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New and Returning Netflix, HBO Shows Offer Dark Comic Takes on High School

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Last week, the entertainment and education communities came together for an uplifting TV special on four broadcast networks focused on the need to improve U.S. high schools. Despite the message that modern high schools are outdated and in need of change, the overall tone was positive and hopeful, with lighthearted comedy and lots of music. It ended with a rousing group rendition of the Beatles' "Come Together."

This week, two pay-TV channels are presenting a sharper, darker, and at times more cynical depiction of secondary education and culture. 

Netflix has a new movie and a new comedy series set in high schools. The movie, "#RealityHigh," about social media excesses of high school students, has some redeeming qualities. "American Vandal," an eight-part series, is in part a satire of Netflix's own documentary series. Based on promos for the series, it looks dystopian. (Netflix didn't respond to a request for an advanced screener of "American Vandal.")

Meanwhile, HBO is set to debut the second and final season of its dark comedy "Vice Principals," also set in the typical American high school. The first season is about two school administration deputies who try to drive out their new principal by, among other things, burning down her house (accidentally), trying to turn the staff against her, and blackmailing her before one of the vice principals is shot. So it picks up from there.

Here is a closer look at the three shows:

"#RealityHigh"

The Netflix movie, "#RealityHigh," actually debuted on Sept. 8, the same night that the "XQ Super School Live" special about high schools aired on ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC.

The movie is about Dani Barnes (Nesta Cooper), a senior at fictional Vista Valley High School, an upper-middle class to upper-class public school near Malibu, Calif. 

Dani works at the storefront animal clinic and wants to go to college to study veterinary medicine. Her mentor is Dr. Shively, a vet played by Kate Walsh, who is appearing in her second Nexflix high school project. (She was the mom of suicide victim Hannah Baker in "13 Reasons Why.")

Dani describes herself as "a goofy, dog-loving nerd." She would like to attract more friends on social media. She has no trouble attracting the attention of Cameron (Keith Powers), the star of the swim team and the boyfriend of Alexa (Alicia Sanz), who is a fellow classmate but in a world of her own as a social media star. (She has her own YouTube channel.)

When Dani and Cameron start dating, Alexa sets up Dani for some social media revenge. Dani, meanwhile, has a sweet best guy friend , Freddie (Jake Borelli )—the kind of artsy high school boy who wears a porkpie hat—who pines for her. You just know that when Dani promises to drive him to his first paying DJ gig, at a bar mitzvah, that Freddie will be left waiting while Dani forgets and is pulled to a Hollywood party by Alexa.

While "#RealityHigh" has some low moments, in the end it is basically a high school romamtic comedy with heart—some positive messages about cyberbullying and shaming.

"American Vandal"

As I noted above, I didn't get to screen "American Vandal." Netflix descibes it as a "half-hour true-crime satire that explores the aftermath of a costly high school prank that left 27 faculty cars vandalized with phallic images."

The eight episodes, which become available Friday, Sept. 15, are in the guise of a documentary by Peter Maldanaldo (Tyler Alvarez) a sophomore at the high school who explores whether senior Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) was rightly expelled for drawing the vulgar images in the parking lot, or whether it was someone else.

The promotional trailer for the show gives a pretty good sense of the tone, but it's too explicit for a nice family education policy newspaper. 

The series by Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault has shows such as Netflix's "Making a Murderer," HBO's "Jinx," and public radio's "Serial" in its targets, with high school itself the secondary target.

Still, The Hollywood Reporter says that "Netflix's satire of the true crime documentary genre proves surprisingly effective as both a mystery and a high school comedy."

In The New York Times, Mike Hale says that "when it clicks, in the early episodes, 'Vandal' is pretty amusing" but "it's not an idea that stretches effectively over eight episodes."

I'll try to chime in with my own judgment after I've had a chance to binge-watch the series.

"Vice Principals"

HBO's sendup of high school administration debuted in the summer of 2016, created by Jody Hill and series co-star Danny McBride (who plays vice principal Neal Gamby, the part rival, part ally of other vice principal Lee Russell, played by Walt Goggins.)

The pair spent Season 1 trying to oust the person who got the job of principal, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hèbert Gregory), that they both feel they deserved.

I said last year that if you can accept some of the more outrageous parts of the show (the accidental arson of Dr. Brown's home, for one) as farce, "Vice Principals" is funny and gets a lot of the details about education and high school life just right.

Season 2 debuts this Sunday, Sept. 17, at 10:30 p.m. Eastern and Pacific times. HBO did not respond to a request for a screener for the second season. (Last year, an HBO publicist asked me why a publication such as Education Week would even be interested in reviewing this particular show. I would have thought that was self-evident.)

Last season ended with Gamby being shot in the parking lot of North Jackson High School, somewhere in North Carolina. Trailers for Season 2 indicate he is out of the hospital and back at work, vowing to find his shooter, with many potential suspects. 

"Vice Principals" was always planned as just two seasons of nine episodes each. So, within about two months, two dark comic takes on the American high school will have run their course.

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