Photo by David Zeiger

Senior Year is the latest in a spate of teenage institutional documentary series that has included American High (canceled by Fox, picked up by PBS) and Freshman Year (from HBO Family, also currently showing a program called Middle School Confessions), as well as the Disney Channel’s Bug Juice (summer camp) and Hoop Stars (girls’ basketball). Though each differs slightly in form and intent, speed of editing and thematic depth (depending upon the age and attention span of the target audience), most are cut to a similar pattern, following for a season or semester or school year a representative selection of young people as they encounter life’s ordinary and less ordinary challenges — young people chosen, it’s fair to assume, for their willingness to talk, on-camera ease, special talent, interesting affliction or native vitality. Traditional good looks, of the sort that The Real World and other manipulated-reality shows prize, are not an issue — in fact, the effect of Senior Year and its ilk is to remind one how multifarious a thing is beauty in the actual real world, how many faces and sizes and odd bits of decoration it wears. In the same way, the best of these shows represent human character as something less categorizable and more contradictory than commercial fictional TV finds it practical or possible or within its creative grasp to describe or admit.

We know from science class that the mere act of observation deforms the thing observed, and even more so when the observed thing knows it’s being watched; and from film class — those of you who chose that elective — that editing creates (or suppresses) drama and the camera decides what you see and that cinema vérité is not as vérité as all that. Yet one comes away from Senior Year feeling that everyone involved has done his level best to reveal and capture something close to The Truth. The series has been assembled — by producer-director David Zeiger, working from footage shot by a team of USC and UCLA film students hired for their trust-engendering chronological proximity to their subjects, along with bits of the video diaries the kids shot themselves — in such a way as not to encourage judgment, to let the film and the students speak for themselves. Which they do with remarkable candor — or perhaps not so remarkable: Many if not most kids nowadays have been videotaped since infancy, have grown up in a culture, not to say a cult, of televised self-revelation; the video confessional is a familiar concept, even if some of them can’t manage to frame their faces properly.

Just what Senior Year has to offer, in a general sense, that the Emmy-winning American High, of which it is formally a clone, did not is difficult to say; but it is an implicit tenet of films about ordinary people that no person is ordinary: We are all snowflake-special. These are different kids, with different stories, and though they may run superficially to recognizable type, none are typical (the football star — on a team logging 36 straight losses — is a quiet honor student; the tagger is a serious Catholic; the flamboyant gay kid is way into ROTC). They go to our own Fairfax High, and in terms of class and ethnicity are more widely ranged than the students of the mostly white, upscale, John Hughes–style Chicago-suburban Highland Park High School where American High was filmed. (Which also makes it, in an incidental way, a show about the culture clash/mesh that is our town.)

As work is for the grown-up, school for the adolescent is, next to skin problems and getting sex all wrong, life’s great unavoidable reality. (It’s been noted elsewhere that the Harry Potter pandemic owes its virulence to the fact that it’s at bottom about school, about the cliques and bullies and teachers every child knows from experience.) It is only natural that television should exploit this. From Welcome Back, Kotter to Beverly Hills 90210 to My So-Called Life (said to be an inspiration for American High), from Degrassi Junior High to Degrassi High to Freaks and Geeks (the closest in misfit spirit to Senior Year), actor-kids have been coming of age and making up excuses for not doing homework for years, and will continue to until that great day when there is no more television and no more school. There is something in such shows, and in these recent true-life versions, for everyone: The little kids preview their future; the big kids see themselves; the old folk, the survivors, marvel and remember and live it again.

As the once-discovered country to whose bourn no traveler returns, though many would like to, Youth as a subject never gets old. For the mature viewer there is something positively Wild Kingdom–ish about a show like Senior Year, something half-familiar and half-foreign and wholly fascinating. The terrain is inherently dramatic. Up here in the chilly reaches of adulthood, change comes glacially, we drift at a continental pace; but among the younger set metamorphosis is a fact of daily life, crisis the air they breathe. Whether acting out or turning inward or just trying to keep level on shifting ground, they disturb the air, throw off sparks, predicate havoc — Carrie was not so much a horror fantasy as a barely dressed metaphor. Adolescence is all becoming, all tests and trials and first times, ill-guided by the Little Knowledge that is a Dangerous Thing. And who would have it otherwise?

SENIOR YEAR | PBS | Fridays, 10 p.m. | Starts January 11

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