Airs: The series premieres on A&E at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 9
The premise: This new docu-series follows seven adults between the ages of 21 to 25 as they pose as students at Highland Park High School in Topeka, Kansas. The participants, who are regular people - not actors or undercover police officers - attend classes, make friends, and participate in school activities. The undercover adults are unaware of each other, with only school administrators and a few members of the community knowing their true identities during their semester long stay. They’ll have to deal with bullying, the dangers of social media, and numerous other challenges that face today’s youth.
Highs: What’s life like today for the average high schooler? For many adults watching “Undercover High,” there are a lot of things that will seem familiar. Teens still have to deal with bullying, finding a way to fit in, and a myriad of other social challenges along with homework and trying to determine a career path. But in so many other ways, high school today is so incredibly difficult that it seems no one makes it through unscathed, no matter who you are.
In the episodes watched, I saw teachers frequently being disrespected with little to no authority to change behavior, students ignoring lessons and each other because they’re distracted by their phones, and social media being used to target several students. One of the female undercover adults, Lina (age 22), was the subject of a group chat that was filled with rude, disgusting and threatening messages from teenage boys. As a mature adult, Lina handles the situation with poise but even she admits that if she were still in school, something like this would have been devastating. This is the kind of cyber bullying kids across the country go through every day. You may have heard of things like this going on, but seeing it firsthand is eye-opening.
The story of “Undercover High” is told through the eyes of the seven undercover adults, who all have different reasons for participating. Some want to connect with like-minded people, others want to be teachers, but all want to help kids who are struggling. I particularly enjoyed watching Lina and Daniel. Lina, from Georgia, has strength that should inspire anyone who watches this program. Daniel (age 23) is a student pastor from Tennessee. He’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 community in the country has a school with similar demographic to Highland Park High School, but even if yours doesn’t, you can be sure that some of the things you’re seeing on “Undercover High” are likely happening at your child’s school. Be prepared to feel incredibly uncomfortable, although that just 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 will turn around. However, showing an audience how dire a situation is without light at the end of the tunnel may leave you frustrated. People want solutions as well as information.
Grade: (A-): “Undercover High” is a riveting series. It achieves its goal of showing viewers what teens will tell each other when no adults are around. While the results can be jarring, this is a must watch program if you really want to know the trials and tribulations of today’s youth.
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.