The high school video diaries
Fox's provocative new reality drama, 'American High,' gives an eye-opening account of teenagers' lives.
American High is Fox's new reality TV show (Wednesdays, beginning Aug. 2, 9-10 p.m.). But unlike "Big Brother" and "Survivor," this is no game. What is revealed about American youth is truly eye-opening. Fourteen teenagers from a suburban Chicago high school were given cameras of their own to make video diaries of their experiences, thoughts, and relationships. They were also followed around by camera crews. Then the year-long filming event was shaped into 13 half-hour episodes.Skip to next paragraph
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A lot of it is surprising, if not shocking. It's not because we didn't know what kinds of excesses young people in America are exposed to, but because this series of documentaries feels so unvarnished. Unlike MTV's "Real World," the students go about their normal activities, relating to parents and teachers; they are not placed in contrived situations.
Which is to say, something truthful comes through all the careful editing.
Each show is built around a theme - the first is about being a kid, living in a kid's world. The second episode is about identity - the proverbial "Who am I?"
It's clear which of these kids have had enough love and guidance, discipline and freedom - and which could have had better upbringing. But the series is also capable of defeating our expectations. In one case, young Morgan seems to be selfish and self-indulgent, and his father calls him a "rotten kid" on camera - it's appalling, and it's no surprise he acts out.
And then, Morgan's better nature surfaces. In a revealing moment we see him working with disabled teens - and he's really good at it. In a voice-over, he tells us he might want to be a teacher someday and work with handicapped children. When Morgan behaves badly or voices materialistic concerns, he's not nearly so at home in himself as he is with the special children he helps.
So it's well not to make any premature judgments about these children. If anything, it makes viewers appreciate how dear they are - even if we want to see them rescued from their darker inclinations.
The high school where the year-long filming went on was enthusiastic and supportive of the filmmakers. The students, chosen from senior-class volunteers, are meant to represent a cross section of the population. But these are all kids who want to tell their story.
Says executive producer R.J. Cutler, "I didn't know what we would find. I wondered if it [high school life] had changed beyond comparison. What I found was that kids were far more sophisticated than I remember being.... Maybe it's the exposure to different media influences, the way they were raised, the divorce rate, the feeling of entitlement - these are not people who were raised to be seen and not heard. But when that apparent sophistication is peeled away, they are kids, too, just like we were.
"The show aspires to show all the complications of their lives. They are children to the bone. Sometimes selfish, they want to have as much fun as possible. But they are baffled, too, and they are also adults - all at once."
Just in case you haven't had enough reality TV, how about a satire of all this up-close-and-personal stuff?
People Like Us (BBC America, Fridays, beginning tonight at 8 p.m.) is loaded with deadpan humor with just a slight twist of insight behind it.
In the first episode, filmmaker Roy
Mallard turns his razor-sharp camera lens on a fictional company called Zenotec, none of whose executives can explain what they manufacture. When Japanese executives arrive with an incompetent translator, chaos reigns.