Not much fun in 'Kid Nation'
Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.
No, that racket you heard Wednesday night from 8 to 9 was not a feud between the Lullaby League and the Lollipop Guild. It was the cast of "Kid Nation," 40 children between the ages of 8 and 15, bickering - and, in the case of at least two homesick lambs, crying - their little hearts out. Watching the CBS reality show, which premiered after months of anti-hype, was as much fun as baby-sitting overtired tots who've had one too many Sweet Tarts.
The controversies about "Kid Nation" include the alleged violation of child labor laws and accusations that the children - supposedly left to their own devices - were fed lines. And CBS has let the brouhaha sell the show, calling it "the most talked about series of the fall" in its ads. But even if you pushed those questions about production ethics out of your mind last night, the "Kid Nation" premiere was still an uncomfortable, irritating, and narratively subpar hour of TV. It was a disorganized mess that milked its young cast for cacophonous psychodrama.
There is just something grotesque and creepy about seeing children being deployed on reality TV, a genre that we all know thrives on conflict, tears, humiliation, and exhibitionism. Kiddie talent shows can be disturbing enough, but at least those tots practice their performances ahead of time. From the minute the "Kid Nation" cast arrived in the New Mexico ghost town of Bonanza City in the premiere, they were on national TV without a net, saying things they'll inevitably regret, things the show's producers and CBS can edit and refashion however they like.
Clearly, these kids are being edited into stereotypes - such as Greg, the oldest, who is probably going to be "the bully." Their tiny moments are going to be blown up into soundtracked drama, such as when one kid pulled a muscle, and their big moments are going to be ignored.
"Kid Nation" will in no way truly represent what children would do left to their own devices in a deserted town. There are cameramen and medical professionals on hand, of course, and also host Jonathan Karsh, who organizes the kids into a society with different class levels.
Karsh's presence is awkward, as he tries to sound both child-sensitive and stiffly competitive at once. "Any one of you can decide to give up and go home," he tells them, pointedly including the phrase "give up."
And how can we enjoy rooting for someone's downfall, or making fun of someone's shortcomings, when they're just a kid? The show puts viewers in a bad position. If the pleasure of reality TV is similar to that of a sports event, then "Kid Nation" is like going to a game with a muzzle on. When Jimmy decided to leave the show Wednesday night, for instance, who could raise an eyebrow, seeing as Jimmy is only 8 years old and all.
Despite the fact that it's all manufactured, the show still unfolded poorly. The kids blurred together, for the most part. And the producers failed to choose especially articulate children, generally speaking, so the confessional interviews weren't compelling. In fact, they were silly. Rather than analysis, the kids deliver flat lines to the camera such as "It's tough work but it has to be done" or "I personally think this is gross."
Hey wait, maybe that last line does have some merit.