Sometimes I do feel as though I am a glutton for punishment. Case in point: the fact that I actually sat down to watch CBS' horrific reality series/child labor law violation Kid Nation in an effort to bring you, my readers, a complete picture of just what's going on in television. (I will, however, admit that I didn't waste my time watching it at night but caught it the following day.)
Say what you want about the egregious violations of child labor laws and about the fact that these children's parents willingly signed away their rights during this production, but the truth is that Kid Nation is just mind-bogglingly bad television. I do wish I could understand the mindset of both the producers who thought up this exercise in craptacularness as well as the CBS programming and development executives who believed that adults would tune in to see a bunch of kids trying to win $20,000 gold stars and cleaning out latrines in a desert town. (I also don't understand why they'd pair it with lead-out Criminal Minds, which opened with shots of gruesome corpses seconds after Kid Nation ended.)
The premise: 40 adorable moppets are given the chance to fend for themselves in a New Mexico ghost town to see if they can create a working, orderly society better than the adults who tried and failed to make the same town in the past. Hmmm, so are producers saying that Bonanza City (teehee!) was, er, a real town at some point? I'm not entirely sure, but from the "authentic" historical diaries that the kids discover, it sure seems like some producer went out of their way to make the kids think so.
Along the way, the kids compete in way-too-confusing challenges (the premiere episode featured something about pumping colored-water from pipes) to determine who will complete what job within the new society: upper class (um, sure), merchants, cooks, and laborers. That last category should have been called "slaves" in my opinion considering what they are making eight-year-olds do. But, hey, at least they get paid ten cents for their troubles.
Kids squabble, cry, and complain about anything and everything. They go rabbit hunting, cook meals, and try to organize themselves. At various points, irritating host Jonathan Karsh pops up to taunt them with prizes or advance the "story," at one point giving Gold Star winner Sophia a key to a locked building containing the only phone in Bonanza City. (How can this man sleep at night?)
I watched the episode with my jaw on the floor. Kid Nation has got to be one of the most appalling, exploitative concepts on television to date, yet it attempts to wear its earnestness on its sleeve, believing that it is a worthy "social experiment," rather than a demeaning way to sell advertising. Sure, the premiere was presented with limited commercial interruption but I couldn't help but see the haunting faces of little pre-teen indentured servants every time a commercial break came on.
But leave aside the legal and moral issues surrounding the series and the biggest horror of Kid Nation is the fact that it's just bad, mawkish television disguised as socially conscious entertainment. And no amount of gold stars, however valuable, can change that.
Kid Nation airs Wednesday nights at 8 pm ET/PT on CBS.
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Jace is an LA-based television development and acquisitions exec who watches way too much television for his own good and would love a TiVo for every room in the house. (He’s halfway there.) His blog, Televisionary, can be found at televisionaryblog.com.