Teenagers hate to be pigeonholed. Since I teach at a small private school, I'm expected to learn more about my students than their GPAs. But how much? That calculation requires careful distinctions between what kids do and who they are--to them, the first provides only occasional hints, at best, about the second. When one advisee mentioned that she wouldn't be getting much work done that weekend, I innocently asked if she'd be hitting another rave. My bad. "I went to one, and now you think I'm Raver Girl or something," she growled.
The best clue to the excellence of the new Fox reality series, American High (WFTC-TV Channel 29; 8:00 p.m. Wednesdays), is that it never makes the same mistake. Admittedly, the roster of 14 students at suburban Highland Park High School outside of Chicago, each of whom was equipped with a camera during junior or senior year, recalls the all-stars John Hughes kept after school for The Breakfast Club: jocks, popular girls, sensitive singer-songwriters, and nerds. Yet we also come across such newer public specimens as a gay kid, a black girl torn between cultures, and a white homeboy squandering a future he's unable even to outline.
Despite these broad sketches, nobody plays entirely according to type. Morgan, a recovering ninth-grade geek, now sags his jeans to half-mast, drums for a Korn-style garage band, and clowns compulsively. "You get D's in school," his little brother taunts. "You fail...having fun!" Morgan ripostes. This before Dad reads Morgan the riot act: "If you were a decent student, I wouldn't care if you lived in a pigsty. But you're a lousy student, and you live in a pigsty, and you have rotten manners, and you have no respect. You're an absolutely obnoxious kid, and everything that's good about you only surfaces with people outside this house." From what we can tell, Dad gets an A for accuracy: Morgan whines incessantly about parents and teachers; envisions his teen years as a primo opportunity to get wasted, have unprotected sex, and rent "porno, porno, porno"; and mispronounces "résumé" when he sees a job-fair announcement on the wall. ("That's my education right there," he complains.)
Columbine or Burger King, right? Nope. Morgan doesn't pull off the journalistically comforting notion of "righting himself," but he starts teaching gymnastics to disabled kids. The fact that he pops a cornucopia of pills for ADD (none of which quite does the job) might help prod him into unaccustomed empathy. "I know that I don't listen, and I know that they don't listen," he muses. "So I know what I would want somebody to say to make me listen." By episode's end, he has surprised himself with the notion of helping someone else: "Who knows? One day I might become the people that I dread...a teacher."
Or maybe not. Director R.J. Cutler, who previously caught campaign strategists off guard in The War Room, keeps the camera running, letting Morgan and his classmates hang themselves, redeem themselves, or merely muddle along. Mixing in interviews, ride-along camera, and healthy doses of the kids' own footage (watch for Morgan's Blair Witch flight from parental repression), Cutler loosely groups his material: Who am I? is the focus of the second episode. At the same time, he allows the kids to sculpt public personas whose glaze is still wet. Unlike the ageless "teens" on Dawson's Creek, who can't entertain a feeling without three pages of setup dialogue, these kids flit from persona to persona, then follow the tracks they've made in search of clues to themselves.
Here we meet pumpkin-faced Robby, burly, goateed captain of the soccer and lacrosse teams, who helms an SUV to school and swaggers through the halls with the serene conviction that the world, or at least this segment of it, is his for the taking. But we also see him confide needy, romantic dreams to his girlfriend, and support his best friend--a gesture that's moving precisely because it's unpremeditated. When this kid, Brad, who also has his own camera, came out to Robby, the soccer star reports, he caught the look of imminent desolation in his friend's eyes, then reassured him: "That's cool. I still love you. Like, it's all good."
But it's the girls whose go-for-broke guts can shatter your heart. Where the guys erect imposing public façades to conceal raving terror, the girls escort you straight into their dream lives. Many of them seem primarily to desire boyfriends, a circumstance that probably speaks equally to cinematic convention and the bedrock conservatism of high school. Though Sarah is clearly popular, she chooses to define herself as Robby's girlfriend, revealing a naked need, pulverizing in its total self-abnegation: He's all she has, and she's terrified but certain that he'll meet someone else next year at the University of Colorado. "I wish I could walk on water," she tells him by the lakeshore. "I bet if you really wanted to, you could," he replies, doing his best to deliver some fraction of the all-enveloping understanding she pines for.
Meanwhile, spunky Anna gal-pals around with best friend Mike, the kicker on the football team, aching for a man of her own. If this were a Julia Roberts movie, she'd get the guy, but here, maybe not. Even wryly self-possessed singer-songwriter Kaytee, boho daughter of a boho mom, doesn't have any answers. Persuaded to follow a friend's band to the mic, she parcels out her anger like Lili Taylor in Say Anything: "Barry Barry Barry/Has a band with a record deal/And all they play are cover songs/By bands I don't really like." Will anyone buy her demo tape? Stay tuned.
Though the traumas are suburban in tone and depth (nobody appears to have grave drug problems or a serious sexually transmitted disease), the show never condescends to its cast. Nerds enjoy the same screen time as cool kids, girls about as much airspace as boys. Cutler keeps the faith as these kids resort to the camcorder as friend, confessor, lover. As media-savvy consumers, they no doubt know what stories mass culture wants to hear, but they can't help living these narratives anyway. Giving the lie to scary-teen hysteria, American High catches the Class of 2000 right on the cusp between insufficiency and self-sufficiency. It's a wholly unpatronizing vision of youth today, and one of the sweetest bouquets TV has ever tossed the American teenager. Just as we watch the high school kids in our lives with an eye on their evolution toward adulthood, we can hardly wait to see how this televised crew will turn out.
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