TV Preview

Teenage Girls' Stories, Minus the Drama

The experiences of the bright young suburbanites above offer plenty of material for gripping documentary fare, largely squandered by this series.
The experiences of the bright young suburbanites above offer plenty of material for gripping documentary fare, largely squandered by this series. (We Tv)
By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 10, 2008

If you think "High School Confidential" is a raunchy romp about babes, boys and booze, you're in for a big disappointment.

The eight-week We TV documentary, which debuts tonight, presents 12 girls from suburban Kansas City who talk about some of the worst their short lives have had to offer: anorexia, estrangement from a parent, a family suicide, even a brain tumor.

Somehow, even after following these girls from ninth through 12th grade, "Confidential" manages to make their stories boring. Watching it is like sitting next to your great-aunt as she flips through the family photo album. Individual pictures might grab you, but on the whole, you'd rather be cruising the mall.

One wants to like these girls. They're forthright, articulate and darn cute with their straight long hair and braces that by junior year have disappeared, revealing perfect pearly whites. But they don't engage us, and that's not their fault. Their stories don't move us largely because of how they were shot and edited.

The tale of the tumor, for example, emerges from quick interviews with Lauren, her parents, her doctor and a girlfriend. Lauren confesses that she is afraid of having surgery, but the whole time she is flashing her beautiful smile. Her parents, Stephanie and Bruce, admit that they're worried about their daughter, but they look no more upset than if they just learned she was flunking biology.

Stephanie tells us that Lauren is so scared of having the tumor removed that she sometimes climbs in bed with her at night. We want to see that. When Sara, another girl, tells us she argued with her dad about getting engaged, we want to watch the faces of father and daughter in battle, rather than hear about the fight days later.

That well-known first rule of storytelling is to show, not tell. Viewers expect that from serious television, especially from a channel that is trying to be taken seriously. We also look for an angle we never thought of before, one that gradually emerges and ties the characters to each other. "Confidential" fails there, too. That adolescence is hard on girls in different ways is hardly news.

Most of all, we want to be made to feel. We don't expect that from the contrived conflict of reality TV, but a good documentary moves us through an array of emotions: apprehension followed by comprehension, grief and occasional relief -- and surely a deeper understanding of the complexities of being, in this case, a teenager. The most moving moment in the debut episode comes when Cappie, a ninth-grader who lives with her mother, talks about going to her friends' houses and watching them hug their dads. Her dad, she says, "is not making us a priority." A tear rolls down her cheek. One longs to see more of that.

The show's creator, Sharon Liese, told the Hollywood Reporter that her intention was to explore the challenges of adolescence "beyond just teen angst." A little more angst and a better story line would have made for a much better series.

High School Confidential (one hour) premieres tonight at 10 on We TV.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company