'Freshman Diaries' might be an eye-opener for parents

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As rapper-turned-actor Will Smith so aptly noted: "Parents just don't understand." High school seniors are notoriously secretive about their lives, yet berate their parents for being "clueless" and having "no idea what it's like" to be a teen. I know, I was thinking that myself not so long ago.

In Freshman Diaries, Showtime's 10-part series which begins tonight, filmmaker R.J. Cutler attempts to get inside the crazy lives and heads of 12 freshmen attending the University of Texas at Austin.

My only questions are: Are parents ready to know what their darling children are up to when left to their own devices? Do teens really want their parents to see this program and get ideas about what's going on in their dorm rooms?

It's no secret that college life gets a little wild at times, but Diaries may be the first show to illustrate just how wild -- and in such a raw way. Edited more tastefully than your average reality program, the producers nonetheless allow the program's young stars to shoot some of their own footage. This makes for really interesting camera angles and extremely intimate confessions. People over the age of say, 35, will probably be shocked by certain scenes, as was my own mouth-agape mother, who watched the preview tapes with me. Teens and young adults of my generation? Not so much.

For some reason, society has deemed 18 years of age the appropriate time for youths to pack up all their worldly possessions, leave the jurisdiction of their parents' authority and begin the four most rigorous intellectual years of their entire life (that is, if they go to class every now and then). Once at college, teens begin to question everything: religion, sexuality, friends, future and, especially, parents.

Producer Cutler has gathered 12 students of various races and sexual orientations who are all ready to embark on the college adventure. The only similarity they share is an apparently overpowering need for near-constant self-examination and soul searching. All are desperate to "find themselves" and are painfully frustrated with their own uncertainty. One student is a homosexual teen who, very much to his own dismay, falls for a chick. A second "plays by the rules" until she has her first Jell-O shot and all hell breaks loose. A third adores his group of high school buds only to be ditched by them the second he hits campus.

Their collective awkwardness and disenchantment is excruciating for anyone who can remember what it feels like to hit that campus alone, with more hopes than fears, only to find out just how tough adjusting can be. The students grapple with the little questions: "Can I afford to hit the snooze button one more time?" and "Where in the world is my next class?" But they also face far larger questions that make this program heavier and darker than most portrayals of college life. Sure, there's footage of kids talking about having sex, taking body shots, experimenting in homosexual matchmaking and lip-synching for the camera. But most of the footage is much less stereotypically teen movie-ish. Parents will wonder: If self-described "good girl" Casey is trash-talking her overprotective father, making out with a girl, and passing out drunk in front of the camera, what are the bad girls doing? The series is no Girls Gone Wild, but what the show lacks in eye-candy shock value, it makes up for in honesty.

Some of the conversations -- particularly the soliloquies -- are so candid, it's as if the cameras weren't present. These teens are desperate for someone -- anyone -- to whom they can vent their problems, a friend who isn't too preoccupied with his or her own life to just sit and listen.

What little parental interaction we see, at least in the first two episodes, speaks directly to this problem. It's not that these parents don't want to listen to their kids or don't love them, they just truly don't seem to get it. Whether they have forgotten what this time of life was like or are too busy being disciplinarians, they do little to ease the turmoil going on inside their kid's head. When Casey tells her father she dreams of becoming an actress, he tells her she's majoring in computer science and that he "frankly" doesn't care whether she enjoys it or not. He wants her to be successful, she wants to make him proud, so why is there so much hostility?

Sure, college life isn't always this dramatic (it is television, after all). But even for teens who don't think they're gay, don't struggle in school, and have a great relationship with their parents, there's still plenty of drama on campus. In between the keg parties and late-night pizza sessions, everyone has rough times.

Freshman Diaries offers adults a refresher course in College Life 101.

Amanda Smear, who spent her summer as a Sun staff writer, began her sophomore year at Columbia University last week.

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