Two new reality shows focusing on high school were announced today, and while they appear to have the same core goal, their implementation is wildly different—and illustrates two completely different approaches to producing reality and unscripted television.
- American High School is National Geographic’s series that “goes inside the senior year of students from Orangeburg, South Carolina, who share the highs and lows of their academic, athletic and personal achievements over the course of one year.” The network calls it “a front-of-the-classroom seat to witness firsthand what it’s like to walk those halls every day for four years.” (The name recalls a similar, early reality series: RJ Cutler’s American High.)
- Undercover High is A&E’s series that “follows seven young adults, ranging in age from 21 to 26, who embed themselves for a semester in Topeka, Kansas’ Highland Park High School” and “pose as typical students—attending classes, making friends and participating in school clubs and activities—to provide an inside look at what it’s like to be a teenager today.” A&E says those people have “personal motivations driving them to help enact positive change.”
One show follows actual high school students during their senior year. The other sends in fake students to spy on kids.
Okay, I’m being a little ridiculous—but so is an A&E series that has 20-somethings pretend to be high school students instead of just filming actual high school students. It’s weirdly amusing when fictional shows cast people in their 20s or 30s as teenagers; doing that in real life just seems weird.
What’s curious to me is that A&E wants to do something interesting—”discover the challenges and complexities, both new and familiar, facing today’s teens”—but doesn’t want to use actual teens to do that. It’s like wanting to know more about babies by putting on diapers and drinking out of a bottle instead of watching babies.
Then again, a show I liked was A&E’s Teach, on which Tony Danza actually taught a class for a year, when a show might have just followed an actual teacher, as I pointed out in my review.
At the very least, I’m grateful that we’ll have both shows: It’ll be interesting to compare them, to see which series does a better job of conveying the experience of current high school students.
A&E’s show starts Oct. 10; NatGeo’s starts Sept. 26.