Sunday, January 13th, 2008
Alex (red shirt) Pulls His Weight
Kid Nation (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kid_Nation) started out in a flurry of controversy which really has not abated. For those not familiar, Kid Nation was a CBS reality show where the children are left “without adults” in a ghost town. The goal was to create their own “nation” made up entirely of kids. There were injuries. One of the kids was splattered with grease while cooking. I remember reading an article about kids drinking bleach mislabeled as water. But none of the injuries were serious, and though complaints were filed, none were acted on. Certainly, comparable to an ordinary 40 days at camp, the injuries seem relatively typical and minor. The exit interviews of the kids seem to indicate that the most difficult experience they faced was being filmed constantly. In the end, the only danger to the show was a season of rather low ratings.
But was it a good show? Well, the answer is that it was a mixture of extremely good and extremely odd.
The extremely good: The kids were uniformly fantastic. You simply can’t get better improvised comedic dialogue anywhere. Unlike the amoral and deceptive (though equally fascinating) competitive model of Survivor, the kids have a credulity and sincerity that is very compelling to watch. In particular, some of the very youngest kids, Mallory and Alex, were real heroes and obviously great kids. Taylor was always fun and I often found myself cheering her on as she stood up to the natural authoritarians in town. As a leader, her “Deal With It” motto was one of the worst political slogans in history, but also totally hilarious. She wasn’t perfect, but she was very real and I know many “adults” who behave exactly like her (in their supposed full maturity). On a deeper level, the show functioned extremely well as an examination of leadership and motivation. It was definitely the most thought-provoking reality show I’ve ever seen.
The Extremely Odd: Simple: The adult manipulation! The best moments in the show were unscripted, unmanipulated (relatively), and brought forth from the imagination of the kids. First problem: Somehow, the producers thought it would be a good idea to force a representative democracy on these stranded kids. Was this to supposedly prepare them for our supremely dysfunctional adult version of this same system? From the beginning, four kids were on council. Occasionally, they were given an opportunity to be voted out and replaced, but that was it. No opportunity to vote out or reorganize the structure of the council was ever given. Kids were also divided into four camps (did the producers have a fetish for the number four?). It seemed this was intended mimic the Survivor camps and avoid individual competition among the kids. Unlike Survivor, there were no directly democratic votes at all, except for the “representative democracy” of the town council. No one was voted out, obviously (that would be traumatic for the kids and the viewers, too!), but instead of leaving out the mercenary game show aspect of Survivor altogether, the producers shoehorned in the forced drama of “gold star” awards in every show. These $20000 gold star awards shifted the whole tenor of the show away from the societal, functioning community (ala “Lord of the Flies”) aspect to the How Can I Behave in Such a Way as To Earn The Gold Star aspect. This manipulative structure served the kids poorly and the viewers worse. Instead of setting up a type of badge system, where all the kids would have chances to shine and achieve victories, 50% of each show was devoted to an ersatz tearjerker popularity contest. When my favorite town member, 9 year old Alex, won his award, I think he put it the best…”I don’t really need $20000.” Later, he said, “But I’ll definitely keep it, gold prices are on the rise.” The kids were just as motivated to win the challenges for various practical rewards around town. Competing for the $20000 stars made the kids think not about making a community, but just the opposite: How to make themselves look good at the expense of others. This was a terrible decision by the producers that reduced 50% of each episode to a tedious forced drama. This half of the show made viewers long for first half. Even worse was the super-manipulative “Religion” episode, which was truly painful to behold. I won’t say much about it expect that it was a sickening directive to make the kids try to form a religion-based town meeting. This placed the kids in the disturbing position of having to defend what is, essentially, the faith (or lack thereof) they are being brought up in by their parents. Kids are below the age of accountability for a reason. The wince factor on this particular episode was very high. Even worse, it was an early episode. If any episode explains why the ratings tanked, this was it. Alex, of course, was the voice of sanity in this episode, too. If only Alex could run him in our presidential election!
Basically, the idea is a great one. By reducing the game show aspects of this program and increasing a looser format with more chances for the kids to achieve on their individual strengths (and have their well-deserved moment in the sun), Kid Nation could be a strong reality program. Overproduction works on a show like Survivor, but the finest moments for the children involve their sense of invention and intuitive common sense. Smothering that smothers the show. Of course, changing the overproduced aspects of the show would, in typical network thinking, destroy the show, so that won’t be happening. But there were still many superb episodes of Kid Nation and congratulations to all the brave kids who stepped up and participated.