YOUR SENIOR YEAR of high school is like being caught in a pinball machine of emotions. One minute bells are ringing and lights are flashing with excitement and ecstasy, and the next, you're disappearing down the abyss of despair. In between, some flipper is whacking you on the backside, trying to get you on down the path called life.
Fox has a new show premiering tonight that is so simple and so brilliant, you think there must be a catch or it would have been done before. It's called "Yearbook" and it came about when some pseudo-documentary producers got the idea of putting cameras in a real high school and following what happened to its senior class.
Watch it tonight at 8:30 on Channel 45 (WBFF) -- it moves to its regular slot Saturday at 8:30 -- and you'll find yourself right back there, the emotions again bubbling on the surface as you join these kids standing precariously on the edge of adulthood.
FTC The high school is called Glenbard West. It's in Glen Ellyn, Ill., a well-to-do suburban town not far from Chicago. Producers and cameras went into the school at the beginning of the year and started talking to students and teachers, and taping bits and pieces of their lives.
"I saw an opportunity here to give the class of 1991 a present," school principal Susan Bridge said of her reason for cooperating in the venture. "I think it gives the class an opportunity to show the rest of the nation what kids really are like.
"I'm not pleased at all with the view that most of America has of what kids today are, or what kids today do, or what kids today believe in, or what kids today are faced with," she said, speaking in a recent interview in Los Angeles.
"We are a good school. We have talent, we have troubles. So do the great majority of schools across the nation. I don't believe we're unique. So I thought if our kids could honestly and openly show the nation and particularly other kids across the nation what adolescent life in America is, how could I possibly stand in the way?"
Tonight's half hour follows two stories, the selection of the school's homecoming queen from among the three finalists, and the attempted reconciliation between a young father-to-be and his very pregnant girlfriend.
It would be easy, and cliched, to contrast a happy-go-lucky high school ritual like homecoming with the heavy realities of pregnancy and parenthood, but "Yearbook" doesn't do that. Instead, it finds, and puts up on your screen, a genuine depth of feeling in both experiences without resorting to production tricks to cheapen or enhance either one.
At the same time, it is clear that this is not a cinema verite look at high school. The students and their stories were clearly chosen for their inherent dramatic structure and appeal.
"There's a sort of casting that goes on," executive producer Louis Gorfain said, "because obviously you're looking for kids that are articulate and that have something that's going to happen in their lives. Those are the kids that you follow."
In an upcoming episode that examines reactions at the school to the beginning of the Persian Gulf war, the "Yearbook" cameras follow yet again one of the students who was a finalist for homecoming queen. Clearly we're looking at recurring characters in the series.
In that episode you learn that though she's an anti-war activist, her boyfriend is in the Army and might be heading for the gulf. Mirroring that is a tough-guy type who's already signed up for the Marine reserves and wants to join his unit, but at home he's a soft touch for the young black boys his parents take in as foster children.
What's disappointing about "Yearbook" is that it focuses on such a white bread , and nearly all-white, high school. Though it does show America's kids to be a solid bunch with the usual mix of success and failure, such images will not surprise the TV audience coming from this suburban locale. Better to have found them in some place that usually makes it on the TV screen for more downbeat reasons.
Indeed, you would have thought Fox, with its strong urban audience, would have sought out a high school that more accurately reflected the ethnic crazy quilt that is America today. Maybe next year.
What's disturbing about "Yearbook" is the same thing that's bothersome about much on television -- its images might become more important than reality. For the vast majority of viewers, the students they come to know on this show will be the only high school seniors they know at all, even if there's one living next door or just down the street.
And, it's probably a fact that should "Yearbook" become the hit it deserves to be, most people will know, and care, more about Glenbard West than they will about the high school in their own community. Sad but true.
* * * A pseudo-documentary look at the seniors at a high school suburban Chicago.
CAST: The students of Glenbard High School
TIME: Tonight at 8:30, then Saturdays at 8:30
CHANNEL: Fox Channel 45 (WBFF)