For years, the entertainment industry has been trying to figure out a novel way of explaining what high school life is “really like.” Sometimes it comes in the form of a generational-launching comedy, a one-season drama, or in the form of an eight-episode fake documentary about phallic vandalism.
But in the case of documentary series “Undercover High,” A&E tries to bring a new spin by filtering the high school experience through the eyes of young adults. Enlisting young-looking adults in their early 20s posing as students, the show sets out to bring a fresh angle through individuals like brother and sister Jorge and Lina, pastor Daniel, and student empowerment activist Shane. Working with teachers, administrators and the documentary crew, these “students” spend time as normal members of the student body of Topeka, Kansas’ Highland Park High School. A self-referential experiment, the result of this approach ends up closer to something more ordinary, with a premise that’s actually more of a hindrance than an asset.
From its opening seconds, it’s hard to watch “Undercover High” and not to think of “American Vandal,” Netflix’s faux documentary series from last fall. Even if that show didn’t explicitly set out to shine a light on the complex web of high school intrigue, the way the show captured the rhythms and relative importance of high school preoccupations still rang true. From the aerial drone shots to the grayscale background of the interview room, “Undercover High” unwittingly follows in the immediate footsteps of a scripted counterpart.
Even though both shows are produced, shaped and captured by adults, one problem with “Undercover High” is that it operates on the premise that the modern high school environment is changing exponentially. The students of only a few years ago are being sent back to relive their experiences under the assumption that they will find a vastly different world than the one they lived through only four or five years ago.
It would seem like a novel and insightful concept if the end product attained some special insight untapped by its school doc predecessors. The 2016 documentary “The Bad Kids” managed to capture the internal and external struggles of students at an alternative school, detailing how the struggle to stay afloat in the classroom is inextricably linked to the hope for a better life outside of it. “Last Chance U” is set at a community college, but the balancing of in-class responsibilities with the social pressures of playing on a football team that gives the school its identity covers much of the same attitudes.
Part of the storytelling barrier in these kinds of efforts is getting cooperation from underage participants, getting them to legally and meaningfully agree to a situation where the narrative of their lives is being shaped by someone other than themselves. In “Undercover High,” a majority of screentime is devoted to outsiders that there’s little room left for getting opinions and ideas directly from the peers that these actors are trying to learn more about. It’s essentially trapped between artifice and reality, purporting to be the latter.
In most (if not all) similar series, the teachers and administrators also play a significant part in helping to form the narrative of what these kids face. Here, Highland Park principal Dr. Beryl New and Superintendent Tiffany Pearson do give some context for the school environment. But the way their interviews are implemented here, their views always seem to come with the caveat that what the show is mainly interested in is the day-to-day experience of the students. When an administrator refers to online communication as “chat groups,” it’s another signal that everyone is at a fundamental disadvantage to better understanding the mechanisms of student life.
Some of that difficulty comes from on-screen text/Snap/comment graphics that approximate social media posts rather than showing the real thing. The vicious and callous online conversation that does provide “Undercover High” some shocking moments is still presented in the most generic way. It mirrors the way that Highland Park itself is trying to be the representative high school experience without fully highlighting what makes it unique as a Kansas public school.
Occasionally, the school-wide concerns of homecoming royalty give way to something much more dire. Cyberbullying, racial discrimination, and sexual violence all surface in “Undercover High,” but it’s still seen through the prism of the undercover students. It doesn’t diminish the fact that Lina can still feel like she’s in danger, but by the very nature of the show, she’s still an outsider. It’s disheartening to see her go through those challenges, but it’s still handled from an adult’s-eye view. Without diminishing the severity of the threats that some of these new students face in “Undercover High,” in its early going, is focused more on identifying problems than understanding them; its documentary style skews more reality show testimonial than connective tissue talking head, rehashing what’s apparent from the in-classroom footage that the audience sees.
Still, there is something fascinating about watching adults cede the upper hand in friendships to students half a dozen years their junior. Tasked with ingratiating themselves into a brand new high school community, the way that some of these undercover students talk about making friends with their “peers,” it takes on an odd teen comedy sheen to it, even when the students are trying to be friends with decent people and not The Plastics.
It doesn’t take a 23-year-old to shave, adopt some teen slang, and sit in on an AP Lit class to know that social media has its problems and that children of a certain age use their phones more than anyone would prefer. Yet, “Undercover High,” when addressing these issues couches those discoveries more in the shock of these undercover students rather than trying to identify any meaningful insight beyond being surprised at how things have changed in the past five years.
“Undercover High” premieres Tuesday, Jan. 9 at 10 p.m. ET on A&E.