Head of the class

When it comes to the emerging subgenre of reality shows, "The Scholar" gets an A.

The Scholar show 298 (photo credit: Courtesy photo)
The Scholar show 298
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Just when you thought reality TV couldn't get any more depraved, it didn't. Identifying the genre's precise moral low point remains a task for ethicists and cultural historians to debate, but the possibilities are legion. The Fox network got things off to a memorably sordid start in 2000 with Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?, in which a bland 40-something bachelor selected one lucky gold-digger from among several dozen aspiring trophy wives. (The marriage would prove short-lived, with Darva Conger, the bottle blonde "winner," publicly trashing her millionaire ex before posing, perhaps inevitably, for Playboy.) Even more exploitative and depressing was the Celebrity Boxing series (also a Fox production), which featured the former Danny Partridge pounding the bejesus out of the erstwhile Greg Brady. And coming from the realm of the purely inane, the obvious candidate would have to be Man vs. Beast (Fox again), which featured nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis providing color commentary on a foot race between a human, a zebra and a giraffe. (The zebra won.) Israeli TV has hardly been above reproach, either, with contestants on the recent HaDugmaniot (The Models) complaining about dishonest editing and the show's unrestrained penchant for creating cheap drama out of the competitors' diverse religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds. So it's been refreshing in recent years to see the emergence of a new class of reality TV shows, programs which appeal to something other than the lowest common denominator. In Israel, examples of this new subgenre include last winter's disarmingly upbeat Nolad Lirkod dance competition, as well as the recently concluded Hashagrir, which rewarded its young contestants for being smart and articulate rather than for hooking up with the most people or ingesting the biggest bucket of deep-fried tapeworms. In the same vein, Star World last week began airing one of the first American series to take the reality high road. The Scholar, which airs at 9 p.m. Wednesdays, features a strikingly clean-cut cast of high school seniors competing for an unusually worthwhile prize: as much as $240,000 to attend the college of the winner's choice. Each installment of the show is rebroadcast Thursdays at 11 a.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. The series, which already completed its run on America's ABC network - you were thinking Fox? - displays dramatic potential in a number of ways. And it offers touches of intellectual stimulation as well. Though young, the show's 10 contestants are smart and hungry for success, and segments of the show featuring trivia competitions and brain teasers are at least as engaging as a regular game show. (More so, in fact, since this format allows viewers to learn about and develop a real attachment to their favorite contestants.) The competitors all boast perfect or near perfect grades, and represent a diverse cross-section of American society in terms of both race and geography. Among their post-college goals, the 10 high school seniors hope to cure cancer, appear on Broadway and win the US presidency. The series' premise is itself a comment on the (in)accessibility of American higher education, which at its elite levels is unaffordable for most students without serious scholarships and other financial assistance. And the show draws attention to the additional obstacles faced by certain sectors of the American student population: Max, for example, from Oakland, has long struggled to succeed despite the criminal and gang activity taking place right outside his front door. Personal stories like these combine with the contestants' youthful optimism to create some unexpectedly authentic, engaging moments. The unconventional formula must have seemed something of a risk, however, because producers apparently weren't convinced that these storylines would prove sufficiently compelling for TV viewers bred on Bachelor-style melodrama. Consequently, portions of the early episodes are overly devoted to Davis, an arrogant preppy from Tennessee who's so confident in his academic capabilities that he performs push-ups while the other contestants cram. It's gratifying at the end of the first episode to see him lose a trivia contest about modern literature, but the segment feels as contrived as it would on any other reality series - an annoyance, really, given this show's more laudable premise. Nevertheless, one hopes for good things for The Scholar, which attempts something new with its brainy cast of young contestants. When it comes to reality TV, they're teaching a valuable lesson.