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‘American High’ is real reality

Fox documentary series is gripping

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In a year when reality TV is all the rage, the best of the lot is "American High."

Like the real-life teenagers whose stories it tells, "American High" is fascinating, aggravating, touching, maddening — and its narrative is highly addictive.

The show, which airs back-to-back half-hour episodes at 8 and 8:30 p.m. on Ch. 13, comes to us from filmmaker R.J. Cutler, whose 1993 documentary "The War Room" (about the 1992 Clinton campaign) was nominated for an Oscar. Cutler and his small team of photographers and producers spent an entire school year at Highland Park High School in suburban Chicago following a group of 14 kids — kids who added their own footage and video diaries.

What emerges is a show that is as involving as anything "Survivor," "The Real World" or "Big Brother" has to offer and has the added bonus of being far less contrived.

"I think we are the closest one you can get to reality," said Morgan Moss, one of the students profiled in the project. "We're living in our real houses —this is the way our life is. We get cameras where we get to talk about what we're really feeling, not about, like, 'Yeah, I feel bad that Timmy today was, like, all weird.' "

Moss himself emerges as an early star. And, in the first half-hour, he looks like every parent's nightmare — rebellious, profane, unmotivated and just plain obnoxious. He tortures his studious younger brother for "wasting" his life on homework declaring that "F stands for fun!"

But if you stick around for the second half-hour, you discover that Moss works with the mentally disabled and has had learning problems of his own — he's been on various drugs for years for things like attention deficit disorder.

"I think my first reaction when I saw the episode was, 'Oh, great, I'm the bad-(expletive),' " Moss said. "But other people were like, 'I can't believe you went there. It was so good.' And I was embarrassed at first, but when I got to see my peers' reactions and stuff like that, it turned out that it was all worth it."

And his father takes the whole thing in stride, despite the fact that his son doesn't always have complimentary things to say, to put it mildly.

"I don't think we were at all surprised by it," the elder Moss said. "I mean, you've got to remember, it's 24-7, 18 years of living on this roller-coaster with him.

"I think, basically, the thing is, this was a wonderful thing for Morgan his senior year because my contention has always been if we can just get this kid to survive high school, he's going to become who he needs to be. And high school is something that needs to be survived. And particularly for a kid who has what you could kindly call an alternative learning method."

The elder Moss has seen five episodes of "American High" and he's "incredibly pleased to see how honest (Morgan) was. Some of it's disturbing, but there are very few things that I think he could do that would surprise us, in terms of doing something that's totally off the edge, because he's been pushing the envelope since he was in day care."

There's more to the show than just Morgan Moss, however. The other students are nothing like him and nothing like each other, but the common vein is that they're all adolescents trying to figure out the world and themselves.

The first hour also concentrates on Robby, a popular athlete, and his girlfriend, Sarah, as they deal with the fact that's he's going away to college next year and she's not; Kiwi, who has his own self-doubts despite the fact that he's a popular athlete; Anna, a beautiful girl who has everything but a boyfriend (and who seems to pine after an oblivious Kiwi); Brad, who's the first "mainstream kid" at his school to come out of the closet; and Kaytee, a talented songwriter.

Later on, viewers will see more of Morgan's girlfriend, Salima; Allie, who's struggling with her parents' divorce; Suzy, an aspiring opera singer; Tiffany, one of the school's few black students; and Pablo, a talented poet who lives a rather wild life.

And the show doesn't shy away from controversy. These are real kids who don't always behave the way their parents would wish — the subjects of sex, drinking and drugs are part of the program.

"Those things do come up in the show and they're presented in the context of the stories," Cutler said. "I don't think anybody's going to be surprised by that. I'm going to bet that parents won't be surprised that some high school-age kids in America have sex and some drink and some use drugs."

At least in the first couple of episodes, however, what comes through is that these kids defy their stereotypes. Although they can't overcome the age-old adolescent belief that they're the first people ever to be teenagers — that the older generation can't possibly understand them. All while they're saying exactly the same sorts of things their parents said when they were teens.

Both Moss and Robby Nathan said they were much less motivated by the thought of being TV stars than by the thought of expressing their viewpoints.

"But I think once I really got into it, it was more I wanted to cast my opinion and let people know what I was thinking and what I really feel," Moss said. "Because so much when you're a teenager you have these thoughts in your head like, 'I wish people understood what I'm going through or what I'm thinking and stuff like that.' And this was a blessing. This was the way that you could totally just tell everything that you're feeling so people can relate and understand where you're coming from. So I think it go more into that than wanting to be just a TV star."

"I just wanted people to understand," Nathan said. "I just want them to understand that kids get frustrated and we're a lot more complex than anyone thinks. I was just so sick of the total bureaucracy involved in the school and I just wanted people to listen, I guess."

And all of the participants seem surprisingly honest in their video-diary entries.

"For some reason I just opened up," Nathan said. "And I think it was just because I was so (ticked) off at school, adults — people that just don't understand kids, yet they're bossing us around and telling us what to do. . . . I want things to change or people to realize that we might be 17 or 18 but we've got a lot going on inside our heads. More so than anyone thinks."

"American High" does indeed speak to both a young audience and an older one — reminding those of us who left high school behind any number of years ago what it was like.

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com