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TV Review: Fox's 'American High' a lesson in real teens

Wednesday, August 02, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Reality TV is all the rage this summer, but don't lump Fox's "American High" in with the contrived likes of "Survivor" or "Big Brother." This docudrama series, premiering tonight at 9, is about teen-agers, but it's not MTV's "The Real World."

"American High" is actually real, or as close as TV gets. The kids aren't always likable, but they are multidimensional. They misbehave, use language that will appall some parents and make a general nuisance of themselves, as teen-agers are wont to do. But these kids are also thinking, feeling human beings with more layers than any character on "Dawson's Creek" (especially now that that show is a hollow shell of its former self).

Although "American High" may appeal to some teens (actually, it may hit too close to home), it's really an instruction manual for adults.

Academy Award-nominated documentarian R.J. Cutler ("The War Room" and "A Perfect Candidate") set up shop at a suburban Chicago high school, bringing along a few other producers and videographers.

 
   
"American High"

When: 9 tonight on WPGH

 
 

Cutler and his collaborators created a video diary class during this past school year and interviewed students interested in enrolling and learning how to operate cameras, use editing equipment and film themselves talking to the camera in short "video diaries." The cast of "American High" was culled from those 20 students, including hyperactive Morgan, friendly Robby and his girlfriend, Sarah.

Morgan will likely be the show's standout student because he's boisterous and outrageous. He espouses an immature credo, saying high school is all about doing drugs, having unprotected sex, staying out all night and watching "porno, porno, porno."

"Being a kid gives you an excuse to screw up," Morgan says.

At a Fox press conference for "American High" last month, he described himself as "a new breed of person," citing his various interests in causing trouble and alternately being sensitive.

In tonight's premiere, Sarah says she was "this flat thing of clay and Robby molded me into the person I am. I just turned 17, and I've already found the love of my life."

Morgan and Sarah clearly think they're the first people to have made these pretty routine discoveries, and why shouldn't they? With perspective, they may both come to realize how wrong they are now, but in the volatile teen years such beliefs are common.

Regardless, you may want nothing to do with these kids. That was my original reaction. But give "American High" a few episodes and you'll see that Morgan may be full of himself, but he's not just "the badass," which was his own reaction to his on-screen persona. I don't think he truly believes most of what's in his credo (except maybe the porno part), and he's even capable of making sense.

"You want to grow up so quick," Morgan says, "but then when you get older, you just want to be a kid again."

In a future episode, viewers see Morgan, a gymnast, volunteer to help disabled kids learn how to use a springboard and walk a balance beam. To his own surprise, he discovers he likes working with children, that it's fulfilling to give. "Maybe one day I'll become the people I dread: a teacher."

Although Morgan clearly hopes to be a celebrity of some sort (I can easily see him as an MTV personality), the others appear to have no starry-eyed ambitions. They're normal kids with normal problems. In the series, Sarah talks openly about her loneliness when her single mother spends a lot of time with her boyfriend at his Chicago apartment.

A football player with the nickname Kiwi has a platonic friendship with Anna, while dating a girl named Rachel. Yet he's always more eager to see and talk to Anna, which makes me think he's completely confused about which one he really loves.

At last month's Fox press conference, Robby dismissed any and all similarities between "American High" and "Survivor" or "The Real World."

"We didn't come to them; they came to us," he said. "I was getting ready to relax in my senior year. And they just came. This show is just so much more intense and real [than 'Survivor'], like, it's the real reality, which is the most intriguing thing in the world to watch."

Fox tried a similar program, "Yearbook," in 1991, shortly before "The Real World" hit it big. "Yearbook" didn't last, and Cutler described "American High" as less newsmagazine-like in its format than "Yearbook" was. He said he and the other producers weren't just documenting the students' lives, rather, they were collaborating with them to tell their stories.

"You're there to see them as clearly as possible, to tell their stories as honestly as possible," Cutler said. "If you understand that and you are approaching them as people, the tendency is for the subjects to be more and more comfortable and to open themselves up and to live their lives."

I can't stress enough how human and humane these teen-agers come across, none more so than Robby. In an upcoming episode, viewers learn his best friend, Brad, is gay. Many teen-agers would flip out at such a revelation, or at least become uneasy.

Robby had a much more mature reaction, and although it's dealt with in the show, the way he described his reaction to Brad's coming out at Fox's press conference was even more touching.

"When you look in someone's eyes -- when they've told you a secret that's been hiding for 17 years -- it's just this total solitude and loneliness that no one should ever have to feel," Robby said. "It didn't matter to me. Why should it matter? It's humankind, you know. Quite honestly, I like Brad 100 times better now that he's out. He's more real, he's himself, and he's thriving."

That sort of compassion makes it clear these kids are all right. Whether they're as empathetic as Robby or as complicated as Morgan, "American High" gives fascinating insight to the lives of today's teen-agers.

You may not always like them, but "American High" will help you understand them.



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