Like any reality show, NBC's "School Pride" attempts to create narrative tension where there is none. Will local contractors agree to volunteer for the makeover of a school in Compton? Will the teachers' lounge of a Baton Rouge elementary school get finished in a mere 20 hours?
Of course they will, and frankly, it wouldn't matter if the answer were no. Because "School Pride," which is produced by Cheryl Hines ( "Curb Your Enthusiasm") and " Extreme Makeover: Home Edition's" Denise Cramsey, is not about the process or even the payoff, it's about the need. For every shockingly substandard school it aids, the show implies, there are many more that continue to decay and decline.
Having exhausted the hot topic of obesity, it's not surprising that reality TV has moved on to education (the environment is, perhaps, too large a palette). Each week a dilapidated campus will be renovated by the school pride team: SWAT Commander Tom Stroup, interior designer and former Miss USA Susie Castillo, comedian and former teacher Kym Whitley and political correspondent Jacob Soboroff (" AMC News"). Producers wisely chose, at least in early episodes, elementary schools so the student population is still winsome and eager to please -- leave the surly and troubled teens to Tony Danza on "Teach."
Of course we begin in Compton -- where else? Subsequent episodes take place in similar trouble zones: Baton Rouge, La., and then Nashville, where the local elementary school was destroyed by flood. Although some mention is made of academic performance, "School Pride" spares us test scores and focuses specifically on the schools themselves. Stroup musters local, and national (hence all the Microsoft logos) aid; Castillo chats with students and teachers over paint cans; Whitley provides the comic relief; and Soboroff, bless his heart, tries to figure out: Who's to blame?
In the first episode, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tells him the answer isÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â… everyone. Parents, teachers, government, communities, everyone. While this is a politically expedient answer, there is certainly much truth in it. The visible degradation of our schools is as stark a metaphor as you're going to get in this lifetime and should shame anyone who believes in the principles of democracy.
Unlike makeover shows that have the luxury of remaining, mostly, in the personal realm, "School Pride" must at least acknowledge the politics of its topic. The second episode is more politically overt -- Lanier Elementary in Baton Rouge is made up of a student body largely hovering around the poverty line and has a cadre of young teachers from "Teach 4 America," a national group dedicated to ending educational inequality. The Lanier group is, it must be said, suspiciously good-looking, but listening to them discuss their decision to spend two years teaching in underserved schools does give one hope.
A few madeover schools, no matter how impressive their gyms or boldly patterned their new floors, are not going to solve the education crisis in America. Hines and Cramsey hope the show will remind communities, and perhaps more important, benevolent companies, that a little paint, a few throw pillows and some decent equipment can make a big difference.
It's a noble goal and one hopes that after viewing "School Pride," volunteers spring up, committees form and checks are written. Because to merely watch the show and wallow in its many throat-tightening moments would be to remain a voyeur, and then you're just part of the problem.