“This is no game. This is real life,” says the opening voiceover on “Brat Camp,” which subjects misbehaving teens — ages 14 to 17 — to “wilderness therapy” under the stewardship of touchy-feely counselors spouting “Kung Fu” proverbs. Exec producer Arnold Shapiro famously explored similar territory in the Oscar-winning documentary “Scared Straight!” a quarter-century ago, but this British format variation (“Frozen Straight?” “Hiking Through the Chilly Woods Straight?”) plays like a bad “Maury” episode that exploits its young charges as it attempts to reform them.
Let’s face it, labels have meaning, and the nine kids (interviewed along with their parents) are gradually presented under such designations as “angry punk,” “compulsive liar,” “self-destructive drug user” and “violent rages.” Those tags, moreover, keep reappearing, the better to neatly pigeonhole the youths’ respective problems, apparently having learned nothing from “The Breakfast Club.”
After the intro, the teens are whisked away under false pretenses to SageWalk, a camp in the Oregon outback where they are prodded to hike bearing 40-pound backpacks and learn when not to relieve themselves in the woods. (Although this sounds like a joke, an extended interlude hinges on identifying which teen offended the forest by failing to adequately cover his or her, er, indiscretion.)
Even for those who accept the dubious premise that much like the nagging spirits in “A Christmas Carol,” this is for the kids’ good, there are moments when the process feels uncomfortably cultlike. Children are blindfolded before being driven to the camp site, and the counselors use “earth names” like “Glacier Mountain Wolf” and “Flying Eagle,” while uttering pearls of wisdom (“That’s a good step toward healing”) as stilted as their nicknames.
“Scared Straight!” also dealt with at-risk teens, but “Brat Camp’s” flippant title underscores the difference in tone, continuing a problematic trend already seen in the dueling “Nanny” shows by turning disobedient children into entertainment fodder. Adults can freely humiliate themselves however they wish on TV, but the scales should tip differently when minors are involved.
A few moments prove especially intrusive, as one girl weeps uncontrollably upon being brought to the remote location. Despite the counselors’ assurances that this isn’t an unusual reaction, having the camera dwell on the prolonged breakdown violates her privacy in a way that in some respects renders “Brat Camp” more objectionable than “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” the unscripted series that ABC recently decided to yanked from its summer lineup, bowing to criticism from interest groups.
In hindsight, no doubt, the rehabilitated delinquents will look back on their ordeal as they beam at their beleaguered parents like James Dean at the end of “Rebel Without a Cause,” or Scrooge celebrating the lessons taught by the ghosts of past, present and future.
Still, those were works of fiction, and as the narrator keeps reminding us, this is (a carefully edited version of) reality.