The fall and rise of American High has been a largely ignored chapter in the reality-TV phenomenon. Produced and scheduled as a 13-week inquest into the lives of 14 Illinois high-school students, the program was pulled from Fox TV's lineup last August after only four 30-minute episodes were aired. The proffered reason -- poor ratings -- made "American High" a particular pariah, the unpopular kid among Immunity Challenging overachievers.
It's fitting that the series has gained a new lease on life by coming "home" to public TV, which all but invented the reality genre with the 1973 PBS docudrama "An American Family." Beginning Wednesday, April 4, WMFE-TV, Channel 24, will broadcast all 13 episodes of "American High" in order, augmented with behind-the-scenes material and "where-are-they-now" updates. (The show will air at 10 p.m. in weekly one-hour blocks that will replay the previous installment before unveiling the latest. The April 24 broadcast will begin at 11 p.m.)
It's a welcome development, and not just because the program's generous cast of characters had barely been introduced when the Fox ax fell. Though a review of its first 120 minutes reminds us that "American High" is far from perfect, its creators -- including director/executive producer R.J. Cutler, who helmed the Clinton-campaign document "The War Room," and co-producer Jonathan Mednick, who now teaches film production at the University of Central Florida -- clearly had a little more on their minds than commercial TV customarily offers.
That's not to say that they didn't occasionally try to fit in. The show's opening credits ape "The Real World," right down to their scruffy typeface. And the need for a Fox-ready breakout star is evident in the inordinate amount of screen time devoted to Morgan Moss, the series' outspoken problem child. An ADD case whose life is a parade of prescription drugs, Morgan prefers hedonism to homework. "That 'F' stands for fun!" he says in episode No. 1.
In addition to following the kids to classes and extracurricular activities at Highland Park High School, Cutler and his crews furnished them with their own cameras to record family interactions and personal confessions. In one hilarious monologue, Morgan says he'll behave more sensibly when he turns 18 and becomes legally culpable for his actions. Bart Simpson might envy such self-aware hooliganism.
But "American High" reaches beyond teen exploitation, so Morgan is allowed to be more than a funny lunkhead flexing his muscles in a Calvin Klein ad. He yearns to make something of himself, and he's a font of passion -- for his girlfriend, for public service (he teaches gymnastics to the disabled) and for modern dance, a hobby he begins in episode No. 3.
The pursuit of dreams is a leitmotif of "American High," which places the kids' interests and romantic courtships (most of which look fumbling but well-intended) in opposition to their parents' whiny calls for them to find "focus." The least ambition -- and the most inner turmoil -- is exhibited by Kaytee, a budding singer-songwriter who's afraid to aim higher than the coffeehouse circuit and heaps scorn on those who do. Kaytee's original material sounds just like Ani DiFranco's, but she claims Kurt Cobain as an early influence. "Maybe I could die tomorrow," she muses at one point.
Most of the outright idiocy we see is adult idiocy. Morgan's parents denigrate him on camera many times in the first four programs, at one point verging on physical assault. The father of a young dancer named Suzy proves incapable of praising his daughter without an accompanying criticism. (When he makes a crack about her weight -- her hot-button issue -- we can almost hear the nation's bulimics calling for his head.) Nice guy Mike "Kiwi" Langford comes home depressed after blowing a football game, only for his doltish mom to blame his mood on hormones, adrenaline and cholesterol.
The series includes not one but two sensitive athletes. In between cuddling sessions with his girlfriend, Sarah, a lacrosse and soccer player named Robby provides emotional support to Brad, his openly gay buddy. Robby's retelling of Brad's coming-out speech is an affecting vignette, and the latter boy's parents are paragons of forward thinking, the exception to the series' rule. Brad's mother admits that she's known her son was gay since he was 8 years old. At such moments of discovery, she says, one's concern "is always for the child." When he creates a collage of male figures, his folks hail the work as "fantastic."
Those sequences are the closest "American High" comes to its truest recent antecedent, filmmaker David Zeiger's 1998 documentary, "The Band." In that independent offering (screened here as part of the now-defunct Central Florida Film & Video Festival), Zeiger trained his camera on the Decatur High School Marching Band -- including his own son, Danny. Zeiger's admitted bias touched his film with a light but loving hand that's missing from "American High." By and large, we're put on the same level with these kids, all of us denied a trustworthy chaperone.
Yet a yawning gap in verisimilitude remains. To take the Fox footage as gospel, the pubescent stars of "American High" hardly ever hurt each other intentionally; that's the grown-ups' job. There are few hints of the horrors real teens routinely inflict on each other (ironically, out of a desire to be seen as incipient adults). The first four programs are so obviously engineered to win our sympathies that we instead harbor morbid curiosity as to where all the pimply faced good intentions are actually leading.
Is trouble brewing between Kiwi and his girlfriend, Rachel? Will his allegedly platonic friend, Anna, be the instigator? And how many of these questions can we ask before we start to feel dirty for making youths the objects of our voyeurism? Are we on Temptation Island after all?
It spares our self-respect to ask different questions -- like what happened to the already marginalized students who weren't deemed "interesting" enough to follow, or what effect the shoot had on the school society in general. By definition, "American High" can't address the first issue, and it doesn't appear bothered by the second. But there's enough truth among the guilty-pleasure melodrama to keep us coming back for more. In format at least, the program nails the high-school experience: How well we understand it is as irrelevant as how it makes us feel. It's going to happen to us anyway, and all we can do is watch.