The scandalous Kid Nation.

What we're watching.
Sept. 20 2007 5:58 PM

Call of the Wild

The dark truth behind Kid Nation.

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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.

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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.

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