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Reality TV 101

May 16, 2005

The IQ of reality TV is about to skyrocket.

OK, so the base was pretty low. But if you think reality TV should exemplify more struggle of wits than Jessica Simpson trying to figure out what part of the buffalo her wings came from, you might want to check out ABC’s six-episode series, The Scholar, premiering June 6.    

Shot on the campus of the University of Southern California, the show pits 10 low-income, acne-free brainiac high school seniors against one another in intellectual competition, for a full scholarship to any college to which they are accepted.

Opening with a montage of overhead shots of sprawling quads and, what else, white pillars, the narrator tells us that these 10 attractive kids are bright enough to "grab a piece of the American dream. But now the price of admittance is threatening that dream.” One of the competitors has already gained admission to an Ivy League university, but his father, a high school teacher, makes in a year what he needs in tuition. (Producers of the show report that while many of the contestants may well be eligible for financial aid, they believe they won't get enough -- without winning it big on The Scholar -- to afford the best colleges.)

Viewers are quickly introduced to the near perfect-GPA-bearing stars of the show, from dreadlocked Max, of Oakland, who wants to study political science, to Milana, from Fresh Meadows, New York, who tells us, “I do want to find a cure for cancer.” Add a dash of home-schooled Scot, who is "not really used to having classmates," and a pinch of the fly in Scot’s soup, Davis, who wears aviator shades and simply wants to be president, and Eureka!, a recipe for drama, higher ed style.

The students live together in a house in Los Angeles, resident advisor and all, a la MTV’s Real World. However, instead of being filled with cocktail glasses and coed showers, the crib is lined with books. Not to worry, though, if you happen to be a reality TV traditionalist: there’s a pillow fight in the first episode.

The show revolves around quizzes, timed team problem-solving exercises, and interviews. Taking it all in are The Scholar’s version of Paula, Simon and Randy: three administrators from elite universities. The show identifies one of them as working at the University of California at Berkeley and the other two as simply being from the Ivy League -- a Web search places the two Ivy officials as being from Columbia University. The judges (at least in the first show) are better behaved than Paula, of course, and realistic, unlike Simon the Emasculator.

Practically the only part of the challenges the judges do not evaluate, is when the students run, literally, around the massive USC campus searching for various rooms where the tests reside, to the smiles of the university students. Like any admissions process, the panel discusses the competitors’ character, leadership, and creativity as they lurk behind them during challenges.  No one is voted off the campus, but competitors have to either win challenges or be chosen by the judges to advance through the rounds, and eventually vie for the full ride.

Beyond entertainment, the show’s creators say they hope to lift the veil from the admissions process at elite colleges by showing the characteristics the judges are interested in. "I want kids who don’t have all the resources and connections to see that getting into good schools isn’t a mysterious process, it’s something they can do," said Jaye Pace, co-creator of The Scholar, and herself a former Columbia admissions officer who worked her way through college.

College officials who have not yet seen the show point out that the scenario is far from conventional, but that there is potential for a positive impact.

"Of course, some of the things that make good entertainment television could make it hard to represent the admissions process well,” said Julie Peterson, spokeswoman for undergraduate admissions at the University of Michigan. "But students who are good role models, especially from less privileged backgrounds, showing what can be achieved is a very positive thing to say to other students, ‘You can do this, you can aspire to this.’”

"It’s not a normal admissions process, but people will recognize that,” said Ann Wright, vice president for enrollment at Rice University.  “And I’m very in favor of shining some light on the process, because there’s so much hysteria among parents and students. Obviously, it won’t show them in high school, but it could be great for demonstrating personality, which is an important part of admissions.”

In the first episode, the students are faced with a space exploration-history quiz, a cryptogram, and a riddle-like puzzle asking them to…not telling! But it’s a lot tougher than figuring out if William Hung will be the next American Idol. Right off the bat the challenges test skills that are vital to any successful college student, including BS-ing. “I don’t even know if that’s what they’re looking for,” said Davis about one of his team’s puzzle answers.  “But we can defend that.”

The students, of course, are filmed talking about things like how others perceive them versus how they perceive themselves. Other times, the seeds of more typical reality TV fare are sown: “I suppose it’s fair to say Davis gives me butterflies,” confesses Liz, a Yale-hopeful from Buhl, Idaho; or when Max divulges his attraction to two other competitors as the narrator reminds us that college is also a time for “social awakening.”

The culmination of the first episode is a literature quiz showdown. Just like in a real dorm, the personalities come out during cramming.  Two students, Jeremy and Melissa go over the existentialist writers, while Davis opts for push-ups on the kitchen floor.

Through it all are sometimes teary “confessional cam” monologues by the students that help remind the audience that these are not actors, but extremely bright teenagers on the cusp of attaining a dream, and one that they consider more worthwhile than shining Donald Trump’s shoes.

No matter what happens, as an ABC release puts it: " The Scholar will be the first show ever to celebrate higher education as the ultimate American prize.” 

 

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