Posted Tuesday, January 9, 2018 by RODNEY HOfirstname.lastname@example.org on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog
Similar to "60 Days In" with a touch of "Never Been Kissed" and "21 Jump Street" thrown in, A&E is embedding 20-somethings into high school, a return to proms, homework and lockers.
Called "Undercover High," the docuseries features seven twenty-somethings - including two Atlanta siblings - spending a semester in Topeka, Kansas' Highland Park High School, a school facing issues of race, bullying and perpetual smartphone distraction. The series debuts on Tuesday, January 9 at 10 p.m.
To reduce chances of detection, none of the seven participants are from Kansas. This is similar to how "60 Days In" works as well. The trick is to be authentic with the kids so they'll open up while maintaining a semi-false persona. One 25-year-old married woman Erin even received braces to shave years off. The superintendent, principal and vice principal knew they were impostors but nobody else did.
Based on the first two episodes, when five of the students are initially embedded, Erin looks bewildered much of the time. Shane - who runs his own non profit - is amusingly awkward. Daniel, a church youth minister, possesses low-key charm, successfully staying under the radar.
The two Atlantans find their footing relatively quickly. Lina, despite being 22, can still pass for high school given the proper clothing, makeup and hair. (The producers declined to reveal the participants' last names though they possess fictional ones for the show.)
Lina, when she was at Woodland, said she was a varsity cheerleader and an average student who got mostly Bs and Cs. "My high school experience was really fun but I felt I put academics second," she said. She did not go to college.
While at Woodland, she said she stood up to her gay brother a lot, sometimes getting into fights. "I didn't like anybody messing with anybody who was different for any reason," she said.
Now she's an orthodontist's assistant On the first episode, she said she and her brother came to the United States from Mexico illegally as young children but now have permits to work with DACA protection.
Watching kids from an older person's perspective, Lina said she sees how social media and smartphones have embedded themselves ever deeper into students' lives, that cyber-bullying and real bullying has not gotten any better. In fact, she became a target of cyberbullying just because she's attractive.
"High school students are mean," she said. "I learned how much I could handle."
But showing her maturity, she handled the threats well and quickly found friends.
"I did not talk as professionally," she said. "Kids are smart and they will catch on. They'll ask you a lot of questions. At first, I realized I was sounding way too mature. I had to calm down with the vocabulary. I wanted to be as adult as possible but with a high school mindset. I didn't want to blow my cover."
Lina wanted to get to know the Latinos at the school, which used to be all white, soon had a blended mix of blacks and whites but recently has seen an influx of Hispanic students. While there is relative placidity about race on the surface, it doesn't take long for Jorge and Lina to realize the arrival of so many recent immigrants has caused some tensions.
And because they got to live together, they probably had it easier than the other fake students. They were able to exchange info and vent once they got home in ways the others couldn't.
Lina, who now lives in Acworth, said she enjoyed the experiment. "I feel like I learned so much about the struggles students face now," she said. "I feel like I was able to make a different with at least a couple of students and that makes me happy."
After she came out as a fake student, Lina said she has remained in touch with some of the students she became friends with. But naturally, I feel they don't trust me as much as they felt when we were students. The conversations are a lot shorter now."
"Undercover High," 9 p.m. Tuesdays, A&E, starting January 9, 2018