THE FD.COM COUCH CRITIC: "KID NATION"

Kn_01_101_03_254We felt obligated to tune into "Kid Nation" on CBS because, really, how often does one get an opportunity to see (alleged) child labor on national TV? The show promised us that 40 children were going to build their own society—and make their own rules. Which, despite all the pre-broadcast controversy, was a pretty intriguing concept. What if kids had their own town to run their own way? Would they immediately make it socialist? (Most likely.) Would they elect one, several, or no leaders?(Hard to say; maybe a rotation of leaders?)  As it happens, we're not going to find out during this show's 13-week season, because producers don't actually give the kids a chance to make those kinds of decisions. They don't even come close.

"Kid Nation" turns out to be a strictly by-the-numbers reality show, with the kids (at least to this point) having about all the power of a particularly earnest middle-school student council whose well-entrenched principal lets them decide the theme of the spring dance, as opposed to whether or not they should have one at all. (Note: Spoilers ahead.)

Producers chose four kids to be the "town council" before they even started taping and unlike the rest of the group, which arrived on a school bus, they descended, Trump-like, in a helicopter. The crew deposited all the kids in a remote a spot a few miles away from "Bonanza City," and, inexplicably, demanded that the kids haul several wagons full of supplies down the road to the town, just like the pioneers did—well, except that the pioneers had horses. Whatever.

When the kids got to town, they found barren bunkhouses and little guidance. The town council flailed away for about a day and a half before locating an old leather-bound guidebook to the town, which told them to divide their population into four groups: Red, Yellow, Green, and Blue—again, um, just like the pioneers did . . . ? So right off the bat, the kids are divided into four groups without having any say in the matter. (You can see where this is heading.) Then the show's host—let's call him "Adultus ex Machina"—arrived to tell the kids that it was time for a bogus teamwork challenge (he actually said it would be a true, Old West-style "Showdown," but, you know, without the paces, the pistols, or a point). The Showdown would decide which of the four groups would be the "upper class," which would be the "merchant class," (some of whom would man the town's root-beer saloon) which would be the cooks, and which would be the laborers. (So much for the kids establishing an economy and establishing a division of labor.)

It was at this point that the show lost all interest for us. There are some intriguing kids, to be sure, some likable, some not so much—and clearly some very bright kids. There's also like the gal with a heavy Boston accent. (Our favorite kid, though, was the truly adorable homesick 8-year-old who took advantage of a window of opportunity  at the first "town meeting"—called not by the town council but, you guessed it, the host—to, quite literally, get the Hell out of Dodge and go home. The spring in his step as he bounded past the other kids was the episode's clear highlight for us.) It would have been truly interesting to have found out how they'd have made the town work. (Even on their first night in Bonanza City, with no direct "supervision"—though there's obviously a large, omnipresent production crew—they did figure out how to prepare dinner for 40.*) The kids almost certainly would NOT have created a society with a non-contributing upper class, an only marginally useful merchant class, and a small, distinct labor class, made up of the exact 10 kids who came in LAST in a physical challenge! The kids would never have divided themselves up in a way that the only girl who seems to have cooking skill would end up in any other work group. That would be stupid, and these kids are definitely not stupid.

They also have integrity. The town council has the power to give a major cash reward at each town meeting to the kid who they felt made the biggest contribution, and they gave it to the girl who led that first night's cooking crew, even though she had been the only kid who criticized the council during the town meeting. A lesser council—like Congress—would have immediately dropped her for someone who didn't challenge them. At every turn in the first episode when the kids had a chance to make a tough call—few as those opportunities were—they made decisions worthy of respect.

We would have readily accepted two or three ever-present on-camera adults helping to guide the kids through their big decisions about leadership, economy, and division of labor, as long as the kids had final say. But that's not the show CBS wanted. Alternately, the network could have produced a show in which kids actually had to live like gold rush pioneers, literally following all the rules of that society. That would have been a different, but still interesting exercise. In the end, the show is just a missed opportunity.

Elsewhere in Kid Nation:

* Tom Shales raised some other good questions about the show in the Post today.
* You can see clips from the first show on CBS' site.
* The network reported yesterday that it had screened the first episode for select school groups nationwide (though not critics), and that those kids liked it just fine.

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* Here's something the show will surely ignore: The on-site production crew must have electricity, they must have cell phones and they must have canteen tables set up around the periphery of the town. How are the kids dealing with watching the crew eat delicious sandwiches while they struggle to cook grits? It's simply not possible that the kids are simply ignoring the crew, as might happen on, say, a "Big Brother." These kids miss their parents and there are adults surrounding them all day. Mustn't they be trying to bond with them at all?

September 20, 2007 | Permalink | Subscribe to RSS

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