”So I thought, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be funny if I were famous?”’
On a misty May eve in a tranquil Chicago suburb, a perkily offbeat chick named Kaytee sits strumming her guitar, passionately singing these words. Sixty people and a camera crew have jammed inside a strip-mall coffee shop to witness the teenager’s debut concert. ”When we first met Kaytee,” confides R.J. Cutler, executive producer of the new Fox teenage docuseries American High, ”she described herself as somebody who wrote these silly songs and didn’t have a very good voice. She was listing all the other things she wanted to do with her life. Then a month into the school year, she said, ‘You know what? Music’s really important to me. I don’t wanna be a bum anymore. I wanna do something.’ So she made this very crude demo tape and passed it around. It took a couple of months, but here we are: Saturday night, the week before graduation, Kaytee’s doing a show, the place is packed, and it’s only quarter of nine. Pretty cool, huh?”
The budding songstress seems to agree. Basking later in the heady after-show applause, Kaytee eases her way through the congratulatory hugs. Then she ducks outside for a breather, only to be enveloped in more adulation. ”Ahhhhh!” she shrieks, skipping around the parking lot. ”It doesn’t get better than this…. It doesn’t get better than this!”
Better? Maybe not. Bigger? You’d better believe it. Starting Aug. 2, Kaytee and 13 of her high school classmates from Highland Park, Ill., will have a year of their acne-prone existences played out on national television. Courtesy of Cutler (a 38-year-old Academy Award nominee who produced the political documentaries The War Room and A Perfect Candidate), American High offers a candid, leave-no-stoner-unturned peek inside a locker-lined biosphere. ”It’s the nonfiction My So-Called Life,” says Cutler. ”You’re seeing kids coming together romantically, breaking up, getting back together, and trying desperately to stay together even though they can’t. You’re seeing families splitting apart and coming back together. You’re seeing kids confront the challenges of graduating and other kids trying to figure out what to do with their futures. You’re seeing people recognize they have certain opportunities and gifts, and other people squandering theirs and not being able to get it together. It’s the full range of stories. It’s real personal relationships, coming-of-age lessons.” In other words, it’s just a tad more sophisticated than Fox’s last attempt at reality — Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?
Yet for all of this highbrow curiosity, these students could be facing some serious ratings wedgies. In case you’ve been stranded on Pulau Tiga, the U.S. has been overwhelmed by a reality television craze, and next to high-stakes spectacles such as Survivor and Big Brother, well, let’s just say this series looks like a game of senior-citizen pinochle. There’s no cutthroat academic decathlon, no Brink’s truck full of money for the victor. Sorry to report, no one so much as gets voted off the homecoming court. ”There’s no way to make this look like Survivor,” says Fox executive VP of programming David Nevins, ”but I don’t mind. It’s daring, it’s risk taking…. These kids are in their element — their school, their homes, the places they hang out after school — and it’s a much more real portrait of human behavior than sticking people on an island or in a windowless room.” American High field producer Jonathan Mednick puts it this way: ”When the kids would ask, ‘So, is this going to be like The Real World?’ we’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s going to be like The Real World — only real.”’