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The Traumatically Thrilling Experience of ‘Undercover High’

A second chance at high school is every bit as fascinating as you may think.

It’s also every bit as dread-inducing.

Echoing Never Been Kissed (without the problematic teacher/”student” relationship), Undercover High sends seven young twenty-somethings into a Topeka high school.  The wide-eyed eagerness of these adult investigators fades is quickly overcome by those trusty first-day-of-school nerves.  It’s a brave new world.

The Power of the Internet, Revisited

“I’m not of the social media generation,” admits one administrator. His words reflect one of the school’s major concerns.  Time and again, the adult investigators cautiously navigate the interplay of their electronic and face-to-face reality.  One woman, desperate to fit in, starts mass-friending everyone in her class with her (show-specific) Facebook account.  Another finds herself the subject of a pretty horrifying group chat.  In the end, their experiences make clear that the electronic version of students’ lives – the part the administrators can’t touch – holds increasing importance over the physical one.

This is, after all,  the investigators’ role.  They’re there to gain access to the places from which adults are normally excluded, with the goal of helping the school better relate to its students.  “Are we what we say we are? Are we what we think we are?” the principal implores.

An Insider’s Perspective on the Students

Alongside its lofty aims, Undercover High weaves a story that’s surprisingly compelling. Watching the Winter Royalty race of the show’s second episode unfold, I was officially hooked.  On its surface, the election covers all of the expected bases.  Neon posters, earnestly silly slogans, and overly bedazzled prom-type dresses all surface with predictable ease.  The series both takes in the superficial thrills and goes a step further.  It examines how that year’s election reflected a school in transition, as its students struggled to find their place amidst shifting demographics.

An Insider’s Perspective on the Insiders

In the end, the welcome surprise of the show is its focus on the experience of the investigators themselves.  A 22 year old who admits to once encouraging people to choose him last for their team finds himself in a weightlifting class.  Another, who had struggled with a reading disorder, is called on to read aloud during an English lesson.  Still another, once defended by his sister against those who bullied him for being gay, now struggles to defend her from sexual harassment.  Like it or not, we all have some degree of high school baggage to lug around – and the investigators are here to show us what can happen, both good and bad, when we open it up again.

Granted, the show’s methods are a bit unorthodox.  During filming, students thought the crew was there to capture the state of Topeka education.  However, they had no idea that adult investigators were in their midst.   I’d be curious to see whether and how the show, the investigators and the administration reveal the full scope of their project to the students.

Still, with its cutting insights, humanizing stories, and a score featuring the contributions of Gavin Rossdale, Undercover High is well worth a watch.

Undercover High premieres January 9 at 10pm EST on A&E.

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