NBC summer thriller cleverly apes reality shows but takes too long setting up its twist
As summer trips go, “Siberia” isn’t a bad idea, but the series already appears to be a victim of seriously bad timing — sentenced to the scheduling equivalent of you-know-where, what with CBS’ “Under the Dome” having just opened to big numbers in its timeslot. Viewed in a vaccum, the pilot takes too long getting started before planting its own mildly intriguing “Lost”-like mystery, and the thriller-like construct appears flimsy to support a 13-episode run. Still, it’s a credible acquisition with a chance of becoming dramatically interesting, albeit with little likelihood that many will survive as viewers long enough to find out.
The conceit, fairly cleverly disguised, is that the show looks and feels like a reality competition, where 16 international contestants are dropped into Siberia, put through the paces by a dashing host (played by L.A. radio personality Jonathon Buckley) and challenged to brave the elements, all for the opportunity to win $500,000.
Only it’s really a verite-style drama (comparisons have been made to “The Blair Witch Project,” although ABC’s short-lived “The River” might be more germane), where the “contestants” are actors. After the requisite flirting and forming alliances, something happens near the end (too near, frankly) that suggests all is not as it seems, and that the whole survival thing for this diverse band might be considerably thornier than advertised.
Written and directed by Matthew Arnold, the pilot does a nifty job of capturing the tics of such unscripted programs, from the convincing casting and first-person interviews to the shaky camerawork and overhead helicopter shots. In fact, the producers have done their mimicry a little too well; it’s easy to zone out on the blah, blah, blah of the contestant banter while waiting for the twist to actually happen.
Saving the credits for the end, “Siberia” appears to have wanted to leave some viewers a trifle confused, and given that the show is premiering on NBC in July with little advance buzz or promotion, it’s very possible people will wind up being tricked into believing it’s all real, or at least as “real” as this sort of exercise gets.
The Peacock has been fairly aggressive about using international acquisitions, a la “Crossing Lines,” to complement its summer reality fare, allowing the network to boast about a relatively high percentage of original programming. Yet if CBS’ experience is any guide, there’s something to be said for remaining a bit more selective, taking fewer bets and actually cultivating them.
By that measure, “Siberia” isn’t bad, but it does sort of amend an age-old question: If a reality-show-inspired thriller lands in the middle of a scheduling desert, does it make a sound?