Tv Week

Call of the Wild

The dark truth behind Kid Nation.

Kid Nation

In 1954, the same year Lord of the Flies came out, researchers at the University of Oklahoma recruited 22 boys, all 11 years old, for an experiment that has become a Cold War classic of social psychology. They split the homogeneous bunch into two groups and sent them to different areas in a wooded Boy Scout camp in Robbers Cave State Park. It was billed as a camp experience. But the counselors (researchers in disguise) kept a low profile as they set about studying a topic much on Americans’ minds in the era of the communist menace: the dynamics of group identity and hostility. The real agenda was to observe the boys bonding in their respective groups and then watch how animosities escalated after the groups were brought together to engage in an array of competitive games. The scientists wanted to see what it would take to orchestrate harmony between the tribes at the end of the three weeks. As it turned out, all hell broke loose way ahead of schedule (sticks and stones flew), and the researchers struggled to engineer a truce. By inventing a common enemy, they finally got all the guys to work together—warily.

Sound sort of familiar? Ours is a culture regularly panicked about children’s vulnerability or their precocity, or both. And with Kid Nation, a new reality show from CBS that debuted last night, we may have our own social psychology classic in the making. For weeks now, it has been clear the network has hit a nerve with its Survivor-junior idea of corralling kids in the New Mexico desert and leaving them to fend for themselves. Do grown-ups really have kids’ best interests at heart? It’s a question that never ceases to titillate and terrify us, steeped as we are in a consumerist ethos that has parents, and hordes of marketers, hovering over children—and also hurrying them onward to … maturity or a life of vacuous, status-seeking insecurity?

CBS has played on both hopes and fears with agility. Charges of child exploitation, even abuse, made headlines over the summer. Questions arose about the participants’ long hours and the network’s dodgy approach to the state’s child labor laws; some parents also complained about safety issues and egregiously broad liability waivers (which you can read here on Slate). CBS capitalized on the attention to broadcast its benevolent motives in a promotional video that strikes a “we’re-on-your-side-kids” Nickelodeon note. The hypothesis the network has set out to test has a romantic ring very different from the cold-eyed Robbers Cave agenda: that children, far from being incipient savages, can “succeed where adults have failed.”

The premise is this: Liberated from helicopter parents and teachers, 40 children—a 21st-century multicultural bunch aged 8 to 15—will work together for 40 days under the guidance of four young leaders, who divide them into groups. Their goal is to rebuild a ghost town, Bonanza City, destroyed by their elders’ lack of “leadership, resources, and will.” As one cute shaggy-locked boy of 14 proclaims in a moment featured on the promo, they are there to “prove that kids of all age groups can actually get stuff organized and actually create a society where people actually share without greed.” And CBS really is rooting for them, out of cynicism if not idealism; after all, the network is well aware that no advertiser or family audience really wants to watch Lord of the Flies unfold on the screen. In fact, the producers aren’t just rooting for the kids. They’re putting their thumbs on the scales. Disingenuous though it may be of CBS to describe Kid Nation as a “camp” experience for labor law purposes, the truth is that the supposedly raw and rugged show has barely begun before it turns into, what else, yet another adult-scripted activity.

The opening segment of the first episode may be the only pioneer shock that kids and viewers alike ever experience on Kid Nation. And it is a shock, not just because of the city’s desolateness, but because we know there are cameras everywhere, and these kids, for heaven’s sake, have gone through an elaborate application and recruitment process to get here. They’re not delinquents being sent to boot camp; they’re child-star wannabes out to generate buzz. Yet, like many reality TV show participants, they weren’t told what would actually transpire, and they seem totally unprepared: You could almost imagine they’d been dragged from their beds by their parents. The four leaders, flown in by helicopter, look as genuinely clueless as the 36 others who tumble out of a school bus. Greeted by a cursory introduction from the show’s host, Jonathan Karsh, they are left to their own devices. They drag heavy carts down a long road, encounter ramshackle buildings, and face the challenge of serving up macaroni (which no one knows how to cook) to a famished group that is losing patience. The camera crew, whom the kids are too weepy and exhausted to notice, doesn’t step in to help. The kids retreat to thin mattresses in misery.

Just when we are thinking no one can take much more of this, Kid Nation turns the corner. One day in, the format shifts from a hardscrabble, kid-controlled struggle and begins to look more like a standard reality show, with producers micromanaging teams, orchestrating contests, and dispensing rewards. Chaos is kept at bay, and commerce is ushered in, when Jonathan explains the new deal: The four groups will rotate roles—as the upper class, merchants, cooks, and laborers—based on their performance in a “showdown” shaped around team-building exercises. And CBS rides into town with, as one of the leaders puts it, “some of the comforts of home.” First, the kids get to show their wisdom by declining a TV and instead choosing new outhouses to supplement the stinky single one they’ve endured for a day (“not good for your colon,” comments one kid who has said he’s not about to use it). Then come candy, soda, toys, and prizes—and, along with a cash economy, an emphasis on shopping, evidently the core of town-building. All these innovations are greeted with cheers. Good for morale, one of the four group leaders says with a relieved sigh.

We can sigh, too, assured (if a little disappointed) that ahead of all of us lies a typically 21st-century-style youth experience studiously structured to avoid violence and viciousness and to encourage acquisitiveness—a mirror in its way of our current culture of enlightened child-rearing. In Bonanza City, as in real post-Cold War life, sticks-and-stones behavior is to be nipped in the bud. The kids are enlisted in a bully-proofing and credential-enhancing agenda. It’s designed not just to keep them under control and to avoid sectarian strife, but to turn these supposed pure-hearted pioneers into prize-motivated achievers.

At the close of each episode, everyone gathers for a “town meeting” that culminates in a self-esteem-boosting moment, when one especially helpful child is chosen by the four leaders to receive a gold star worth $20,000. Some coaches’ award! This week, Sophia, a 14-year-old with an uncannily mature voice and an appealing no-nonsense style, won it for slaving in the kitchen—and bingo, CBS turned a spirited, quirky kid into a Golden  Globe-winner imitator. Apologizing for her bossiness, she squealed in excitement on the phone with her parents who, as Jonathan butted in to inform viewers, will help decide what to do with it. We’re about as far as you can get from a vote-one-poor-schmuck-off-the-island scene.

The Wild West this is not. But now that civilization has intruded, I guess we might wonder whether henceforth we may see something more revealing than consumer-era kids coping in a state of nature: trophy-conscious kids going after gold stars. What unenviable pressure this puts on the four prize-dispensing leaders! As one of the astute participants comments at the outset, they don’t exactly seem cut out for tough desert work: a scrawny, intense 11-year-old Boy Scout, Mike; a somewhat dweeby 12-year-old Indian boy named Anjay; Laurel, a cheery red-headed 12-year-old (“100% Irish,” she says in a Boston-inflected accent); and 10-year-old Taylor, who talks like the aspiring beauty queen she declares herself to be and who isn’t sure she can take it. In short, they’re more grown-up-pleasers than charismatic gang leaders, which may—or may not—serve them well in a Bonanza City now headed in an up-to-date direction. Rather than banding together against a common enemy as the Robbers Cave tribes did, these kids are bonding in pursuit of a common goal: materialistic comfort.