Perhaps better suited to MTV than ABC, this hybrid of “The Real World” and “The Weakest Link” qualifies as a welcome addition to the feel-good reality genre that ABC appears intent on cornering. With a cast of appealing, financially challenged kids vying for a full-ride scholarship, the program — most notable for its high-wattage producer lineup — deftly conveys the pressure these teens face, blended with the insecurity and flirting associated with raging hormones. While unlikely to deliver particularly high Nielsen scores, it’s nevertheless a laudable hour, even if no one gets too wild and crazy.
Essentially structured as the “school edition” of ABC’s “Extreme Makeover” fuzziness, the series also incorporates various competitive trappings, from a “captain’s quiz” to an elaborate scavenger hunt to an academic showdown to determine who advances. (For high school seniors the questions don’t seem particularly difficult, but then again, you don’t want to scare away that part of the aud accustomed to “According to Jim.”)
The event brings together a geographic and ethnic rainbow of kids at the USC campus, a somewhat unusual setting given that none of them resembles a Heisman Trophy candidate. A three-member admissions committee judges their competitions, providing some insight into the harsh calculus that determines who survives the winnowing process for slots at major universities.
Wisely, it’s not strictly an elimination game, and the kids can actually claim scholarship money short of winning the grand prize, which feels appropriate — departing from the usual dog-eat-dog, winner-takes-all reality formula.
Real estate mogul Eli Broad has kicked in the up-to-$240,000 scholarship, and Wal-Mart (a company whose image can always use a little polishing) contributes $50,000 to the champion of the first episode, who emotionally enthuses about that sum ensuring a collegiate future.
“Real World” producer Jonathan Murray knows this territory well, and also-ran talkshow host Rob Nelson efficiently handles his hosting chores without being condescending or smarmy.
The question is whether the concept will prove too narrow to attract a mainstream audience (a la the WB’s failed “Studio 7”), especially since the teens are engaged in goody two-shoes pursuit of academic fulfillment, not the usual trou-droppingspring break hijinx we’ve come to expect.
Still, in a summer thus far rife with “reality” clones, “The Scholar” exhibits some smarts and a clear sense of mission. So even if the series doesn’t score with viewers, ABC deserves better than just passing grades.