If watching Teen Mom 2 was mandatory for American teens, then maybe the MTV show really would reduce teen births by 6 percent. The show is grim. Really grim. Each episode is like watching The Empire Strikes Back on repeat, with no trilogy-ending, daddy-issues-resolving finale on the horizon. This documentary isn’t MTV’s The Hills or Laguna Beach. The show doesn’t resemble a show. It’s more like boring old life, strenuous and unyielding.
In the vein of True Life, the show follows the girls from the second season of 16 and Pregnant as they grapple with adulthood, single-parenting, and deadbeat fathers. As a running PSA for abstinence (or whatever you have to do to avoid getting knocked up), Teen Mom 2 never misses a moment to drop wisdom.
For instance, Leah, whose daughter has a rare form of muscular dystrophy, is upset that her ex is getting married. “We were young, we made mistakes, we didn’t know what we were getting into when we got pregnant,” she tells her friend, in one of the many couch confessionals in the premiere.
Chelsea’s ex is “graduating” from his third stint in prison for DUIs. He’s like a dirtier version of Justin Bobby from Laguna Beach, with heavily tatted arms. He’s having a baby with his other girlfriend. “It’s not just when you’re 17 or 18. You’re almost 22 and it’s still a problem,” Chelsea’s dad advises her. “You don’t think of that when you’re 16.”
And then there’s Kailyn, who doesn’t have it as bad as the others. She’s married, but fighting her child’s father in a legal battle to move out of the state. She’s also four months pregnant.
But if there’s a Teen Mom 2 celebrity, it’s Jenelle Evans.
In the four years since her television debut, the 22-year-old has had a son, handed off custody of the child to her mother, used heroin, checked in to rehab, married a guy on a whim, was in domestic fight with her husband, was arrested for heroin possession, and spent time in jail. Things only get worse.
“So I went to the doctor the other day ‘cause I was sick, and they were like, uh, we can’t give you a chest X-ray because you’re pregnant.” She goes on in the premiere. “I just keep asking myself, why, why didn’t I make him wear a condom?” And then, because she already has a son to care for and because she lives with her mom, she tells us she’s going to have an abortion. There will be talk of this abortion, especially given the obviously flawed finding that MTV shows like Teen Mom 2 really did reduce teen pregnancy.
[Spoiler alert: Jenelle is now pregnant with her new boyfriend Nathan’s child, though she’s engaged in a Twitter fight with another woman who he may be “talking” to. This, inevitably, will be in this season.]
The abortion itself is a frank depiction of terminating a pregnancy, somehow reminiscent of the staggering Romanian film 4 Months, 3 weeks and 2 Days. Jenelle drives with her mom and son to a motel, and the next day she visits the doctor (though this is off camera). Here there’s no illicit date with a shady man with a suitcase and no struggle to hide the fetus. Instead, it’s just the reality of going through with the procedure.
Teen Mom 2 is a depressing documentary, with most of the action coming from conversations about major plot points. These things haven’t happened on screen. This is a fine grade-school abstinence video—statistics like “Nearly 1 in 4 teen moms has a second birth within 2 years” pop up on screen after commercials—but it really doesn’t make for great television. There’s no dramatic narrative, no story with a clear-cut beginning, middle, and ending. And that makes for a meandering, challenging, non-escapist viewing. Like…life.
“Tomorrow I have to put two pills on one side of my cheek, two pills on the other side of my cheek,” Jenelle tells her mom, after returning from the doctor’s office. “Let them dissolve for an hour. And if they don’t dissolve by an hour I have to swallow them. And they said my uterus would start contracting and releasing it like it’s a miscarriage.”
Minutes later, she’s yelling at her mom, saying she needs a break from her and her son.
“You know what Jenelle…maybe I should’ve just handed you the cash, you could’ve went yourself. Boy you’re always crying for my help or my money…did you even say thank you mom?!”
“I would thank you if you were not a bitch to me.”
Perhaps this is ungrateful, but can you blame her? A young woman is about to make one of the biggest decisions in her life, and under the public spotlight. She can use a break, as much as we need a break from her.