A clip reel from the current debut season of MTV's "The Paper."
Docu-reality series are everywhere these days, but good ones — not just fun to gawk at, but dramatic on their own — are depressingly hard to come by. Most often, the characters are either unreal from the start, or far too real. They mug for the camera like so many ‘‘real housewives.’’ They angle to make the most of mild celebrity, like those too-many Kardashians. Or they’re so dull as to be hardly worth the screen time: Even ‘‘Jon & Kate Plus 8,’’ the should-be-fascinating Discovery Health/TLC series about a family with twins and sextuplets, gets bogged down in the details of shelf-hanging and carpet replacement.
Capturing life in high school, you’d think, would be the hardest task of all: How can reality in the homogenized suburbs live up to the angst and pathos of snarky screenplays or overwrought teen TV dramas? Perhaps by happy accident, MTV has figured it out.
‘‘The Paper,’’ the MTV docu-series that follows the newspaper staff of a large, affluent South Florida high school, is a tiny gem of a series, and perhaps the most realistic portrayal of suburban life that TV has ever seen. From the mall-store outfits to the acne, everything about it is eminently true.
Nowhere but reality, after all, would you find a character like Amanda, the newly-named editor-in-chief of The Circuit, the student newspaper. She’s accomplished and smart, quirky but tragically un-self-aware — oblivious to the effect that, say, editing copy in the bathroom will have on a staff that’s nearly ready to revolt.
I know some people love to hate Amanda, or else they love to mock her. I love her unequivocally, because she reminds me of every overachieving, well-meaning, not-quite-mature-enough high schooler I’ve ever known, or been myself. At times, she’s Hillary Clinton. At times, she’s Michael Scott of ‘‘The Office.’’ But she’s a kid with room to grow, and she’s learning — not just how to be a person but how to be a leader. Should she follow the Post-it note she stuck on her bedroom wall that says ‘‘Kill Them With Kindness’’? Or, when she senses a revolt on her hands, should she find a way to take charge?
By the fifth episode last week — there are eight in all, airing at 9:30 p.m. Mondays — Amanda has started to change, realizing that it’s sometimes better to be respected than to be loved. And if you can’t be respected, she’s learning, at least you have to be obeyed.
That’s a tough realization for anyone, but it’s that much harder in high school; the kids on The Circuit are competitive, ambitious, and free to act like the teenagers they are. Amanda’s biggest challenge comes from a clique led by a haughty girl named Giana. Passed over for the editor’s job, she’s an early expert at passive-aggression. In the real workplace, she’s going to be trouble.
Here, she’s strong enough to have sway over Alex, the moral center of the series. Another rival for the editorship, he’s now second in command, certain he’d do a better job than Amanda, and apt to let his ego get the best of him. He’s torn between his cool-kid allies, his professional standards, and his lingering feelings of loyalty toward Amanda, a friend since third-grade Hebrew school.
As he grapples with his loyalties — spilling out his feelings to his friends or his mom — you can see the pain on his face. The great drama of this series is whether he’ll assert himself, and which side he’ll choose. It’s an open question, and astoundingly compelling: ‘‘The Paper’’ isn’t just a business-school-worthy study of workplace dynamics, but an unflinching portrait of high school human nature. (Amanda and her allies aren’t just disobeyed; they’re not invited to parties, and it’s hard to tell what stings more.) It’s full of high school tropes, both timeless and gorgeously current, from the intimidating football coach to the stress of the yearbook photo to frustrations borne out in Wii boxing and courtship carried out via text message.
In short, everything that irks me about ‘‘The Hills’’ — MTV’s popular meditation on the vapid and glamorous life in LA — I adore about ‘‘The Paper.’’ It may well be filmed in a similar style, with set-up confrontations and prearranged phone calls. But here, amazingly, the seams don’t show. These kids are too busy to mug, after all. They have a paper to put out.
The Boston Globe