Kid Nation: More structured than summer camp

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Can 40 kids come together to run their own society? I have no idea. You might think Kid Nation, CBS’s new reality show, answers this question, but it doesn’t. The only question Kid Nation answers is this: Can 40 kids survive in an ultra-structured reality TV setting while surrounded by tumbleweeds, medics on call, and cheeky host Jonathan Karsh? Yes. Of course. But I wish they wouldn’t bother.

Kid Nation is sort of Survivor meets Wild and Crazy Kids; 40 kids, ages 8 to 15, live for 40 days on an old movie set that the producers tell the kids is a western ghost town called Bonanza City. They have to cook their own food, clean up after themselves, and settle their own disagreements — all of which, I’ll admit, is mildly entertaining.

But, unfortunately for us viewers, there’s more to Kid Nation than 8-year-olds struggling to make macaroni. The episodes are each obnoxiously structured, revolving around societal issues such as religion, politics, and the environment. In the beginning of each episode, the town’s four leaders read from a book written by Bonanza’s previous inhabitants (i.e. the producers) that points them in the direction of the episode’s theme. Next, the kids compete in a physical challenge related to the theme (the one for the politics episode, for example, had something to do with presidents and piñatas). And by the time another episode rolls around, the kids have completely forgotten about whatever issue seemed so important just a couple days earlier.

Such intense episode structuring might suggest that, without it, Kid Nation wouldn’t be worth its time slot. Maybe nobody wants to watch a show about a bunch of kids coexisting peacefully — it certainly doesn’t sound very dramatic.

But, if the only way to make Kid Nation watchable is to force overbearing themes on its participants, then maybe it shouldn’t be a show in the first place. I mean, the world could always use another dating show to fill Kid Nation’s 43-minute block.

Almost as frustrating as Kid Nation itself is the legal mumbo jumbo that surrounds it. Now that the show has begun airing, parents of the kids involved are ranting that their children weren’t properly supervised. First of all, it’s pretty clear that the kids were pretty much surrounded by adults: the looming host, the ready-to-go medical personnel, and the cameramen, not to mention producers’ invisible guiding hands. If you’ve ever been to summer camp, I think it’s safe to say that things there can get a little bit hairier. Also, the kids had the option to go home if they wanted to (a few of them did).

On top of that, CBS paid each kid’s parents $5000 for signing their offspring up for the show, which — if it were my child — would stop me from complaining. Before they could get the money, parents had to sign an extensive, funnier-than-the-show contract, waiving CBS’s liability in regard to injury, sexually transmitted disease, or even death. If you ask me, parents who are stupid/greedy enough to sign that should be exiled to their own fake ghost town for 40 days — and they should stop complaining.

One thing that people haven’t been complaining about, however, is Kid Nation’s not-so-subtle allusions to alcohol. After a hard day’s work cooking oatmeal or scrubbing the latrines (gross), the kids often stop by Bonanza’s saloon for a cold one — a cold root beer, that is. And the really hardcore kids don’t even bother with the bottle; they take shots of root beer syrup out of bona fide shot glasses. One episode’s late-night saloon gathering seemed more like an evening at the fraternity quad, with kids clinking beer — I mean root beer — bottles in celebration, while others sought solace at the bottom of a shot glass. I bet the general store sells candy cigarettes.

But warts and all, Kid Nation has some genuinely heartwarming moments. We see the kids help 14-year-old DK after he pulls a muscle and can barely walk. We see 15-year-old Greg, the oldest of the bunch, start looking out for a kid that he’d formerly bullied. And we see 10-year-old Zach, who’s running to be a town leader, rehearsing his campaign speech with all the seriousness of a congressman. There are funny moments too: During the religion episode, 11-year-old Kelsey — who would make a great village idiot, if there was one — says that she doesn’t know much “about Jewish.”

These moments more than anything make me wish that CBS just would let the kids of Kid Nation do their thing. It’s fun watching them interact and spotting emerging leaders, loners, studs, and plastics (i.e. queen bees). If the kids would rather talk about cartoon characters than negotiate Bonanza City politics, then let them — I’d choose cartoons, too.