"American High" follows 14 teens through their angst-ridden senior year. 

High School U.S.A.

They'll break your heart, these kids — 14 teen-agers from Highland Park High School in Chicago who allowed a documentary team to follow them around during their senior year.

Or maybe it's just that your own memories of high school are what's really heartbreaking — years when your future seemed so uncertain and wisdom seemed so far away, years when what your friends thought of you seemed more important than anything, years when you could see your youth and freedom foolishly slipping inexorably out of your grasp, to be replaced by adulthood and the seriousness of ... well ... life itself, together with all of its inevitable complications.

"These are the years you're supposed to go … wild, blame it all on your parents or society, not have to suffer the consequences, have unprotected sex, do drugs, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol …"

The quote — heard in the first episode of "American High" — is from Morgan, hands-down the series' most dynamic character. He's a rebel with ADHD who comes across as angry and needy, but is really trying his damnedest to mask his compassionate and sensitive side. Reveling in his one last chance to push the limits of being a kid, he'll make you mad enough to spit, as he ridicules his younger brother for doing his homework ("My F's stand for fun!"), then bring tears to your eyes when he volunteers to teach gymnastics — virtually the only activity at which he excels — to a group of kids with special needs.

Morgan and the 13 other students at Highland Park High who are featured in the series allowed Academy Award-nominated filmmaker R.J. Cutler ("The War Room") to film them as they dealt daily with their most personal conflicts — both at home and at school — from the first day of senior year through graduation.

If the series sounds familiar, you may be remembering that a couple of episodes aired last fall on Fox-TV before the network dropped it. PBS-TV picked it up after deciding "American High" was far too important to wind up on the cutting-room floor.

PBS was right. It is.

Morgan's story is much too interesting to be lost to the commercial networks' ratings games. So are Allie's and Brad's.

Allie is an attractive girl, although she seems not to appreciate that. She's torn between her parents who separated after her dad had an affair. Now he's marrying his girlfriend, and Allie's mom is falling apart because Allie wants to go to the wedding. Complicating things is the fact that Allie wants to take a year off before going to college. That bugs her mom, too, almost as much as the impending wedding.

Brad has just come out of the closet and is now seeing how his friends react. Most of them are taking it in stride, including his longtime best friend, Robby. In one comic scene, Robby wrestles with Brad on his bed, then tells the camera, "Brad has a boner, Brad has a boner!" A series high point comes when Brad is accepted at a New York college and contemplates the opportunities he'll have to meet other homosexuals.

Morgan's, Allie's and Brad's stories are the centerpieces of "American High," but those of the other 11 participants are just as universal and significant. The series is indeed a winner. It's reality TV the way it ought to be, and Fox's loss is PBS'— and the viewer's — gain.

Here are revised airdates for "American High" just sent me today by PBS


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