CBS’ “Kid Nation” may profess to be a highbrow social experiment mixed with “reality” TV, but is it plausible to expect a group of early teens and preteens to build a viable “society” in a New Mexico ghost town abandoned many years prior?
The casting gathered a diverse mix of young Americans, aged 8-15, then deposited them in the desert wilderness to fend for themselves and find out if they can make a success of a town adults could not.
At the beginning, it looked like there was no hope for a kid town, let alone a nation. “I think I’m going to die out here,” said innocent faced Jimmy, one of the shows youngest participants.
When the group arrived at “Bonanza City,” the environment was chaotic. Nobody knew where to go or what to do. There turned out to be only a single outhouse for 40 kids. They had to cook for themselves, at which point they realized you have to wait for water to boil before putting in the pasta.
And when they realized they have to sleep on dusty mattresses in filthy bunkhouses, a few started to cry, as young children would be expected to do in such a situation. Mike, one of the four designated leaders, tried to organize a “town meeting.” However, exhausted from the day, they opted for sleep instead.
When the sun rose the next day, it became clear that CBS stacked the deck against the kids that first night. After one evening of total chaos, the host Jonathan Karsh rode into the picture, and became the “new sheriff in town.” Using one loud bell, he called a meeting, his authority unquestioned by the so-called Kid Nation.
It is here that the grounding for a capitalist structure would be set forth. Instead of allowing the children to work out their own system of government, they are spoon fed one. Karsh explained the “rules”: the kids are divided into four teams to compete in a series of challenges for social standing.
The first-place team automatically is designated the “upper class,” earns a salary of one dollar, yet has no specific chores; the last place or losing team are labeled the “Laborers” and have to haul water and clean outhouses for only two nickels.
Why would they need money? Is this not a fledgling society that should start as all colonies do as a communal system? No.
Karsh then unveiled shops full of treats, where the kids could buy candy, root beer and dark chocolate, reading material, even an old fashioned bicycle. One shop even held tools that could help in their day-to-day chores. It was a mean trick withholding these items when the kids were at their most confused.
The revelation immediately changed the show’s tone and apparent goal. Now we saw it’s not about kids working together to forge a “society.” Instead, it’s about kids being sorted into class-structured groups competing with each other over money and social standing assigned by adults. That is not pioneering at all.
The kids embraced the familiar structure, taking the roles of the upper class, merchants, cooks, and lastly the laborers. On the previous day, no one could figure out how to boil water, the youngest team suddenly learned how to make oatmeal, grits and biscuits. Now everyone enjoyed the prize awarded to all teams completing the previous day’s challenges in under an hour: Seven new outhouses. Whereas many of the children contemplated quitting on the first night, in the end, only one elected to return home.
And so it appears that “Kid Nation” does not intend to find out whether kids can do what adults could not. It means instead to demonstrate to the young audience that these kids really would die without the intervention of adults. In case anyone doubted “Kid Nation’s” capitalist bias — even after seeing young Sophia dance for nickels so she could buy a bicycle — you are provided with another opportunity.
In each episode, a hardworking player is awarded a solid gold star worth $20,000. To hell with nickel root beer! The gold star does not help the children with their labor and does not provide any comforts for the community. It’s just money for one individual.
Besides training for future reality television series, I find very little good in this program. It portrays the cruel and biased structure of class and wealth distinctions, and makes negative impressions on our children, who invariably imitate what they may see.
Darius Engel is a graduate student studying psychology in south Florida.