I know Michelle hates it, but there is something to be said for reality programming-when it is showing us actual reality and not some farce dreamed up by greedy producers in search of the Next Big Ratings Gimmick. Not that this should in any way be taken to mean that I do not approve of, say, Survivor. Because, um, I do. A lot.
I am nowhere near approaching Old, not really, and yet when confronted with children, teenagers, even college students, the gap separating me from them seems leagues wider than the gap separating me from, say, my parents, or other various people falling squarely under the heading of “Adult.” So it was with some trepidation that I finally got myself to turn on American High, currently or not showing on public television. Despite the uniformly good reviews I had read, my expectations were, to put it mildly, low. I have little patience for the immaturity of real-life high school students, on the one hand, and a complete lack of belief in and/or sympathy for the over-articulate, self-deconstructed-to-death prattling of shows like Dawson’s Creek, on the other.
And at first, I thought that American High was no different. In the very first scene I watched, Allie Komissar was in a meeting with her mother and a guidance counselor. The subject, not unexpectedly, was grades, and a perception on the part of her mother of a certain lack of motivation. Allie explained that she didn’t need to worry about her grades, because she didn’t intend to go to college right away. Instead, she planned on taking a year off. “I’m not ready,” she kept repeating.
“How stupid,” I thought to myself. “She thinks she’s not ready for school, but she is ready for the world. And then when she’s out in it, it will be harder than school could ever be, and more trouble, and the task of extricating herself later to attend school will seem almost insurmountable. If you can get in, just go to college, for god’s sake.”
Then, as the episode progressed, I learned more about Allie. Her parents had recently divorced and she felt torn between them. She and her mother had just moved into a new house. With so many changes, which she was still attempting to sort out, how could she be expected to welcome another change, and perhaps the most major? It made sense that she wanted to hold off on school-keep at least one thing in her life firmly under her own control. Not that I thought her decision was necessarily the right one, but I realized that it was being made under a wealth of determining factors, and not simply out of teenage stubbornness.
And then, when the episode ended, they showed portions of how they put the show together. I knew the main premise: that they had selected ten or so students and over the course of a year videotaped their lives, as well as giving them cameras to record whatever the students found important. This episode, however, the producer was talking about the tape that they had gotten from Allie one week. They aired it then, and it was incredible. Speaking directly to the camera, she made this unbelievably eloquent, touching plea.
“Please,” she said and I am paraphrasing here-I apologize “remember, we are real people and these are real stories. Respect us. Believe us. Remember.”
It was simple and articulate and one of the truest things I can remember seeing on television in a long time. This girl, who I had immediately pegged as being quite typical, turned out to be anything but.
And the other episodes I’ve seen are the same way-you meet one of the teenagers, and you think, “Oh yes. I know what this kid is about.” Only then you listen to them talk, and you see their lives, and you realize that it’s all much more complex and interesting than you thought.
Not only that, this show managed to capture things I’ve never seen anywhere else on TV. One of the girls, Anna, was interviewing her mother.
“In an ideal world, what would your dream life be?”
Her mother’s answer was quick, and she smiled. “I’d want enough money to send you through college.”
“No, no,” Anna said, “for you-what would your dream for yourself be?”
Her mother froze as she played for time. “I don’t know-that’s hard-I don’t really think that way.”
I could see the emotions flit across her face: fear, incomprehension, apprehension, and deep sadness.
And that was it. She couldn’t come up with an answer. Absolutely was at a loss. And it wasn’t dressed up; there wasn’t a string underscore to cue me that this was a “sad” moment, there were no close-ups or dramatic lighting. Just this woman and her daughter, and enough pain to break your heart.
Ultimately, this is why I appreciate the show. Because it gives me an unadulterated, unforced, unmediated glimpse into the lives of these people. Not that there hasn’t been editing done to the footage, because obviously there has. But as a viewer, I’m not “told” what I should be feeling or when I’m supposed to react. I am allowed simply to watch, and draw my own conclusions. And this is infinitely more engaging to me than any 100 episodes of Beverly Hills 90210.