What are the two most overdone trends in TV today? "Reality" shows and shows about high school. It's hard to believe it's taken this long to combine them, but it's finally happened. And it's pretty interesting.
American High, which premiered Aug. 2, comes from the lens of documentary maker R. J. Cutler, who gave us the fabulous The War Room. His crew, and the students themselves, shot 2,800 hours of footage at Highland Park High School in suburban Chicago during the 1999-2000 school year.
No, they're not forced to remain in the cafeteria and subsist on cockroaches.
This show might actually be close to depicting reality; the kids actually defy stereotypes, unlike on The Real World, where they are cast and edited to fulfill them.
Want to meet a few? There's Robby, the captain of the lacrosse and soccer teams, a good egg who has the clout and heart not to make his gay friend Brad an outcast. Robby's girlfriend Sarah is painfully insecure about his leaving for college. "I was a slab of clay and Robby basically molded me into the person I am. ... He's my life. He's my brother, my father, my lover."
Brad is gay in suburbia. Morgan has Attention Deficit Disorder, pretends to jerk off with a zucchini in front of his dad, and explains, amid footage of himself setting off fireworks, "You blow your arm off, you realize, OK, now I only have one arm -- I realize not to do that again." Kaytee is an Ani DiFranco wanna-be wearing Lisa Loeb's glasses with a mom encouraging her not to go to college.
Of course, to buy American High (and all shows about high school), you have to buy the premise put forth in the opening song: "Now is all we have, now is everything." But this whole idea that "Wherever I go, I search for me" (another lyric), that it's time to make The Big Decisions, that this is the most important time of your life -- what if it isn't true? What if it's just about demographics and disposable income, and since the reigning target market is teens and 'tweens, the TV honchos say, "High school is so important! We take you seriously! Buy from our sponsors!"
Or what if "finding yourself" really doesn't happen 'til college, but since high school is more of a universal experience (and the girls are more jailbait-esque), the honchos have convinced themselves and you that what you do in high school matters to your future?
And is it universal? This is a wealthy white suburb; these kids all have cell phones and cars. Cutler has said that if he gets the go-ahead, he'd like to do future series at rural and inner-city high schools. Too bad he didn't start there.
Imagine how groundbreaking American High would have been had it aired before the glut of high school and reality shows. But is it too late? Maybe we're burned out on white suburban teens and camera confessionals. Or maybe Cutler and crew will finally class up the genre.
American High airs locally on Wednesday at 8 p.m. on Fox