Thursday, September 20, 2007

Much Ado About...?

I have to confess, of the four shows that debuted on Wednesday night, the one I was looking forward to least was Kid Nation. On the other hand I knew it was also the show that I was going to have to write about on the first Wednesday of the new TV season. Why? I guess that, because of the CBS PR machine and the inadvertent push from law suits, the controversy over child labour laws, and everything else that has gone on surrounding this series, it has become the most hyped TV series of the season. It's certainly the one that everyone has heard about and I fully expect that the first episode at least will be the most watched show of the week.

For me that's a bit of a problem because based on what I've seen in the first episode I'm pretty sure it doesn't deserve to be. My perception is that the show is pretty much a clone of Survivor and I'm not sure it's a particularly well done one. Oh sure, there are differences. No one gets voted off for one thing, although the kids can drop out at the various town meetings if they choose to. Still there are other aspects that are very much like Survivor. The kids are split into groups, called "districts" rather than tribes, and there are reward challenges. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's try a recap of this week's episode and see if we can spot some of the similarities to the established series.

The show opens with host Jonathon Karsh telling us the tale of Bonanza City, New Mexico a town – we're told at least – was abandoned in 1885 after the people of the town were unable to make it work. The town in fact is a set used for movies although it is built on the ruins of the real Bonanza City. Now we're told a new group of pioneers will try to make a go of it, but this group is made up entirely of children between the ages of 8 and 15. The kids, or at least 36 of them, arrive in a yellow school bus. They aren't taken into town though, but are left near some push carts, a corral of goats and some boxes of chickens. Then four more kids arrive aboard what appears to be a military helicopter (it has what appears to be an Air Force insignia on it but it may be a helicopter used for movies). These four, Spelling Bee contestant Anjay (12), Beauty Pageant contestant Taylor (10), Boy Scout Mike (11), and student leader Laurel (12), are the town council, selected by the producers of course. There first task is to lead their new pioneers to their new home for 40 days.

It isn't necessarily an easy task. The kids have to lead the kids (of the human and goat varieties) down a road. At times the carts get bogged down in some mud and at least one boy suffers a muscle cramp. There's also dissension as Greg, at 15 one of the oldest of the group, claimed that Mike wasn't doing his share of work (in this case at least Greg was probably in the right, but it was a sign of things to come where he wasn't so right). Once they arrived at the town they started exploring. They found bunkhouses with some mattresses but no beds. They also found a communal kitchen with a wood burning stove. The obvious thing to cook is macaroni and cheese, but the adage about too many cooks spoiling the broth proved to be true particularly when none knows how to cook. They put the macaroni in the water too soon and put in too much. Finally one girl, Sophia, steps forward and after throwing out the badly cooked macaroni manages to get the group fed. She does it again the next morning, making pancakes from a recipe in a cook book. She tells everyone to take only one but some of the kids take more than one so that some of the smaller kids don't eat. This leads to an unofficial town meeting in which Eric confronts Mike. It gets physical with Greg pushing Mike and trying to intimidate him before another boy, Eric, intervenes in support of Mike.

The town councillors have been instructed to go to the town chapel where they'll find a book that will help them organize the town. They aren't able to do it the first day but eventually get around to it. The book tells them about the "history" of the town and suggests that they organize. There are four colours of bandanas in a box and the councillors are told to split the group into four teams – red, green, yellow and blue. The leaders are able to select the teams they'll lead based on whatever criteria they choose. Taylor on her Yellow team seems to gravitate to the younger children, while Anjay decides to go with Greg and his buddy Blaine on the Blue team or District. They seem to go a bit wild; during the night the graffiti (with chalk) most of the buildings in the word "Blue" and disrupt groups from the other districts by running in and shouting "BLUE!" Needless to say they believe that they`ll dominate things. Jonathon shows up again to tell the town that there are various jobs to be filled with money (in the form or Buffalo Nickels) to be paid, depending on which level of the town hierarchy they fall into. This will be decided based on "showdowns" which take place every three days. There are four levels: Laborers (paid 10 cents for duties including cleaning the outhouse, picking up garbage, and hauling water), Cooks (paid 25 cents to cook, wash dishes and care for the livestock), Merchants (paid 50 cents to run the grocery store, dry goods store and the saloon which serves root beer for a nickel), and the Upper Class (paid a dollar and basically can do what they choose). The first showdown requires the teams to carry derricks with pumps to various holes in the ground. There they pump water, which shoots out of the top of the derrick. They have to catch the water in buckets and then run back to the starting line to fill three bottles with water. The complication is that the water is coloured and you have to get your District colour. Which class a team ends up being depends on order of finish. In addition, if the task is completed within an hour the leaders will be able to choose between two bonus prizes for the whole town. Motivated by the desire to beat the Blue team with Greg and Blaine, Mike and the Red district manage to complete the challenge first with the Blue district coming second, the Yellow district third and the Green group fourth. They also manage – barely – to complete the showdown in time to win the bonus. It's a choice between seven additional outhouses or a Television. There's some debate before the leaders decide that seven outhouses (which one kid insists on calling a portapotty; anyone who has ever used an outhouse – and I have as a child – knows that there's a significant difference between the two) to supplement the one they have which to put it kindly stinks.

I missed much of the next section of the show – I was making my own dinner – so I missed the segment where the girls of the Yellow district made their first meal (apparently Taylor refused to clean up after saying "I'm a beauty queen; I don't do dishes."), the efforts by a couple of the boys to befriend little Jimmy (at 8 one of the youngest kids and terribly homesick), the spending spree by the Upper Class Red kids who spent most of their money on candy and pop, though one bought a copy of Henry V, or labourer Sophia dancing for nickels to buy a bike. Those I read about on the CBS website. What I did see however was the first official town meeting. The meetings are important in that they are an opportunity for the "citizens" of Bonanza City to change their leadership if they wish and to air grievances. Moreover they are an opportunity for any of the kids to declare their decision to go home because they can't cope. Jimmy, the 8 year old who was desperately homesick despite the best efforts of all of the other kids to make him feel like part of the group, decided to pull out. Taylor thought of leaving as well but eventually decided to stay. Finally came the awarding of the Gold Star. The council members had been told about the Star by Jonathon earlier but it came as a surprise to everyone else. The Star, supposedly made of real gold, is awarded to the person in town who the members of the council decide has been the hardest worker. It isn't just a trophy though, because the kid who wins it wins the value of the gold used to make it, $20,000. The council quickly decide to award it to Sophia for organizing in the kitchen before the official jobs board was created. It carried one further benefit – access to the only telephone in town for a phone call to her parents.

As you can probably tell, this has a lot of the characteristics of Survivor albeit without most of the backstabbing, though try telling Mike that after his several confrontations with Greg. There are challenges and rewards for both groups and individuals. At the same time the show's cast is entirely kids, and I hate to say it but more than a few of them are annoying, like the one who suddenly and inappropriately decided to quote Martin Luther King saying "I have a dream." The problem being that if I recall correctly this kid's dream had a lot to do with getting the extra outhouses. And that's part of the problem – kids on camera tend to be the biggest bunch of hams ever or they tend to shrink away from standing out. Another aspect is the behaviour of Greg in particular. He comes across as an out of control little punk – the town outlaw along with his buddy Blaine. Is this behaviour real or has he somehow been encouraged by the producers? Maybe he's just trying to gain camera time but it comes across as forced.

Then again the whole thing seems more than a little forced to me, the product of a bankruptcy of ideas that led someone to say "let's do Survivor but with kids." For all of the controversy, I am trying to write about the show as it is on the screen and what I'm seeing is depressingly ordinary. On Thursday I'll be watching adults doing much the same thing on Survivor and will, most likely, be more entertained. There at least I know what the point is – in this little saga of Bonanza City I'm not sure what anyone is trying to accomplish, most particularly the producers. For all of their talk before the show began of a society run by children what we are given is a town populated by children but one in which order and structure, in the form of pre-selected leaders, creation of groups and division of labour, and rewards (but so far at least no punishment), is imposed by adults even if the adults are unseen. The show has some attraction but on the whole I'm unhappy with the result even though I realise that there really aren't many other ways that this show could go. I'll probably stick with it for a couple of episode, but unlike K-Ville I have absolutely no expectation that it will improve beyond the current, rather lacklustre level. If I find something I like better I'll happily abandon this show.

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