The controversial new reality series “Kid Nation” debuted on CBS last week to so-so ratings (second place in the timeslot behind FOX’s “Back to You”) and some speculation that advertisers had shunned the premiere. (The first 38 minutes of the pilot were aired commercial-free, though CBS execs insisted the second episode would have a “regular and full” commercial load.) Brushing aside the idea that the New Mexico Legislature might have delayed the passage of child labor laws in order to accommodate the show’s month-long shoot (a claim that still needs investigating), much of the “children in jeopardy” talk seems to have been in vain.
Were the children in this show horribly exploited and placed in mortal peril out in the middle of the New Mexico desert? Hardly. The young stars all seemed like excited and willing participants in a summer camp outing not all that dissimilar to Disney’s “Bug Juice” or Nickelodeon’s “Legends of the Hidden Temple.” Yes, one or two of them seem to have gotten boo-boos, but no less than the average 11-year-old would get on the average summer day.
From the get-go the show had boasted an intriguing premise: Place 40 kids in an isolated (relatively), adult-free environment and see if they can form their own working society. No one gets voted off, and anyone can leave any time they want--a model far closer to PBS social experiments like “Pioneer House” than to dog-eat-dog gameshows like “Survivor.”
And as it turns out, the show is pretty heavily supervised. The kids are given food, jobs, stores, money and the opportunity to own a TV set by the end of the first episode. Junior-grade Jeff Probst, Jonathan Karsh, drops by every day or so to do his hosting duties and to deliver assorted challenges to the tween-age homesteaders. So long as they don’t devolve into total Lord of the Flies-style anarchists in the next couple of weeks, they should all get through this experience with little trouble.
On the one hand, it’s disappointing there’s no chance of sharpened sticks, dead pilots and pig worship on “Kid Nation.” On the other hand, the show is a surprisingly positive and eye-opening look at the youth of today. Sure, the participants have screwed up a time or two and have gotten in each others’ faces once or twice--but in no greater percentage than their adult counterparts. Yes, the kids break down in tears every once in a while--but not nearly as often as Amber Siyavus did on last season’s “Big Brother.”
Watching these smart, charismatic, generally well-adjusted kids do their best under somewhat stressful circumstances actually gives me hope for the future (something that doesn’t happen all that often). Well-spoken Mike is gearing up for a job with the U.N. Self-deprecating Jared is a future nerd icon. Spunky Sophie looks like she’s ready to host her own Disney Channel show. Controversy aside, these kids are all right.