High School Reunion (WB, Sundays, 9 p.m. ET), one of this stormy midseason’s many new reality shows, has on its payroll a psychological consultant, one Dr. Catherine R. Selden. Who is Catherine R. Selden? Is she a sinister Dr. Milgram, employed by producers to help induce florid, telegenic psychological states in the fairly ordinary jocks and tootsies who have come to reunite on the island of Maui? Or is she, on the contrary, on hand to tend to broken hearts? Or is Dr. Selden merely available so that, in the event of a lawsuit against the WB, she can testify that not one of the 1992 graduates of Oak Park River Forest High School was misled, mistreated, abused?
In the last case, she seems to be doing her job; so far, nothing in the least cruel or unusual—by reality-TV standards—has happened. Unlike on other reality shows, these kids, some of whose parents know each other, have enough history with each other that they keep each other (relatively) in check; two episodes in, they’re already a functioning tribe. They’ve been rigidly taxonomized by the management: Natasha, we’re told at the top, is the Popular Girl; Ben, the Nerd; Dan P., the Jock.
These categories seem to come straight from American Graffiti (“Where were you in ‘62?”). Though surely American high school, one of our country’s proudest contributions to genre fiction (our opera, our quest romance, our drawing-room farce), has changed just a little bit. As for therapy, the participants in High School Reunion might benefit at least from the short-term cognitive kind, especially Sunday night’s new addition, Sarah (the “Bitchy Girl”), a red-haired bruiser who came to the show after expressing palpable anxiety that her unmanaged anger would incite a “verbal or physical fight.” Promptly, it did.
But I’m getting ahead of myself—perhaps on purpose since, 12 years since the first season of The Real World on MTV, the premise of a show like this one hardly needs rehashing. Here it is anyway: On High School Reunion, a handful of ‘92 graduates of Oak Park River Forest High School—an institution named in fairness to every natural feature of the suburban landscape—agrees to share a house in Hawaii; no one has been told who else is participating. To keep things moving, the producers dole out “Hall Passes” that give the Dans and Sarahs a chance to date each other. So far, we’ve seen the uncool kids taking out the cool kids; the cool kids enduring the dates with stagey graciousness; the uncool kids cherishing false hopes; and, finally, the cool kids falling with relief into each other’s cool arms. No cool-mixing—just as high school was meant to be.
But High School Reunion, which is engaging so far,is not just about dating. Fury is also its strong suit, and redheaded Sarah is not the only hellcat. In interviews that were broadcast during the premiere, Chris (the Misfit) admitted, “The person I would least like to see is Dave Goodman … because I hate him.” On cue, up bounds Dave Goodman (the Bully), and it’s clear why he’s hated: He has the snickering, mean-eyed, rat-on-teacher’s-seat manner of a Norman Rockwell miscreant. You instantly want to get away from the guy.
Chris reluctantly shakes Dave’s hand; the others sidestep him. On the second night, it’s Dave who sets Sarah off, in an obscure dispute over a weird clothes-swapping game. But both Dave and Sarah have hinted that they want to work and play more easily with others (though Dave, a stock trader, also fronts: I don’t have to care “how I come off on somebody”). So the argument devolves, somehow movingly, into a fight over who is more contentious than the other. To the viewer, who has heard the other cast members refer to Dave as “the biggest asshole in high school” and Sarah as “a time bomb,” their mutual struggle to break out of their reputations for meanness—without losing face—is unexpectedly poignant.
Meanwhile, back to the lovers. Natasha, the Popular Girl, turns in one of the most true-to-life performances as a popular girl in the history of America broadcasting. Unlike the haughty perfect-looking clothes hounds of many TV shows, Natasha, who recalls Demi Moore, is genuinely approachable, with a ready smile, a cheering laugh, wonderfully sparkly eyes, and an exquisite gift for noblesse oblige. (Open meanness, as Hollywood often misunderstands, is for high-school underlings.)
Natasha also has a keen sense of social strategy and a deep conviction that she is better than everyone else. After beneficently biding her time as chubby Dan B. (the Player—a talented charmer, surprisingly thoughtful) succumbs to a date with the gawky, smitten Nicole (the Tall Girl), Natasha adroitly moves in, as if to show just how elegantly she can still seduce. Seduce Dan B. she does—over her own thin conscience about a live-in boyfriend at home—and Nicole, at the end of the second episode, is sullen and perplexed.
Other matchups have been amusing: Ben endeavoring to snorkel with Natasha (who, naturally, is great at it) before thanking her, as a serf might, for spending even a minute with him. And Patricia, the Gossip, radically overturning the rule of reality-TV dating by citing Jason’s simplicity and dullness as her reason for rejecting him. Simple! Boring! This criticism wouldn’t play at all on the usual dating shows where, if candidates are hot, nice, and open, they’re considered unassailable. Jason, who is nothing if not hot, nice, and open, must be bewildered now, as the show airs and he hears Patricia’s high-handed complaints. Maybe he should audition for The Bachelor, where the ladies would appreciate him.
In sum, in the heavenly light of Hawaii—amidst sumptuous B-roll of flora and surf—another preselected group of eager-to-please twentysomethings is trying to impress cameras, driven once again by relatively benign motives: folly, love, or eagerness for fame. High School Reunion is fun to watch. And, should reality intrude, Dr. Selden, presumably, is standing by.