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.
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.
But then chaos is at the bottom of all these "mockumentaries." Roy is no fly-on-the-wall, as he claims to be. He confuses every issue with his impertinent questions and comments. When the Zenotec CEO, Peter, invites the firm's only delivery driver to his office to fire him, filmmaker Roy comments in voice-over, "Being cruel in order to be kind is never easy. As Peter is not doing this to be kind, his task of being cruel is even more of a challenge."
The show skewers corporate greed, materialism, and insensitivity to workers in England, but
it applies equally to American concerns.
It's all for laughs, and the acting is good enough to make one forget that we've all been set up for the joke.
And speaking of British television, Sci-Fi Channel's new series, Ultraviolet, is yet another unique British import guaranteed to entertain sci-fi fans. The six-hour miniseries airing over three consecutive nights (July 31, Aug. 1, 2, from 9-11 p.m.) is well written, intriguing, mysterious, and beautifully acted. All the major performers were classically trained, and it makes a big difference: No word or gesture is exaggerated, which makes it seem all the more realistic. It has the aura of a police show, except vampires play the villains. A whole technology has been developed to cope with these latter-day Draculas, along with a covert state-sanctioned vampire-execution team called "The Squad." These officers neutralize the vamps, who cannot be killed, turning them to red dust and incarcerating the dust in a high-tech prison made for the purpose. The vamps can be reconstituted under the right conditions.
But what do these creatures of the night want? Is it to keep human beings as a food supply, to control and farm them? Is the issue mass destruction or mass hypnosis and slavery?
Or maybe what they want is something worse. Part detective fiction, part environmental thriller, part unrequited love story, this absorbing film questions the nature of evil - and the existence of God.
It's spooky, but like much of speculative fiction - asking "What if?" - its real purpose is to examine moral issues. How does evil insinuate itself into human consciousness? How does it hypnotize?
One way is to question the reality of good. The vampires try to persuade the humans that there is no God, claiming themselves as the only immortals. Are the vamps merely misunderstood? How will the humans unlock the puzzle of the vampires' real intentions and save mankind from demonic influences?
Sci-fi fans will find the metaphors appealing, the questions intriguing, and the solutions surprising.
Women Film Pioneers presents Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Power of Women in Hollywood (TCM, Aug. 3, 8-9 p.m.). The Hollywood machine has more women working in it now than, say, 25 years ago. But women worked throughout the industry during the silent era, acting, writing, directing, and producing films.
No screenwriter was better paid or more popular than the brilliant Frances Marion, who wrote for Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Rudolph Valentino, and Gary Cooper, among many others. She wrote screenplays for "The Scarlet Letter" and "The Champ," and most of Pickford's films. This fine documentary is hosted by Uma Thurman, with Kathy Bates reading Marion's own words.
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