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Ellen Gray: TV teen shows inhabit another world

SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER. 8 tonight, ABC Family. MAKE IT OR BREAK IT. 9 tonight, ABC Family. NYC PREP. 10 p.m. tomorrow, Bravo.

"Make It or Break It" follows a small group of female gymnasts.
"Make It or Break It" follows a small group of female gymnasts.Read more


MAKE IT OR BREAK IT. 9 tonight, ABC Family.

NYC PREP. 10 p.m. tomorrow, Bravo.

FEW TEENAGERS, I suspect, learn much about their actual lives from watching television.

Assuming they're watching at all.

Their younger sisters (and some of their brothers) may be trying to read their futures in the activities of Nickelodeon's "iCarly" or Disney's "Hannah Montana," but by the time they've left middle school, they'll probably have moved on, much the way I abandoned Seventeen magazine years before turning 17.

Moving on may mean the CW's "Gossip Girl," where money confers a quasi-adult status on amazingly dressed adolescents, or MTV's "The Hills," where young adults behave like adolescents.

But for 12- to 17-year-olds it's even more likely to mean ABC Family's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," which in its first season set ratings records in that much-targeted demographic with the story of a 15-year-old named Amy (Shailene Woodley) who loses her virginity and gets pregnant in the same night.

And it happens at band camp.

Created by Brenda Hampton, whose "7th Heaven" boasted some of the least-believable teens ever on TV - as well as the largest audiences on its youth-oriented network - "Secret Life," which begins its second season tonight, reflects Hampton's fascination with sex and its consequences.

Amy's far from the only one who's taught a lesson in this show, which also seeks to make things uncomfortable for her warring parents (Molly Ringwald and Mark Derwin) and just about everyone else in her life.

Ringwald, who in real life is expecting twins this summer, won't be spending the season standing behind the couch holding a basket of laundry, Hampton having chosen to use the tools at hand to make it work, even if it means Amy's new baby's soon going to have an aunt or uncle for a playmate.

There is nothing in me that can say that "Secret Life" is a good show, or even a good-for-you show, but I can understand why kids whose media diet's been saturated with sexual images since early childhood might be attracted to a parallel universe where bad behavior's punished more often than it's celebrated.

I'm weirdly attracted myself, if only because "Secret Life" 's characters do and say such unexpected things - whether it's a 15-year-old boy proposing marriage or a sexually active girl advising a friend to hang on to her virginity - that there's seldom a dull moment.

Or, OK, a genuine one.

ABC Family, whose motto, "A new kind of family," clearly seeks to separate the cable channel from its Pat Robertson roots, is erecting a big tent for younger viewers, with shows like "Greek" and "Lincoln Heights" as well as "Secret Life."

Among its summer offerings: "10 Things I Hate About You," a series based on the hit teen-movie takeoff on "Taming of the Shrew"; "Ruby & the Rockits," a rocker-family series starring David and Patrick Cassidy (with brother Shaun getting the story credit); and "Labor Pains," a movie starring Lindsay Lohan, of all people, as a screwup of a secretary who fakes a pregnancy to avoid losing her job.

Another series, "Make It or Break It," which premieres tonight, follows the fortunes of a small group of female gymnasts, would-be Olympians for whom pregnancy's probably less of an issue than puberty.

Chelsea Hobbs stars as Emily Kmetko, a girl from the wrong side of the gymnastic tracks who, in the tradition of every sports movie from "Rocky" to "The Cutting Edge," has been given a shot at the big time.

Not that that's going to be easy, as the politics of the sport threaten her dream almost immediately.

There's very little that's unexpected in "Make It," including the obvious editing of the gymnastics performances.

But Emily's a tough character who's easy to root for.

And though many of the show's grown-ups aren't very grown up, "Frasier's" Peri Gilpin, who plays the mother of two other gymnasts, does a nice job of showing someone trying to do the best for her kids, not just herself.

Certainly I'd rather see a kid of mine tuning in ABC Family's altered reality than Bravo's latest unpleasant exploit-fest, "NYC Prep."

Bad enough that "The O.C." begat MTV's "Laguna Beach" (which begat "The Hills"), and "Desperate Housewives" inspired an entire franchise of angry, table-tipping women on Bravo.

Now, thanks to a collection of well-off New York adolescents whose parents really should have known better, the NBC Universal-owned cable network's out to convince us that those kids from "Gossip Girl" are real.

As if anyone would want them to be. *

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