Prom, college applications and homecomings are among the common memories associated with high school.
Lucky 8 TV and A&E are allowing audiences to relive those nostalgic times in the new docuseries Undercover High, premiering tonight (Jan. 9) at 10 p.m. ET.
To help showcase the average day of a modern teenager, the series has seven young adults, ranging in age from 21 to 26, embed themselves for a semester at Highland Park High School in Topeka, Kansas.
The participants, unaware of each other, arrive on campus where only the school administrators and select members of the community know their true identities. They pose as typical students — attending classes, making friends and participating in school clubs and activities — to provide an inside look at what it’s like to be a teenager today.
Greg Henry, co-president of Lucky 8 TV and an executive producer on the show, says he’s noticed a lot of people looking to “pierce the teen bubble.”
With digital communications such as social media becoming the standard way for teens to connect, Henry says there’s a delineation between generations. While he anticipates the series to be watched by multiple generations — parents looking to gain insight into their children’s lives, and young adults looking to reminisce about their high school years — he hopes that ultimately families will watch the show together.
“I think it will help generate an honest conversation about the struggles of being a teen,” he says. “I think people want to have that conversation, and hopefully this will provide an entry point.”
While Lucky 8 employed a similar approach to great effect with incarceration through its 60 Days In, also for A&E, gaining access to the high school halls wasn’t easy. Lucky 8 reached out to hundreds of schools and their principals. After landing on Topeka, Henry says he personally took at least seven to 10 trips to the school to sit down with the administrators, the school board, the superintendent and principals to talk through the project.
“In a series dealing with jails [such as 60 Days In] you need the approval of one final person — for schools, you need a lot of people to agree.”
Even after finalizing a deal with the school, before picking up any cameras the Lucky 8 team went on to have multiple meetings with students, including conversations during large assemblies, to let them know they would be documenting high school life. The production team went to parents’ nights to spread the word to the community. Then, even after production began, the crew would have a table set up on campus to answer any student questions.
“You have to make sure everyone has bought into what they’re doing together, especially when you’re entering the world of minors,” Henry explains.
Another challenge when working with minors? Working to their schedule. Henry notes that one of the fundamental challenges during production was finding enough time to shoot the participants, as when they weren’t at school, they were often studying and doing homework. Plus, to ensure that no one found out who was “undercover”, the crew had to follow lots of kids rather than only tracing the steps of the selected participants.
“In order for projects like these kinds of social experiments to work, you have to fully commit,” he says, noting the participants had to give away their cell phones and credit cards before starting the project. “They were fully immersed.”
Henry, a parent himself, says he was more curious than nervous to see what the cameras would pick up about how teens interact. “I was concerned that I was going to bring my own filter to the series as an adult,” he says. “But what was really remarkable, disconcerting, different and eye-opening is really the immediacy of social media. There’s an immediate feedback, and I’m curious about how that changes the way you see the world. A euphoric moment can be spoiled almost instantly.”
Ultimately, Henry says the schools and administrators were great partners on the project, and recognized the value in telling the story of what modern, North American teenage life is like. “They let us into their world, and really believed in the project,” he says.
Undercover High is produced for A&E Network by Lucky 8 TV, via its subsidiary Learning Tree Productions. Executive producers for Lucky 8 are Gregory Henry, Kimberly Woodard, Jeff Grogan, Kelly McClurkin, Charlie Marquardt and Amy Goodman Kass. Executive producers for A&E Network are Elaine Frontain Bryant, Shelly Tatro, Brad Holcman and Molly Ebinger.