Fox's 'Yearbook' looks deep inside the lives of high school seniors


March 07, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Yearbook" -- a documentary about the senior year at an Illinois high school -- is the kind of TV viewers will be talking about around the water cooler at work tomorrow.

It's moving, hot and daring -- so daring that some people will be talking about whether the show should have ever been made.

Fox Broadcasting is calling "Yearbook," which premieres at 8:30 tonight on WBFF (Channel 45), a "reality" series. But reality is a mighty vague word when it comes to prime-time entertainment television.

The show is essentially a documentary -- no actors or scripts or totally made-up stuff -- cut into weekly half-hour segments. (It moves to its regular 8:30 p.m. Saturday slot this weekend.)

The filmmakers went into Glenbard West High School, in Glen Ellyn, Ill., a suburb about 30 miles outside Chicago. With the permission of the administrators, pupils and school board, they got so far inside the lives of the senior class it is going to make some viewers uncomfortable.

Tonight's premiere episode starts out with the selection of homecoming queen. We meet the three finalists, sit with them as the announcement of their nominations is made and watch them at the big pep rally as one of them is named queen.

We also go into the home of one of the finalists, as she and her mother sit in the kitchen and try to decide who will escort her onto the field if she wins. Traditionally fathers escort their daughters, but her father -- a stroke victim -- is lying paralyzed in the hospital. The two women cry as they decide that the mother will escort the daughter if she wins. You will cry, too.

The second segment focuses on the relationship between two students, a pregnant girl and the boy who is the baby's father.

This is the controversial part: A pregnant teen-ager opening her life to filmmakers, who sold it to Fox, which in turn is selling ads around it.

The filmmakers, in a press conference in January in Los Angeles, defended this by saying the girl gave her permission. Fox brought the principal of Glenbard to the press conference, and she defended the documentary as a means of showing teens as they really are.

But is a high school pupil in a position to make that call? Is the girl's permission enough for filmmakers to move this far inside her private life and sell it?

"Yearbook" covers a lot of ground in its first few episodes.

There are first dates, boys who can't dance, the football player recruited by Yale, the homecoming dance, girls who cry because of the way boys treat them, boys who cry because of the way girls treat them, letters of acceptance and rejection from colleges, alienation, sex, drugs and rock and roll.

There is also caring, a sense of community, an assistant football coach who teaches how to make pasta in home economics ("We don't want a bowl of mooosh.") There's tenderness and the near-transcendence of first love.

Above all, there is a sense that the filmmakers are chronicling a profound rite of passage among the tribespeople in a village called Glenbard West High. That makes "Yearbook" not only hot and daring, but also smart television.

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