'Harlem Heights:' Thank God Lauren Conrad Is Nowhere To Be Seen

By Joshua Alston

Confession: I've never understood scripted reality shows like "Laguna Beach," "The Hills" and, more recently, "The City," MTVs half-plotted, half-improvised dramas about vapid, attractive people. It isn't that my taste is high-minded; I'll watch any reality competition, except for Animal Planet's "Groomer Has It" (a guy has to draw the line somewhere). My issue with scripted reality or docudrama series like "The Hills" is that they're the worst of both worlds. They lack both the imaginative plotting and clever dialogue of truly scripted dramas and the spontaneity of more legitimately unscripted television. They're soap operas with really unprofessional acting.

But when I heard about "Harlem Heights," BET's new scripted reality series, I gave it a shot anyway. I was willing to entertain the possibility that my ambivalence toward "The Hills" had to do with my inability to connect with the characters. I have very little in common with Lauren Conrad. But as a young black professional (OK, OK, semi-professional) I figured I'd have more of a line in to "Heights," a docudrama about the goings-on among a group of hopelessly fabulous Harlem buppies. I certainly understand the characters in "Heights" in a way that I've never been able to during my attempts at watching "The Hills," and perhaps that's what leads me to believe the "Heights" gang isn't quite right for this type of show.

"Heights" follows an octet of black 20-somethings who the show's creators swear were friends prior to filming, though that's less than evident from their interactions. The most recognizable character is Brooke, a documentary producer who used to date Kanye West. The others are Ashlie, an actress; Briana, a fashion designer; Bridget, a law student; Christian, a magazine editor; Jason, who hopes to start a nonprofit; Landon, an aspiring politician; and Pierre, who's not a model but appears to focus most on being handsome.

The pilot introduces the characters on Election Day and consists mostly of protracted, repetitive conversations about Barack Obama and how significant his presidency will be. There's very little in the way of cattiness or personal drama, just full-blown Obamania. The soapy stuff comes in episode two, where we're told that Brooke and Ashlie used to be friends but had a falling out. The details are vague, but they seem mundane enough that I wasn't dying for more information. They meet up again when Ashlie invites Brooke to her birthday party, and there's stilted conversation between them about letting bygones be bygones. The first episode and the second rub against each other in an awkward way, portending the show's biggest flaw.

Where the kids on "The Hills" could be accused of being too shallow and self-absorbed, the kids on "Harlem Heights" could be accused of, well, not being quite shallow enough. It's clearly a priority of co-creators Randolph Sturrup and Kurt Williamson to show their subjects in a positive light, to make the point that these kids have bigger concerns than petty interpersonal conflict: They want to change the world. Psychologically, the portrayals ring true. In my experience, educated, hard-working black 20-somethings carry the weight of the world on their shoulders and feel an intense pressure to succeed, as well as to pay that success forward.

And a documentary on that topic would be fascinating to watch. As would, perhaps, a documentary just about their bumpy love lives and squabbles. But putting the two together makes for an odd viewing experience. One scene could be a conversation about how best to serve the needs of children whose parents are incarcerated, and the next could consist of girls trying on dresses at a boutique. I get the logic of it, the idea that the show is supposed to be capturing the full picture of their lives, but capturing the entirety of someone's life isn't what reality television is about. Reality television is about taking raw footage and shaping it into a character, people we love and hate based on the 10 percent of them that we've been shown. "Harlem Heights" is a fascinating experiment, but not wholly satisfying to watch. It could get there, though, as long as its creators make a choice to go high or low, rather than staying stuck in between.