Wednesday, September 19th, 2007 at 9:53 pm in Kid Nation.
TV critic Chuck Barney gets partial credit for my television viewing habits tonight. I’ve been one of the loudest opponents of CBS’ new reality show, “Kid Nation,” which puts 40 kids in a New Mexico ghost town for 40 days without parental supervision. But as Chuck pointed out earlier this week, I was among the critics “slamming a TV show, sight unseen.” So, I decided to tune in.
Admittedly, I had preconceived notions. Everything about this screamed exploitation of kids, starting with CBS calling them “participants” instead of employees, even though these kids were sometimes filmed 16 hours a day. Most alarming was the contract in which parents essentially waived away their kids’ rights – and seeing the show tonight did little to lower that red flag. That said, it wasn’t as bad as I expected. In fact, some things surprised me.
The kids really rallied around each other. Early on, one had a leg cramp, so his teammates hoisted him into a cart. When the youngest were reduced to tears (which happened frequently and not surprisingly, considering these kids are denied all contact with family and friends), the kids offered words of encouragement and hugs. After a rough first day, and very late first dinner in which kids complained they were starving, the youngest group of kids cooked a breakfast that had everyone raving. The show’s debut spoke volumes about the good natures of kids as a whole.
Unfortunately, even the good is tempered by the fact that these are still kids. Greg, 15, and his new friend Blaine ran around town at night to graffiti the bunkhouses. The kids started with only one outhouse and narrowly won the right to seven others (they were smart enough to chose the seven outhouses over a television; score another in the kids’ favor). It’s more than a little unsettling to think that had they lost, the producers were prepared to leave 40 kids sharing one toilet. There was shoving. Lots of crying. Plenty of chaos.
And a few statements that bring me back to my initial reservations, like this one from 9-year-old Alex: “I felt sort of weird because I thought maybe there would be adults” and this from 8-year-old Jimmy: “I’m only 8. I think I’m too young to do this.” Even one of the town leaders, Mike (who’s 11) talked about being stressed because they “weren’t prepared for this scale of things.” That’s troublesome, because it indicates these kids were plopped down in the middle of the game without being properly clued in to the scope of what was ahead of them.
Repeatedly, what struck me as good about this show was often negated by something unsettling. At the first town hall meeting, the show’s host (the only adult, so far) asked if any child wanted to quit and go home. Young Jimmy took him up on the offer because he missed his family. The host called him “extraordinarily brave” just for trying the show. Moments later, one of the remaining kids received a gold star for working hard, a gold star worth $20,000. And right there, producers have dangled a prize that can cause animosity among the kids and pressure a homesick child into remaining despite his emotional turmoil.
So, when it’s all said and done, I’m willing to give this show a chance. (Check out what Chuck thought of “Kid Nation” in his blog, TV Freak.) I’ll tune in again next week, but I’m still going into it with some wariness. The preview shows the kids contemplating killing a chicken. As Chuck says, I shouldn’t judge sight unseen, but I’ve got a bad feeling about this.
— Ann Tatko-Peterson