Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Scholars Pass But The Scholar Fails

It isn't often that you can say that a reality show isn't as good as the people who appear in it, but the fact is that while the ten high school students who are on The Scholar are outstanding each and every one of these kids deserves to have something very good happen to them. the show is not outstanding; it's pretty much a bog standard reality format and is a failure, both in terms of producing tension and ratings.

Consider the following facts about the students selected to appear on The Scholar - the lowest Grade Point Average of the lot is a 3.98 and at least two students have GPAs of 4.6. Now we don't use the same system in Canada but that would seem to put them in the top group of students nationwide. Despite this they are caught in the conundrum of academic life. Their families are, on the whole, not poor by most standards. If they were, and with their academic ability they would in some cases be able to get special aid automatically to pay their tuition at some of the better universities in the United States (Princeton and Yale offer programs for students whose parents earn under $40,000 which pay the full tuition). The problem is that these parents tend to be earning in the area of $40,000 to $60,000 a year which is too much for the special programs but not enough to make a significant contribution to their children's educational funds. The options for them are to go to major schools and work jobs to pay for their education, or to go to lesser schools and in some cases still have to work. For the most part the cast seems to be cast for their academic abilities and need rather than their appearance, which is a common complaint about reality TV shows.

The problem with the show is the format. Each episode consists of a series of tests. The first task is a multiple choice quiz to select two team captains. The quizzes seem to be simple enough. In the second episode the participants have to match artists to works of art. The quizzes are timed results being ranked by highest number of correct answers. Time becomes important only when two scholars are tied for the correct number of answers. The two best contestants become team captains and get to use the old schoolyard system of picking teams. They then participate in Team Events which are intended to test the students their reaction to various aspects of college life. The first week's challenge was sort of an academic scavenger hunt with the teams going to three locations on the University of Southern California campus to complete puzzles that looked as if they came from a Mensa quiz book. In the second week they were subjected to a task which tested school spirit - they had to get students to a volleyball game and distribute coloured pennants to the students they brought in, then had to perform a yell routine at the break in the game. The Captain of the winning team makes it into the next stage, the final showdown (unless, as happened in week two the winning captain has already qualified in which case they nominate someone from their team to take their place). A scholarship committee, made up of three admissions officials from Berkely and two unnamed Ivy League Universities, decide on two more candidates to take the challenge, based on their performance in the team event. The people don't have to be on the winning team to be selected, in fact it seems as though an outstanding performance on a losing team will get them to the final. The final challenge is an oral quiz based on a particular subject announced the day before the challenge to give the students time to study. The winner is one of the five students who will compete for the full ride scholarship, but the other two students still have an opportunity to compete for the remaining slots.

The single biggest problem for The Scholar is that, despite the interesting personalities and backstories that the student bring to the situation, the show doesn't bring these aspects out. There are brief vignettes of one or two of the students each weeks but we really don't get to know them in depth. The second biggest problem is that the Captain Challenges and the Final Challenges seem a bit to simple for students with this level of academic proficiency. Asking someone who wrote Gone With The Wind as question on a 19th and 20th Century American Literature quiz is only slightly less surprising than the fact that the kid who was asked the question didn't know that the answer was Margaret Mitchell (although this particular kid was especially annoying in the study period, at least based on what we saw on the show; while the other candidates studied he did push-ups because his brain was already full of American Literature and didn't think Gone With The Wind was important enough to be quizzed on - a view one of my old English profs would heartily agree with). In fact the questions on both quizzes seemed to be at the Jeopardy level, possibly to give the viewers at home a chance to take the quiz too, although in the case of the Captains Quiz the viewers don't actually get to see all of the lists from column A and column B. Instead we get a minute or two of tense music and students writing down answers. It doesn't build dramatic tension which is a big problem with the show. Another problem is the three admissions people. We see them giving brief interviews to some of the contestants, part of what was obviously a larger process, and then we see them discussing amongst themselves who were the strongest and weakest of the whole group. Again dramatic tension stops and it isn't really picked up again even after the commercial when the list of names is posted in the "Scholar House" because if we can follow the flow of the discussion amongst the academics we have a pretty good idea of who they've picked.

All of this points to the biggest problem with the show. It is boring. As much as the producers try to create dramatic tension the structure of the show just doesn't permit it to build. There are ways around this that they had wanted to try them. Instead of just showing the students writing down answers, let the audience see all of the choices and test their own intelligence. Tension for the announcement of names for the Final Challenge could have been accentuated by not showing too much of the specific deliberations of the committee and/or having the committee announce their decision before the students and giving reasons why they chose one and not another.

The Scholar takes elements from The Apprentice and attempts to approach things in a different way than the original show. This at least puts the show leagues ahead of the slavishly derivative The Cut. The problem is that in adapting the elements of the original show for the circumstances they find themselves in, they've lost a considerable amount of the conflict and drama that made The Apprentice successful and replaced it with an endless series of rather banal competitions. On the whole there seems to be little conflict between the students, which really is a good thing, but as interesting as they probably are they aren't given much opportunity to show their personalities. It makes me feel at times as though we are never going to get an opportunity to really get to know these kids. It's really a pity because each of them seems to be outstanding in some way and at the very least they deserve recognition for that. I have to give the show a grade of D; definite room for improvement.

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