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TV Series Review

Many a parent would love to know what goes on at their teens' school. I mean, really know: What their kids talk about with their friends, how they get along with others, what they struggle with, what secrets they keep.

But do these parents really want to know?

Undercover High wants to tell you the truth about high school. And you better strap yourself in for the answers.

Welcome to the Jungle

Welcome to Highland Park High School in Topeka, Kansas, a typical public school in a typical American city. Kids there do what kids have always done in high school: They go to class. Hang out with their friends. Goof off in the hallways.

But they're also dealing with Snapchat and Tumblr, cyberbullying and sexting. Some are nursing adolescent ulcers in their desperate efforts keep their GPA intact and to reach their dream (or their parents' dream?) of getting into that Ivy League school. Others just hope just to make it out of school alive.

So far, so good, right? But high school, we learn, is a world that seems to change not just generationally, but yearly. And those who've left that world some time ago may understand it only dimly—seeing it as through an opaque glass.

But what if you left that world and could still go back? What if someone could experience high school again through an adult's eyes and report back to the rest of us?

That's essentially the premise of A&E's Undercover High, wherein seven twentysomethings masquerade as Highland Park high schoolers, newly transferred from parts unknown. One's a youth pastor in real life. Another's a kindergarten teacher. Still another "student" is a single mom, raising the kid that she had in high school. They range in age from 21 to 26 years old, and they still look youngish enough to pass through the halls without drawing too much attention. (Well, other than the film crews that seem to track their every move.)

But even though they've all been out of high school for only a few years, the world they return to often feels startlingly unfamiliar to them.

"When I was in high school, we made friends in person first and then we added you online," says 25-year-old Erin, mystified that kids initiate friendships in cyberspace now. "When did getting pregnant [in high school] become cool?" 26-year-old Gloria wonders.

Anthropology High

On one level, Undercover High is a televised anthropological field trip to a pervasive but, in some ways, little understood culture: As familiar as we think we may be with that adolescent world, the only folks who really understand it are those who walk its halls every day. And even the adults there understand that what they see in the halls and what's actually happening under the surface can be markedly different.

"I think I know what's going on, but I may not always," Principal Beryl New confesses.

But A&E seems to want Undercover High to be more than a superficial examination: The series shines a spotlight on some of the critical issues faced by today's teens and suggests strategies for how to deal with those issues. It's targeted both at the teens themselves and the adults in their lives. And each episode includes a pitch for a counseling text line.

It also reportedly tried to apply an ethical framework to the program. No hidden cameras were used, according to an FAQ published on www.topekapublicschools.net. And anyone shown on camera had to agree to participate. "Production held several meetings prior to filming with school officials, parents, students and faculty members to explain the project, goals for the series and the production process—including that participants … would be immersing themselves into the school community," the FAQ says. The one potential ethical wrinkle in all this? No one knew that these participants weren't, in fact, high schoolers. Like many reality shows, its very premise is a built-in lie. These "students" needed to be accepted as peers for the show to feel real, it's suggested.

Still, how real can you be when you know that if you sign a waiver, every reaction could be filmed and telecast? How real is it when all that raw footage can be spliced and edited together to create a telegenic narrative? The "reality" of reality television in general has always been rather … questionable. Undercover High, whatever its intention, is no exception.

Moreover, the reality we see here can be raw and difficult at times. While the language aired is admittedly far better than the unedited stuff I remember from public high school, we're still exposed to plenty of crass profanity (the worst of which is bleeped).We also hear some frank conversations about sex and violence. One of the undercover students is openly gay. And the show sometimes addresses political issues that resonate on high school campuses. (A recent episode, for instance, addressed the uncertainty that children of undocumented immigrants feel.)

If there's a real lesson to be found in Undercover High for parents, it's this: Make sure that your lines of dialogue with your teens are good, healthy and as open as possible. Talk with them, and do whatever you can to make sure they feel like they can talk with you.

I suppose it's nice that A&E wants to teach its viewers about the realities of 21st-century secondary education. But the best way to help your high schooler is talk to them about high school. They're the real experts.

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Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Undercover High: Feb. 7, 2018 "Bullied"



Readability Age Range



Erin, Lina, Gloria, Nicolette, Jorge, Shane and Daniel as themselves






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Paul Asay

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