A teenager’s life is tragically fraught with opportunities to shame his future self. I’m thinking specifically now of my own high school’s literary arts magazine. I never wrote for it, but I broke it out the other night in a fit of boredom, expecting, maybe, a cheap laugh. Instead, it was kind of dull. The writing wasn’t bad. Well, some of it was, sure. But a lot of it was honest and earnest. There were the expected hackneyed pleas for world peace and such that are always comic gold, but there were also pieces on feeling lonely or isolated, plainly observed and occasionally even moving.
American High, a new documentary series on Fox Television, is kind of the same way. It gives fourteen suburban Chicago teenagers an opportunity to show themselves, warts and all, to the broadest of all possible audiences. It’s like the world’s biggest literary arts magazine, but in this case the teenagers don’t have to use poetry or homoerotic tree drawings to express themselves. They just do their thing, and producer R. J. Cutler (who documented the 1996 Clinton campaign in The War Room), does the rest. For the kids, it’s an enormous opportunity for catharsis. It’s also an opportunity for crippling future embarrassment. When the show works, as it does about half the time, we get to know some interesting young people. The rest of the time, however, we’re watching apparently generic teenagers emote and stuff. It could take a few weeks and an illustrated field guide to tell some of these kids apart. (“Wait… is that the girl who’s going out with the guy with the Jeep?” “Oh, forget it. Who cares?”)
In the first two episodes (shown back to back), we meet eight young people, more or less compelling, and recognizably human. The blandest are Robby and Sarah. He’s an athlete prone to dreamy ruminations; she’s his girlfriend and defines herself as such. She hints that there’s more to her. We all hope so. The second couple, Kiwi and Rachel, isn’t exactly enthralling either: he’s a football player; we know almost nothing about her. They’re mostly like those letter jacket and soda shop couples in the Babysitters’ Club books, except for a creepy intensity that makes Kiwi appear just a little bit dangerous. Listening to him talk about kicking field goals as if it was a tour in Nam, you get the sense that this guy might just boil over. Kiwi is also involved in a platonic friendship with the beautiful Anna. She doesn’t have an official boyfriend, but judging by the boys who flirt with her as she walks down the hall, she isn’t alone by necessity. Could she be pining for Kiwi? The directors clearly want us to think so. They stop just short of dubbing in meows when Anna and Rachel see each other in a parking lot. But these Melrose Place machinations are the least interesting thing about American High.
So far, the best parts of the show have had the least plot. Meeting the characters and exploring their backstories is more fun than watching anything they actually do. In the first two episodes, we meet three wildly different people. The most socially mainstream of the three is Brad, so far the only out gay character. He’s involved in school activities and considerate of others. He’s also good friends with Robby (of Robby and Sarah) and, though he isn’t on a sports team, he feels comfortable enough around the athletic crowd that he reprimands them for making homophobic remarks in the locker room. His home life is serene and nurturing and he seems to draw strength from his parents.
Kaytee is also shaped by her home life, though her place is more bohemian than Brad’s pristine modernist abode. Her mom actually tries to talk her out of going to college. But strangely, having easy-going parents has only made her more resolute. Many people watching will recognize Kaytee as the proto indie rocker of the bunch. She isn’t in with the sports crowd who dominate the hallways with their high fives and baggy pants, but the friends she has chosen idolize her. She plays guitar, wears Lisa Loeb glasses, and writes her own songs. In one particularly poignant scene, she sings her songs into a four-track tape recorder as a male friend watches and sings along. Both her confidence and his adulation are palpable. He knows all the words.
But the center of American High is clearly Morgan. At first he looks to be Puck Junior, another annoying anti-hero. If he doesn’t already own an anarchy T-shirt, he’d definitely enjoy the sentiment. But it’s also quickly apparent that his anti-social behavior has deep roots in frustration. Being consigned to Special Ed classes your whole life, particularly when your little brother is a good student, can’t be easy. His home life is in shambles; he’s always in trouble. We know all this because Morgan tells us. His capacity for self-involvement is limitless and will undoubtedly turn many people off. Moreover, he admits that he wants to be famous. (I guess no one told him that polite people don’t say that out loud.) While Morgan never says outright that his hopes for a showbiz career motivate his being on American High (or maybe the producers just didn’t show us that clip), I think that’s a safe assumption.
But instead of taking his nihilism at face value, the producers show us a reason to love Morgan, or at least try to understand him. The hows and whys are sketchy, but Morgan begins working at a gymnasium for mentally handicapped people. Right away he recognizes his students’ frustration with the world and their desire to transcend the hand they were dealt. The experience is therapeutic and Morgan reveals a regard for other people that he didn’t before. The show’s retelling of this development is too pat to be compelling on its own, but it sets up Morgan as a complicated character. He will undoubtedly be in more trouble in the future. And now that we know something about him, we’ll even care.
Though Morgan is the only character who has changed much, so far, discovery is the theme of American High, almost exclusively. Over and over we hear that high school is a time and place for figuring out “who you are” or “who you want to be.” That’s American High‘s position and it’s probably the right one. Short of national emergency or a nuclear holocaust, self-definition is what occupies teenage minds. And even in a holocaust it’s still a priority: it certainly was for Anne Frank. So American High can’t be faulted for making teen dramas its drama.
Yet the show’s obvious, and superior, precursor, Frederick Wiseman’s classic 1969 documentary, High School, wasn’t obsessed with personal discovery or even teenagers. High School as the name implies, took the entire social and physical system of high school as its focus. It was as much about the teachers and the times as it was about the students. In some respects High School seems old fashioned now: I can’t help but laugh in retrospect at the teacher reading Paul Simon lyrics in class as poetry. But in other respects it seems perfectly modern. Images of social groups like the smart kids and the stoners, or stereotypes, like the goofy self-important gym teacher these things are ageless. Watching High School is like walking into a high school as an invisible adult. Watching American High is more like being enrolled, which is to say, confusing and sometimes annoying.
Part of that immediacy is the result of the footage the kids were allowed to shoot with their own video cameras mostly personal testimonial which Cutler uses as narration or explanation for action on-screen. Other kid-shot footage shows family life when the professional tv cameras aren’t around. In a scene where Morgan’s seriously stressed father almost physically ejects him from the house for being difficult and not cleaning his room, the camera Morgan’s holding acts as a surrogate for his point of view. As we know from watching Cops, a shaky camera means it’s real. And we can feel how shaky Morgan must feel, even as he acts defiantly. It’s at these moments when American High lives up to its promise and feels as real as real life, or at least, as real as good fiction. But just as often American High‘s immediacy acts as a hindrance to clear understanding. Cutler does a good job of illustrating the characters’ stated points of view with scenes from their lives, but he’s frustratingly silent about what isn’t said in confessional voice-overs. Like it or not, what the teachers do behind the scenes has a real bearing on the lives of their students. And what the parents do at or as work matters, too. Neither of these things is a part of American High and the show is substantially poorer for it. Most of the time, this “real life” show just skims the surface that great teen fiction like My So-Called Life and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (based on a true story by Cameron Crowe) burrowed way beneath. Though focused on teenagers, both the tv series and the movie included a wisdom born of experience. In MSCL, it was embodied by Angela’s worried but loving mother; Fast Times, it was borne by the interweaving fables that formed the plot.
American High is ultimately a record of where a certain group of teenagers were in the year 1999. Sometimes it’s interesting; sometimes it’s moving. It’s an admirably non-exploitative effort, full of valuable information. But it’s not gripping television and now that it’s future is uncertain at best, it’s doubly sad that it could have been better.
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