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Sunday 10 December 2017

At last, a reality TV show with dignity

Teens. In many ways it is a loaded word.

Any television programme that features it in the title is usually shorthand for extremes: either extreme behaviour on the part of the youngsters participating, or extreme reactions from the viewers and critics watching at home.

Clinical psychologist David Coleman's series, Teens In The Wild, drew some extreme criticism in the media when it debuted last year.

TV series about troubled teens are all the rage and this is, first and foremost, a piece of reality television designed to attract viewers.

It certainly achieved that last year; almost half-a-million watched every week.

Yet where it differs from many of its peers is in its tone, presentation and intent.

In this second series, six troubled teenage girls (as opposed to boys last year), ranging in age from 14 to 17, and with a variety of serious issues -- including anorexia, bullying, anger management problems and the loss of a parent to suicide -- colouring their personalities, spend three weeks at an outdoor education centre in Donegal.

Coleman and his team, which includes supervisors Matt and Sinead, involve them in activities including kayaking and sailing, and therapy sessions, with a view to getting them to bond as a group, as well as confront their problems and behaviour.

In all cases, Coleman believes, a lack of self-esteem is at the core of their woes and those of their long-suffering parents.

On the face of it, it is a similar formula to the one used by BBC3's infamous Can Fat Teens Hunt? yet the two programmes couldn't be more different.

That series, under the guise of being an "observational documentary", essentially played it for slapstick comedy as a group of morbidly obese teens struggled, to a soundtrack of jolly, knockabout music, to fend for themselves in the wild.

The cameras were left rolling while we, presumably, rolled around laughing.

There's no such frivolity about Teens In The Wild. Coleman, an astute and compassionate professional, as well as a likeable presenter, is present at all times, talking to the girls as a group and as individuals, and gently taking them to one side at the first sign of a rift opening.

And rifts, of course, will open -- in fact, a few were already apparent last night. There will be tears and tantrums, fights and fallouts. It is all part and parcel of being a teenager.

You could still argue that this is invasive television, and maybe you would be right.

But it is also serious television at a time when the medium trades in trivialities and superficial, sentimental slush such as Supernanny, where seemingly insurmountable family problems are unfailingly solved in 60 tidy minutes, including commercial breaks.

Teens In The Wild offers no quick-fix solutions, no glib promises of success.

What it does do, however, is restore some dignity and perspective to a largely degraded genre.

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