“Now it’s time to judge for yourself,” the announcer rumbled at the outset of “Kid Nation,” the CBS reality series that became such a media hot potato this summer the network ultimately opted to hide the pilot from critics. The expanded, limited-advertising premiere made its debut Wednesday, and setting the controversy aside, the show is hopelessly derivative, shamelessly manipulative and in narrative terms, a bit of a mess. Ratings had better be boffo to justify the headaches, or CBS’ attempt to be like the cool kids at Fox will have bought the network an ass-kicking for naught.
For starters, producer Tom Forman owes an apology to “Survivor’s” Mark Burnett, inasmuch as this effort dips repeatedly into the reality TV patriarch’s bag of tricks, from the trumped-up challenge to the pounding music.
In that regard, the manipulation here is so overt as to be almost laughable. When a kid gets a leg cramp and others help him, the music swells the way it did whenever Martin Sheen delivered one of those stirring speeches on “The West Wing.” And when a girl wins the right to call her mom, voila, there’s a camera right there to capture mom’s reaction.
For anybody who slept through the summer, “Kid Nation” assembles 40 kids age 8 to 15, dropping them off at a ghost town in New Mexico, where they’re supposed to establish their own pint-sized society. The idea was clearly all about feel-good flourishes — a chance for kids to succeed where adults fail, while perhaps discover that there’s no place like home.
Almost out of necessity, the editing immediately reduces the kids stereotypes, such as little Taylor, age 10, who’s labeled a “gung-ho pageant queen.” Yet despite that short-hand, the series proves chaotic, with so many kids that only a few of them register in a significant way. Moreover, even at this tender age their direct-to-camera confessionals are filled with posturing, and not surprisingly, plenty of tears.
Separate from any controversy about child-labor laws or Draconian legal waivers, parts of the show are a bit creepy. In the debut, the kids are told that they can decide to “give up” and leave at the town halls (tribal councils?), a phrase loaded with “You don’t want to be a quitter, do you?” peer pressure. And while there’s nothing new about the kid who misses his parents and cries a lot at summer camp, there is something intrusive about having a camera shoved into that kid’s face.
Winning a Gold Star, awarded to whoever’s designated as that week’s most valuable junior pioneer: $20,000.
Looking like a wuss on national TV: Priceless.
Speaking of gold, CBS won’t exactly clean up on the premiere. The first commercial didn’t come until 39 minutes in, and while most of the ads were bought by movie studios, one conspicuous spot promoted Vagisil. Can’t wait for the “Hey, mom, what’s that?” questions.
Ultimately, though, for all the talk about “Lord of the Flies,” this is really just a sawed-off “Survivor,” garnished with a little “Kids Say the Darnedest Things.” There’s even a gameshow element, inasmuch as winning a Gold Star provokes “ooh’s” and “aah’s,” or, as 12-year-old Laurel from Massachusetts would say, “Gold Stah.”
“Kid Nation” is hardly the first TV program (or group of stage parents) to exploit kids in dubious fashion. Indeed, at times the criticism became so shrill and myopic as to nearly engender sympathy for CBS. Yet if this doesn’t qualify as a crime against television, nobody associated with it — from the producers to CBS — merits anything close to a Gold Star.