By now most of the quality documents related to the Watergate scandal—and the tenacious reporting that broke it—have been released. But what if, in some abandoned desk at the Washington Post, someone found Bob Woodward's slam book, one of those communal high school notebooks full of brutal comments about everyone in class. Wouldn't that be a hoot? It would probably have hilarious takedowns like "Carl Bernstein is a rank, lead-burying spazz." Burn!
Since that's not likely to happen, MTV has provided the next best thing in the form of "The Paper," a reality show premiering April 14 that chronicles the treachery behind the scenes of that dorkiest of high school institutions, the newspaper. The subject is the staff of the Circuit, the voice of Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Fla. It's a drastic drop in status from "Laguna Beach" and "The Hills"—there's no glamour to be found here. But if reality shows are to be judged, as I think they should be, on how profoundly unlikable their casts are, "The Paper" has a leg up on just about anything on television.
These are not the vapid mannequins on "The Hills," who are pretty and self-important but totally nonthreatening. These are the kids who aren't popular in high school. The ones whose parents assure them that while the cool kids will never amount to anything, it's them, the bottom rung of the high school caste system, who will be the cool kids when they grow up. And the thing is, they're right. These kids know it and act accordingly. These aren't the gorgeous people who will be pumping your gas in 20 years. They are the nerds who will be shredding your résumé.
The pilot efficiently sets the pace for the episodes to come. The editor-in-chief position has been vacated, and there's a fierce campaign to see who will ascend to the throne. It's between Amanda, the copy editor; Alex, the sports editor; Adam, the business manager; and Giana, the clubs editor. Each of the four writes an essay on why he or she would make the best EIC and submits it to the newspaper adviser and journalism teacher, Mrs. Weiss. By the end of the episode the job is filled—it would be lame to ruin it for you—and the rivalries and resentments that will fuel the season are laid bare.
The smartest aspect of "The Paper" is its editing, specifically the choice to spend a disproportionate amount of time on Amanda, who also serves as narrator. It's a continuation of a long, grand tradition of MTV shows such as "Made," "I Want a Famous Face" and "My Super-Sweet 16," which find the country's most irritating, least self-aware teenagers and document everything they do. The psychotically ambitious Amanda is perhaps the closest thing in reality to the Reese Witherspoon character in "Election." When she's not being a fount of self-aggrandizing comments (such as "Without me this paper really wouldn't exist, now would it?") she's breaking into improvised musical numbers. If Sheila Albertson, Catherine O'Hara's character in Christopher Guest's "Waiting for Guffman," had a child with Michael Scott of "The Office" (Steve Carell), it would look a lot like Amanda.
As with most of MTV's shows, "The Paper"'s first episode ends with a montage showing the drama that will unfold over the course of the season. None of it looks any more interesting than one would imagine of the inner workings of a high school newspaper. This is perhaps the only false note "The Paper" strikes. This isn't a drama, it's a comedy, and if this "Paper" is going to be a success, it'll have to make sure hilarity is the overriding news value.