The popular girl. The jock. The nerd. The cheerleader. The gay guy. We all know the labels that get thrown on everyone in high school and TV Land's reality show "High School Reunion" has successfully taken things a step further by bringing classmates back together in order to see who has changed since high school and who may be stuck in the past. The network's third season, kicking off tonight, is full of old rivalries, old (and new) romances as well as those who just want to let go of grudges they have held onto for years. Our Jim Halterman talked with Executive Producer Martin Hilton about the surprises that happen this season and how bringing together a group of people and putting cameras on them is a proven formula for reality television gold.
Jim Halterman: Can you talk about how the casting works. Do people come to you now that show has been on for a few seasons?
Martin Hilton: It's usually a combination. We do a lot of outreach. Obviously, everyone's high school experience is something nostalgic and memorable so we look for people who still have unanswered questions - a lost love or 'I never got to say this to this person' or 'I've always hated that person' - that's what we look for when we cast.
JH: Even though it's been may be 20+ years since high school, there are a lot of people that never really hold onto that time, don't they?
MH: And that's also exactly what we're looking for. You want people to come and relive high school but also renegotiate or figure out how it fits into their lives today and that's what really what ends up being what the power of the show is all about. That's something that we all want to do in some ways. 'I always wanted to date the popular girl and never got to.'
JH: What's different about this season?
MH: The format is pretty much the same. It turned out that this season is different in some ways because it's incredibly romantic. This season from all the other ones that we've done is really focused on love connections and those ones that got away in high school. We revisit those relationships and sometimes they work out and new ones unfold in this reunion.
JH: It looks like a love triangle is forming between Joe, Jodi and Rachelle. Did you know you were going to get that?
MH: Obviously, Jodi and Joe we knew were high school sweethearts and broke up after and there's always that kind of lingering love so we knew that was something we were going to explore and the Rachelle stuff�you never know what's going to happen, ya know? That was entirely not planned in terms of how that relationship took off and it's pretty powerful.
JH: There's also a chance to confront people who made your life more difficult like Eric, the gay guy, who confronts John, the trouble maker, who to this day doesn't seem to care what people think and who he hurts. How does that story play out?
MH: John is probably one of the more extreme characters we've ever had on the show. He is somebody who clearly has not moved on from high school. Normally, people grow up a bit and tempers their view on life and John is stuck right there. It seems like he's never moved on and whether it's party habits or social habits they are just not acceptable in this season and you'll see it comes to a very dramatic finish.
JH: But, from the perspective of the show, a participant like John makes for a good element in a show like this because that's the guy who's going to stir things up, right?
MH: That's right. With Eric he's very outspoken about gay people and he's very homophobic and that ultimately leads to conflict right off the bat with Eric really wanting to show him what a terrible time he had in high school because of it.
JH: And Lissette and Elena (aka The Summer Girls) are easy not to like because of their elitist popular girl mentality but do we get to know them as the season goes on? Do we get beneath the layers of John?
MH: Obviously the more time you spend with anybody you're going to see the depths. It's very hard to get to know [John] because he is just a villain and you can understand and obviously there are layers there that we talked about and he had troubles after his Dad died and he may have issues that may cause him to continue these kinds of habits but he is what he is and he is what he is on the show.
JH: It's interesting how a lot of the classmates reverted to high school behavior such as when Cyndi got blasted by the Summer Girls for talking behind their backs.
MH: Obviously, when you are the popular clique you are not threatened by others and so there's no reason to talk about them and that's the experience in high school. The popular people stuck to themselves and everyone talked about them because they want to be them and that's what happens here. The main rivalry that unfolds is between the Summer Girls and the Cheerleaders [but] by the end sometimes these rivalries are healed by our show and you see them hash it out and get together in the end.
JH: Are the participants typically surprised by the experience even if they are familiar with the show?
MH: I think that's been the case. I think everyone comes in thinking this is a TV show and it's going to be fun and they're always surprised by the emotional depths. What we try to do at Next Entertainment - and not just with this show but The Bachelor and other shows - is to listen to the cast and really be in tune with what they're going through. In that process is the surprise of real feelings whether it's love in this season and marriage proposals come about or drama but the emotional depth is real and that's what we try to foster in them so that way the cast is continually surprised.
JH: You and your fellow producers have a good formula down. After all the reality shows you guys have produced are you still surprised that you can essentially throw a group of people together with some cameras and get some great drama?
MH: Always. Part of me is like 'What are we going to do this season?' and then we just start rolling and these stories unfold naturally. I think there are two things that really cause people to be emotionally true to themselves. One is the camera itself. Somehow it's like a confessional. When the camera is on, they actually want to reveal themselves in a way that is both good for television, honestly, but also good for themselves. Secondarily, it's the format of the interviews. When someone is asked to truly articulate their feelings and who they are it's also a journey of discovery for them. In that way, it's a bit like therapy. Rehashing these high school issues and being able to clearly talk about them and made to talk about them in a clear way is also part of the experience. There are definitely life lessons to be learned and some do and some don't.
"High School Reunion" begins its new season tonight on TV Land at 10/9c.