Some of us want to play in the mud but not feel dirty afterward. That's why TV producers have started adding feel-good elements to their reality shows. ABC's ''Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" is the great giant of guilt-free reality TV; rather than turning unscripted drama into a mean-spirited bullfight, it makes it into a warm communal barn raising. Rather than taxing our consciences, it qualifies as a moral write-off.
ABC's ''The Scholar," tonight at 8 on Channel 5, is the philanthropic cousin of MTV's ''The Real World." It's about 10 teens living together in a house, but it's built on a positive message about higher education. The roommates aren't just soap opera players; they're brainiacs competing against one another to win a much-needed $250,000 college scholarship. Sure, ''The Scholar" does rely on interpersonal drama, with a requisite villain; but it also celebrates the value of intelligence and clear thinking. And it will give at least one of its players a chance, as reality hosts like to put it, ''to reach his or her dream."
As ''American Idol" judge Randy Jackson would say, ''The Scholar" was just all right for me. The kids are certainly likable, except, of course, Davis, who is portrayed as little more than an egomaniac destined for a nasty comeuppance. ''I feel like the big fish in this pond," he says to the camera without even a gesture of false modesty. But most of the players are articulate and honest, and they're all quite open about wanting to learn. By the end of tonight's episode, a few of them are worth rooting for.
Melissa is the most appealing competitor from the get-go. Sweet-natured and shy, she's daunted by the need to let her competitive side emerge. A former gymnast who reconfigured her goals after suffering from scoliosis, she's an impressive mixture of life experience and innocence. In her interview with the three admissions experts, the show's Scholarship Committee, she sheds a very sympathetic tear. Jeremy, whose parents emigrated from Vietnam, is also easy to like, as he nobly takes responsibility for a group failure in a competition. Most of the kids are similarly mature, and they appear to maintain their dignity despite the intrusiveness of the reality cameras and the awkwardness of their hormones.
But the challenges on ''The Scholar" make for fairly dull viewing. Tonight, the kids are broken up into two groups to perform a series of tasks, including putting together a stick puzzle and undoing a cryptogram. They're clearly revved up as they compete, but the solutions themselves aren't exciting to watch. When the players race against one another on ''Survivor" or ''The Amazing Race," it's like seeing a dramatic little sports event unfold. When ''The Scholar" teens deal with pop quizzes, it's more like watching a more grown-up version of PBS's ''Zoom." Charity is a good thing, but it doesn't always make good television.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.