Wondering how to pay for your child's college education? Well, you can go to your rich spinster aunt, or take out six figures in loans, or pin your hopes on getting that obscure grant whose application is harder to figure out than the alternative minimum tax.
Now there's a fourth alternative: Get your genius kid on The Scholar, ABC's surprisingly appealing new reality show, which debuted June 6. The premise: 10 brainy, "economically disadvantaged" high school graduates live in a house together -- on the University of Southern California campus for a touch of authenticity. There they compete for $240,000 in scholarship money to go the school of their choice. It's part Apprentice, part Real World, and part Survivor, with a healthy dose of Spellbound, the recent documentary on spelling competitions.
If it sounds a tad genre-ish, several things distinguish The Scholar from the rest of the shopworn reality fare. For starters, these young adults all have solid credentials. They're staggeringly smart and accomplished (among them are a 17-year-old who does stem-cell research, a home-schooled student who works four jobs, and one with a 4.67 GPA, just to give you an idea).
The ultimate winner won't be determined merely by team play, or even how an individual scores in various contests. A three-person panel of admission experts interviews each of the college hopefuls and weighs in.
This approach makes a lot of sense, especially given that academic achievement is largely based on individual effort and that colleges seek "well-rounded" students. Too many shows penalize those who happen to be on a losing team. And I'd rather have input from a team of experts than the opinions of a dial-happy audience, à la American Idol.
At least in the first episode, the producers wisely stayed away from stunt competitions and instead relied on legitimate contests that are appropriate for a show that's about helping someone get an education. The students were tested, both individually and by team, in logic, problem-solving, and knowledge of everything from space history to 19th and 20 century literature.
Another smart choice: Giving a lot of time to the "confession cam," where the kids talk about themselves and the dynamics in the house. After all, watching cryptograms being solved isn't all that fascinating, and you can make a two-minute silent quiz on space history only so interesting. As one would expect from a group of highly intelligent young people, they're articulate and self-aware, and considerably less vapid than the denizens of most reality shows.
Even after just one episode, the show conveys a sense of the strong personalities involved. There's the confident-to-a-fault Davis, who had already succeeded in alienating many of his peers -- and I suspect a good number of viewers -- before the third commercial break; the intense, hard-on-himself Jeremy, the son of Vietnamese immigrants; the oddly shy but scrappy Melissa, who beat Davis in the final competition of the night; and the goofy but charming Gerald, who instantly endeared himself when he likened waiting to be picked for a team for the first challenge to "third-grade dodge ball."
The structure of the competition is a little complicated, but a big payoff comes at the end with an easy-to-understand, lightning-round type competition. The prize: a $50,000 scholarship -- one of four that will be awarded in addition to the full-ride that one of the 10 kids will get. Melissa won the first, besting Jeremy, who missed on a question about Jack London, and Davis, who didn't know the name of the author of Gone With the Wind.
This is going to be a fun show to watch, because you can actually imagine caring about these kids and what happens to them. It almost makes up for ABC's dismal, dopey Dancing with the Stars. Almost.
By Patricia O'Connell in New York