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American High

Author Koren Stembridge
Air Date 9/6/2000

American High Transcript

Here’s Koren Stembridge on the Internet, with a review of one of the latest reality-based shows – this one for teenagers.

By now, you must have heard about the FOX network’s reality-TV series “American High” – you may have even tuned in once or twice. This series, the brainchild of documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler, follows 14 high school students over the course of a school year. Cutler’s original vision for the program was to be a non-fiction version of the short-lived, break-through TV series about teen experience “My So-Called Life.” He first scouted for a school that was interesting, diverse, and brave enough to commit to the project – he found that school in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. Then, he culled through the more than 120 applications from students who were willing to have their lives filmed twenty-four hours a day.

The strength of “American High” is that the students featured represent a very real cross-section of teen life and culture. How do I, a 30-something adult know this? Well, one of the features of this project is a terrific interactive website that ties into the program. Online, teens can, and do, weigh in on the issues revealed by each episode and on the students whose discoveries and truths are recorded on film.

For example, one of the most talked-about subjects on the site is Morgan, a difficult, foul-mouthed, struggling, kid who still manages to endear himself to viewers, especially teen viewers. Personally, I found Morgan a bit troubling – his anger and aggression are hard for me to get past. However, as easy as it is to cast Morgan as the bad boy, one must also consider his uncanny ability to connect with the disabled people he instructs in a community gymnastics program.

On the message boards, many teens assert that Morgan really speaks for them. Their postings range from fellow slackers who have found a kindred spirit, to soft-spoken warnings from students who caution society against judging a book by its cover.

Also available online are video diaries. Here viewers can log on for a further glimpse into the lives of the show’s subjects.Brad, a gay teenager who recently came out, speaks compellingly about the loneliness of life at the margins of the typical teen dating scene. While Anna, a lovely young woman, also laments her inability to find a nice boyfriend. As different as these two students appear on the surface, they face the same adolescent struggles that are familiar to us all.

American High, and its companion website, has certainly struck a chord with teenagers. I think it’s because after being Dawsonized for so long, teens are relieved that a truer version of their lives is being offered not only to them, but to their parents. We’d be wise to tune in.

Posted in Television