The school year may be wrapping up, but for ABC, this summer is all about the academics (and the fey ballroom dancing, but that’s another issue). That’s because tomorrow night marks the premiere episode of The Scholar, the network’s latest feel-good reality offering. On the show, ten high school students move into a house on the USC campus and compete for a full-ride scholarship to the college of his or her choice, with four runners up receiving $50,000 each courtesy of Walmart. It’s a noble idea, and despite having Walmart’s paws in the mix, the show doesn’t cater to Middle American schmaltz (paging Sears and Extreme Makeover). We were fortunate enough to grab an advanced copy of the premiere episode which was sweet and enjoyable, if not totally thrilling. Seeing a cast of reality stars who care more about their grades than their camera time is refreshing, and like Sorority Life and Fraternity Life, I have no doubts that these “characters” will become oddly transfixing by episode three or four.The Scholar comes to us from Bunim/Murray productions, the same people who’ve provided countless hours of guilty pleasure entertainment from The Real World, Road Rules, and of course, The Real World/Road Rules Challenge. While most of the reality stars in the BMP stable seem to be complete and utter idiots (ahem, Tina, Veronica), The Scholar bucks the trend with its ten amiable contestants who range from scoliosis survivor to first generation Vietnamese-American to obligatory home-schooled champ. All these kids seem likable, even the supposed villain Davis whose pseudo-cockiness at least stems from some sort of intelligence (as opposed to CT from Real World: Paris).
If there’s anyone who can capture the teenage vibe, it’s Bunim/Murray, and they succeed again with this series; although, I’m fairly surprised The Scholar is airing on ABC instead of The N. Then again, maybe this is ABC’s attempt at TGIF on Mondays — TGIM, if you will (although, with the airing of The Ring directly after this premiere, I’m having a hard time envisioning what sort of audience they’re trying to pull in).
While the central premise of the series is simple and high-concept, the actual show structure may require a 1300 SAT score to understand. Basically, at the beginning of every hour, the students take a “Captain’s Quiz”, which in the case of the first episode was a survey of lunar history dates and events. The two people with the most correct answers in the shortest amount of time become team captains. Teams, you say? Yes. The second part of the show is a team challenge, and after the captains have been selected via the quiz, they must pick their teams, à la kickball. The captain whose team wins the challenge gets an automatic spot in the “showdown” (I think that’s what it’s called) where he or she will square off against two other contestants in another quiz/game show type challenge. Those two other contestants will be chosen by a panel of admissions officers who, like erudite Donald Trumps, will grill the students for their worthiness. The winner of the showdown will earn $50,000 and then automatically secure one of five spots for the FINAL showdown that will determine who will earn the scholarship. Confused? Don’t worry about it. It’ll make sense once you watch it.
Thrown into all this chaos is bland host Rob Nelson whose complete and utter lack of presence probably serves as the show’s weakest offering. I suppose he landed the gig with his showy law degree from Stanford, but to be honest, I’d rather see a pseudo-intellectual douchebag like Anderson Cooper steer this ship (he did host The Mole after all) or attractive brainiacs Brooke Shields (Princeton) or Aisha Tyler (Dartmouth). Heck, why not think big and bring in Noam Chomsky to be master of ceremonies? Okay, now I’m just talking crazy.
Rob Nelson: instant hatred.
Anyway, one of the warm and fuzzy elements of the show is that no one actually gets eliminated. Instead, the students are simply not chosen — a gracious and appropriate route to take, I guess. Similarly, the occasionally soporific “scholarship committee” opts not to instigate conflict but instead provoke thoughtful responses; although, smarmy Shawn Abbott looks mildly disappointed to have missed the mean-reality era. You just know he wants to throw around the clout that comes with being an admissions officer to “an Ivy League school” (probably Brown). My only real problem with the show is that after taking all this time and care to create as nurturing an environment as possible for a reality competition, the most important challenges seem to come down to rote memorization routines. Having students match dates to historical events is an antiquated testing prototype to say the least. Answering quiz-show trivia about authors and their book titles is similarly undemonstrative of actual intellect. There doesn’t seem to be an emphasis on abstract thinking (at least not yet), and in this way, The Scholar truly exposes its reality show foundation.
Nevertheless, as entertainment, the series is a breezy hour perfect for the slow summertime schedule. The first episode sees its fare share of minor conflict, especially surrounding Davis, who many of the roommates detest off the bat, but again, there’s nothing too earth-shattering in the drama. This show impresses me as the type that will slowly sink its claws under your skin, rather than win you over in only one hour. Did I just mix metaphors? Probably. Anyway, The Scholar airs tomorrow night at 8 pm on ABC.