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Riveting 'Undercover High' shows what teenagers really face

January 8, 2018 Updated: January 8, 2018 at 4:35 pm
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"Undercover High"

Airs: The series premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday on A&E

The premise: This docu-series follows seven adults ages 21 to 25 who pose as students at Highland Park High School in Topeka, Kan. These regular people - not actors or undercover police officers - attend classes, make friends and participate in school activities. They're unaware of each other, as only school administrators and a few community members know their true identities during their semester-long stay. They'll deal with bullying, the dangers of social media and many other challenges facing today's youth.

Highs: What's life like today for the average high schooler? For many viewers, a lot of things will seem familiar. Teens still have to deal with bullying, fitting in and other social challenges, along with homework and trying to determine a future. But in many other ways, high school today is so incredibly difficult that it seems no one makes it through unscathed.

In the episodes watched, teachers often were disrespected, with little to no authority to change that behavior. Students distracted by their phones ignored lessons and each other, and social media were used to target several students.

Undercover Lina, 22, was the subject of a group chat filled with rude, disgusting and threatening messages from teenage boys. Lina handles the situation with poise but admits that if she were still in school, it would have been devastating. Kids across the country experience such cyber-bullying daily. Seeing it firsthand is eye-opening.

The story of "Undercover High" is told through the undercover adults, who all have different reasons for participating. Some want to connect with like-minded people, and others want to be teachers. But all want to help struggling students. Lina, from Georgia, has strength that should inspire any viewer. Daniel, 23, is a student pastor from Tennessee who's kind and knows how to connect with young people.

Lows: If you're a parent, particularly of a teenager, this show will scare you. Almost every U.S. community has a school with similar demographics. Even if yours doesn't, you can be sure some things you see on "Undercover High" likely are happening at your child's school. Be prepared to feel uncomfortable, though that might be the point of the series. We need to know what's going on with teens today. Being ignorant about their problems helps no one.

My biggest issue is with the show's tone. I'm fine with a documentary series being honest, but I also need some hope. I didn't get a lot of that with "Undercover High." To be fair, I only had access to two episodes, so maybe things turn around. But seeing a dire situation without light at the end of the tunnel might frustrate you. People want solutions as well as information.

Grade: A-minus. "Undercover High" is a riveting series, showing viewers what teens tell each other when no adults are around. The results can be jarring, but this is a must-watch program to know the trials and tribulations of today's youth.

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Gazette media columnist Terry Terrones is a member of the Television Critics Association and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @terryterrones.

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