most ridiculous one concerns a virgin who had sex at the prom, then raised the resulting kid in seeming solitude for nine years. One day, she called to inform the dad, seemingly on a whim. Like much of the show, the plot makes what Buffy’s Oz once described as “the kind of sense that is not,” but I decided to ignore that, particularly because the other pregnancy plot (the punk-who-married-the-jock military-wife bit) is pulled off so beautifully. Please watch this awful show. For all its flaws, it’s an original.
The teen-pregnancy plots on these shows may be goofy fun and/or dangerous propaganda, depending on your mood — but the one thing they always are is prettied up, with closure inevitable. Which makes it all the more surprising that the best show about teen pregnancy turns out to be the greasy reality contender: Teen Mom, MTV’s follow-up to 16 and Pregnant.
In the MTV tradition, this is not exactly a high-minded documentary. It has staged “surprise phone calls”; it has conversations that appear to begin just after a producer prompts, “Now have an argument about custody and wave your finger around.” There are obvious ethical problems with filming teenagers, especially those who need the money and whose craving for fame is toxic.
On the other hand, when you film teenagers, you get something else, too: They’re not actors and they can’t front for long. Way more than any fluffy soap, Teen Mom captures the gritty, grating texture of a real-life crisis, the way a young mom’s life can be ground down hard once the excitement of the birth is over. The three Teen Moms who kept their kids are barely keeping their lives afloat: Maci, the sharpest and most responsible, is caught in a painful struggle for custody and having trouble staying in school. Farrah is strapped, forced to rely on her damaged mother and regularly slapped in the face by the repercussions of her own immaturity. (She was the villain last season, but has become more sympathetic this year — you can see that she’s trying to change, which counts for a lot.)
Instead, Amber has taken Farrah’s role as the train wreck: She’s a neglectful mother, with little empathy and fewer anger-management skills. She’s also an abusive girlfriend to her patsy of a fiancé (this week she was charged with domestic abuse and the video of her punching him will not help her case). Still, the sight of this pathetic, frightening girl unable to answer the questions on the GED, hitting the wall of her own stunted prospects, was strangely affecting. It’s hard to imagine a good outcome, and that’s a grimness you’ll never find on a network drama.
Basically, the show is the best PSA ever made. With the exception of the lovable Catelynn and Tyler — who gave up their child for adoption — everyone else seems trapped. They are tied to exes they will never get rid of; they need the help of families they are struggling to grow past. The show captures the tedium of their lives, but it’s not boring to watch: If 16 and Pregnant made it look like an accidental pregnancy gained you tons of attention and online fans, Teen Mom goes way deeper, in the vein of Intervention — another reality show that lets things look ugly because it allows for the fact that not every story has a happy ending.