‘Teen Trouble,’ troubling indeed
Lifetime documentary series reaches beyond the usual cliches
December 17, 2012
Sex and drugs and teenagers. Do we have your attention yet?
That combination has worked so well that TV — both scripted and unscripted — has worn it out. The airwaves are full of shows in which families try to stop a troubled teen’s downward slide. It seems impossible to make the topic fresh.
Despite its almost laughably generic title, Lifetime’s documentary series “Teen Trouble” breaks through the clutter. The teenagers and parents have compelling, relatable stories that engage us from the start. The show’s star is refreshingly low-key and appropriately dramatic. Though the show isn’t doing anything new, it does its old thing well.
In the premiere, airing on Friday, Dec. 28, at 10 p.m., Josh Shipp, a motivational speaker who says that he was a troubled teenager himself after being raised in foster homes, travels to a farming town in Indiana to counsel a 17-year-old girl named Samm, who has been abusing alcohol and drugs and indulging in random promiscuity.
Shipp says that Samm, not her parents, contacted him after she attended one of his talks. In fact, Samm’s parents are unaware of how far gone she is. They say she simply has an attitude problem.
Samm tells the cameras that she smokes pot, snorts prescription drugs and likes to have unprotected sex with guys after getting drunk at parties. She traces her problems to eighth grade, when she texted a naked picture of herself to a boy. Inevitably, the pictures went to everyone at her school, and she lost all her friends and was branded a slut.
Shipp’s process is the same in the two episodes made available for review. He first meets with Samm, who, he says, has had second thoughts since contacting him. She tells him she wants to clean up her life, but not now.
Shipp then talks to Samm’s parents, who seem overwhelmed but not irresponsible. He tells them that she needs boundaries and warns them that she’s more troubled than they suspect.
Shipp tries a “scared straight” tactic: He has members of the local sheriff’s department pull them over and put Samm in juvenile detention. But the scariest moment is when he has Samm sit with her parents and confess to them what she has been up to. The mother and father then have to confess their own failings as parents.
In both episodes, Shipp admits that a week with his subjects and their families won’t be enough. He presents each with a longer-term program. Each episode ends with an update saying how the subject has progressed.
The second episode, featuring a 16-year-old girl named Asmara who smokes pot and routinely drinks until she blacks out, reveals a more troubled family dynamic. Asmara’s father has a violent temper and once beat her so severely that he was ordered by a court to stay away from the family for three years.
Saying Asmara needs to see her likely future, Shipp sets her up with a local teenager who has lived on the streets. They leave Asmara alone to sleep in the cold on a sidewalk.
But later, when a woman visits Asmara to tell her about the death of her daughter from alcohol poisoning, Asmara tunes out. Both Asmara and Samm meet with people with similarly frightening stories, which, as most of us may remember from middle-school drug-education programs, are sometimes so extreme that they can be counterproductive.
When the family gets together for Asmara’s confession, the conversation takes a dramatically frustrating turn. We see what she is up against, and the suspense is unforced.
As is always the case with this kind of show, we have to trust the documentarians not to fudge things. “Teen Trouble” deserves credit because it makes us want to believe it’s true.
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