For years, reality TV has proven that it doesn't take much to get adults to act like children. Thanks to the CBS series Kid Nation, we now know that it can also make children act like adults acting like children. And you don't have to pay them nearly as much either!
Welcome to Bonanza City, a New Mexico ghost-town where Kid Nation's producers have dumped 40 kids, ranging in age from 8 to 15, for 40 days or as long as they can stand it. They have to cook their own meals, clean outhouses, haul water, and figure out ways to entertain themselves without videogames and TV.
In the same way that cars run on gasoline, reality TV runs on tears, and let's face it, it doesn't take much to make homesick eight-year-olds -- subsisting only on cold, lumpy oatmeal and root beer -- open the floodgates. Unfortunately, Kid Nation's producers aren't satisfied with the waterworks that would flow naturally from displacement, malnourishment, and standard childhood cruelty and ostracization, and keep meddling in the daily life of Bonanza City.
Instead of simply seeing what sort of world kids might create for themselves without adult supervision and letting a narrative develop organically, they impose all of the standard reality TV tactics to manufacture drama. The group is divided into four teams, the teams compete against each other in various Survivor-style challenges. The first-place team gets to be the "upper class," which means they get paid $1 and don't actually have to do any chores until the next challenge takes place. The last-place become the "laborers" and are paid 10 cents for cleaning the outhouses and other menial chores. The second-place and third-place teams are the "merchants" and the "cooks," respectively. Since challenges take place every couple days, it's a very mobile society.
Along with the structures imposed on the way they organize themselves and the way they spend their time, pretty much every big conflict so far has been prompted by the producers in the form of a journal supposedly left by the town's original founders in the late 1800s. This journal advises them to do things like kill some chickens, impose a curfew, hold a one-size-fits-all religious ceremony, etc., and it's from these suggestions that most of the controversies have arisen.
None of which is to say that Kid Nation is bad -- it's just that it's not any different than any other Survivor-knockoff you've ever seen when it very well could have been. The kids are often charming and articulate -- one little nine-year-old sage named Alex may in fact be the most mature, level-headed person in the history of reality TV. But even the moments of spontaneity often feel coached and cued into existence. For this, the kids are partly to blame as well. They've clearly watched plenty of reality TV themselves, and they know that "personal growth" is almost as necessary to the genre as tears.
After one challenge, they're given a choice of rewards: an 18-hole miniature golf course or a library of holy books. If you think they considered picking the golf course, even for a moment, then you have much more faith in humanity than the average reality TV fan.
A frequent contributor to Las Vegas Weekly, Greg Beato has also written for SPIN, Blender, Reason, Time.com, and many other publications. Email Greg at [email protected]