Teenage sex on Everwood.

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Nov. 23 2004 1:18 PM

Virginity Lost

When it comes to sex on teen dramas, father doesn't always know best.

Let's talk about sex
Let's talk about sex

On Everwood, the WB's family drama about life in a small Colorado town, Ephram (played by Gregory Smith) has been in love with Amy (Emily VanCamp) since the show's first episode in the fall of 2002. Their tumultuous journey to coupledom spanned the show's first two seasons, which corresponded with their sophomore and junior years in high school. The pair faced many obstacles, most of them resulting from the fact that Amy's boyfriend, Colin, was in a coma. Finally, at the end of last season, Amy and Ephram made it through the wilderness and began dating. Last night, in the parlance of teens everywhere, they did it.

Since 1991, when Brenda lost her virginity with Dylan at the spring dance on Beverly Hills, 90210, teenagers have been having sex on television. At the time, the subject matter was so controversial that the 90210 writers created a pregnancy scare in the next episode, which caused Brenda to realize she wasn't ready for a sexual relationship. Yet Brenda and Dylan did conceive that night at the dance: Their child is the teen soap—and where there are school-age children, there are virgins about to be deflowered. In the past year alone, teenage characters have lost their virginity on Summerland, Veronica Mars, Degrassi: The Next Generation, Dead Like Me, Life As We Know It, The OC, One Tree Hill, 7th Heaven, and Gilmore Girls. That's, like, a lot.

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The conventions of the Very Special Virginity episode are by now well-established: Articulate kids fret about the decision, and parents usually learn of it in some way, giving them the access they need to become the moral arbiter of the situation. Sex tends to be represented by both the parents (and the show) as forebodingly destructive—to the teens' future, to their mental well-being, to the family unit. Needless to say, the relationship usually doesn't last very long after it's been consummated, with the reasons for the breakup ranging from unreturned phone calls to nervous breakdowns. (And occasionally they are a bit odder: On 7th Heaven, Simon's minister father reminded him he wasn't capable of casual sex because of his "more than casual relationship with Christ.")

Amy and Ephram's story follows many of these conventions: Amy worries that the couple's pre-sex talks have been much like negotiating "the Treaty of Versailles" ; Ephram's father is clued in to the fact that his son is about to have sex by a fellow doctor who tested Ephram for STDs. But Everwood also deviates significantly from the moralistic, father-knows-best standard. The show, which has consistently represented its young characters as sane, autonomous people who are often better-equipped to make important decisions than the adults around them, views Ephram and Amy's decision to enter into a sexual relationship as loving and rational.

That parents are so intimately involved in their children's sex lives is one of the peculiar conventions of teen dramas. The shows advance an idealized vision of raising children, where kids keep few secrets. When sex is involved, this order of things brings successes and failures, both dramatic and psychological. On Gilmore Girls, when Rory had sex for the first time with her old boyfriend (who in doing so was cheating on his wife), her mother's devastation was heartrending; on The OC, when middle-aged mom Kirsten spoke with regret about a long-ago abortion, thus changing a pregnant high-schooler's mind, the effect was utterly creepy. Both of these shows place adults on the morally correct side of the equation. Rory was, in fact, committing adultery with Dean, and if Theresa had aborted her pregnancy, she would have gone against her Catholic upbringing.

In last night's episode, however, the status quo has been inverted: There are few secrets between the kids and the parents, but for most of the episode, it's the parents who seem immature and unprepared. "You bring the condoms, I'll see if I can score us some of my mom's fried chicken for after," Amy says to Ephram as they plan their tryst with businesslike efficiency. When Ephram arrives at Amy's family cabin before Amy does, he replaces the crayon drawings and stuffed animals from her childhood—the show's recurring symbols of the way Amy's parents infantilize her—with more age-appropriate candles, roses, and a roaring fire.  The parents, meanwhile, are at loose ends back home. Ephram's dad frets to a female friend, weirdly wondering aloud whether his son is having sex; Amy's mother talks her priggish husband out of his threat to search local motels for the young couple in order to remind Amy of  "the promises she made at Sunday school."

It's significant that this is not the first time Everwood has dealt with teenage sex. Ephram lost his virginity with his former girlfriend, Madison, last winter. Madison, who was older and cooler than Ephram, made him seem desperate and young by contrast. These qualities were reproduced in their sexual dynamic: The first time they tried to sleep together, Ephram ejaculated prematurely, then compounded the problem by flying into a humiliated rage.

Their "unhealthy" union led to typical teen-soap consequences. In last season's finale, Madison came to Dr. Andy Brown (Treat Williams), Ephram's father, to tell him she was pregnant and ask how she should tell Ephram. His immediate and decisive answer: Don't. So Madison left the town and the show without Ephram knowing of her pregnancy. Andy's decision to cut Ephram out of this problem, and viewers' knowledge that someday the truth will be known now looms over every interaction between the father and son—including the fraught moment during last night's episode when Ephram tells Andy that he means to spend the night with Amy. As Ephram leaves the house, Andy feebly implores Ephram to "be safe." When he repeats himself, Ephram is simply annoyed, but the audience knows the real reason behind his fearfulness.

With this plotline, Everwood perpetuated the teen soap's abiding discomfort with that loaded nexus of parents, kids, and sex. But the show also explicitly questions Andy's authority. The adult characters who know that Andy hid Madison's pregnancy regularly condemn him for it by telling him how unforgivable this decision was. Indeed, the story of Everwood is Andy's education as a father: He was cold, absent, and barely knew his children until his wife died. Since giving up his life in New York to move to Everwood, Andy has been learning to be a parent, but it isn't clear he's learned to be a good one.

Some critics have accused Everwood of being too preachy, and of bending over backward to show both sides of controversial issues, like an after-school special. Not last night. That the show unquestionably comes down on the side of Ephram and Amy's mutual decision to have sex will likely be controversial. But for now, even Amy's mother concludes, "At least now we know she's in a safe environment with a boy we can trust." And then, "He might even wind up being our son-in-law someday." How things have changed since the romance of Brenda and Dylan.

Kate Aurthur is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.