There is a reality show about storage containers. There is a reality show about finding sperm donors. There is a reality show about pretending to be Prince Harry. Is it really that shocking that someone has made a reality show about celebrities teaching high-risk kids? (Answer: No)
Produced by 50 Cent, Sundance's Dream School returns for its second season on Wednesday with a whole new roster of high-profile instructors helping give students who have dropped out or been expelled another chance to graduate.
Every week, a new celebrity mentor will appear to help students turn their lives around. Leading the whole project this year is LouAnne Johnson, who doesn't waste any time before pointing out that "Michelle Pfieffer played me" in Dangerous Minds. Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir will provide guidance in physical education and communications. Man vs. Food star Adam Richman will teach environmental studies. Public Enemy rapper Chuck D will act as mentor and sociology instructor. And Dennis Duffy himself, Dean Winters will teach the vaguely titled "life skills."
According to 50 Cent, bringing in celebrities — whether they are trained teachers or not — can help get through to children who might otherwise brush off instructors. "When they see someone there that they can identify with, it means something," the rapper told reporters. "They look at the content you create that's aimed at the dysfunctional behaviors in the communities that we grew up in. They know, you know? They immediately look and they go, 'This is cool, too? The book that we're supposed to be in? Alright, let's do this. Let's try it.'"
Of course, what the show fails to make clear is that graduating from Dream School doesn't mean you actually graduate from high school. The program only lasts a few weeks and the aim is more to help the kids see education as a priority and give them the tools to help them succeed.
"This is not just a television show. This is for real," said mentor and legal studies teacher Gloria Allred, who wanted to help the students appreciate the positives in each of their lives. One of Allred's instructional activities was to have each child finish the sentences, "I am unfortunate because..." and "I am fortunate because..." "One of the students said, 'I am unfortunate because a lot of my homeboys have been killed, but I am fortunate because I still have some left,'" Allred recalled. "That gave me a sense of where a lot of them were. But also I wanted them to have sense that we all can say we're unfortunate, but we have to remember that were also fortunate in many ways and we have to emphasize that."
If only someone gave that memo to the Dream School producers. While it's common for reality shows to cast participants based on their so-called sob stories, it's disconcerting to see the instructors meticulously go through each student's issues before meeting them as if they are problems to be solved and not actual people. ("Let's start with Alexis here. Her mother died of AIDs.") Unfortunately, this kind of reduction continues throughout the series, as each student is literally labeled onscreen.
However, Dream School truly means well and there are moments of real heart. One of the most touching moments happens in the premiere, when one of the students, Raya ("our Ukranian orphan who lost both her parents to heroin addiction") approaches 50 Cent about a life-changing donation he made to her orphanage. "That was a surprise. I wasn't aware that she was there or had been affected by any donations I had made in the past," 50 Cent said. "And for me I was like, 'Whoa, this is not like a movie moment. I'm not supposed to cry on TV."
Watch an exclusive sneak peek at Fiddy's heart to heart with Raya below and check out Dream School Wednesdays at 10/9c on Sundance.