As much as I love television for the way it often allows you know shows intimately and characters inside and out, as I discussed a few weeks ago, I’ve also been known to become obsessed with the television oddity. Shows that are too strange, too complicated, too expensive or too under-loved to last. These shows are on the air for a season or maybe, if they’re lucky, two and live on via DVD or Netflix or YouTube. And they also live on in memory where they often turn into something more special, more exciting, more daring than they ever were to begin with. This happened to me with My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks, which I’ve talked about ad nauseam, in those early days before I could re-watch them on VHS or DVD. It happened more recently with the incredibly strange, indelible and wholly unique Magic City, which I can’t bring myself to re-watch yet, the death of the show too new and my memory of it, almost surely incorrectly, too glowing. Or, even Ebert Presents: At The Movies, a show that attempted and failed at bringing back duelling film critics to TV (although I loved it), and one that I was reminded of this past week when one of the reviewers, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, published an excellent and sad take on the demise of the show. But these shows, despite their one-hit wonder and cult status in the world of TV-lovers, are not true-blue oddities in the purest sense.
And that brings me to Kid Nation, my favourite television oddity, in its purest form, and one that I’ve finally been re-watching this summer after not seeing it since it aired, for a single season, in 2007 and was subsequently cancelled shortly after (the show is available to view, albeit in terrible quality, on YouTube). It really is the perfect show for summer viewing if you’ve ever spent any time at summer camp and hated it – or, I suppose, if you’re a freak, and loved it. Or, really, if you like kids, have kids or were once a kid. Kid Nation is a show that was created at the time when reality TV producers were throwing anything at the wall to see what stuck (remember The Swan? That’s on all of us, folks). Kid Nation aired on CBS and was, from the get go, controversial. The show’s participants were all children aged 8 – 15 years-old and the idea was that they would create a society on their own, without any adult intervention, in the ghost-town/film set of Bonanza City. The 40 kids were headed by a “Town Council”, four of the older kids who were tasked with being the leaders (spoiler alert: the council ended up being voted out for new council members twice through the course of the season). This was all pretty iffy in terms of child labour laws to begin with and pair that with one of the children getting burned while cooking and it is amazing that the show ever aired in the first place.
But it did air, for a full 13-episode season no less, and the results are fascinating if not entirely satisfying. The show would be enough of a sociological experiment without much more than the Lord of the Flies premise, but Kid Nation attempts to bring some of the tropes of a Survivor-like reality competition show into the fold by splitting the kids into 4 teams (red, blue, green and yellow) and injecting challenges into each episode. These challenges are also meant to create a class-system and economy within the town. The winners of the challenge in each episode are designated the Upper Class, the second place team are The Merchants, the third place team are the Cooks and the last place team are the lowly Labourers. Each team gets paid a specific amount of Buffalo Nickels based on a cascading scale depending on their role. There is a candy store and a saloon where the kids can spend hard-earned cash after the challenges. The entire community of Bonanza City can also win a prize for the town, usually if they finish the challenge within a certain amount of time (an arcade! ponies! a library!). Each week the town also nominates one of the children to win a literal Gold Star worth $20,000 for hard work, or, sometimes just being adorable (later in the run of the show the amount was upped to $50,000 for extra special kids).
All of this sounds pretty damn fun but things in Bonanza City are actually pretty crummy. Many of the kids don’t take their duties very seriously, the place is often a giant mess, no one wants to cook or clean, the town is in the middle of a desert and sometimes a windstorm comes along and knocks down the outhouses. The creators try very hard to shoehorn drama into the show as well by giving the Town Council a book supposedly written by some prospector or cowboy or something equally ridiculous. The book is, by far, the worst thing about the show (and you get the sense, every so often but not often enough, that the kids can see right through the ploy) and every week it either serves as a clue for the challenge or something other “theme” for the kids to discuss, like religion or splitting up the already loyal teams. But what the book really does, most of the time, is further divide the community so that whatever strides the kids were making in figuring out how to run the damn place is forgotten for a ridiculous premise.
Where the show succeeds, and it succeeds very in this one area, is in its casting. I get the sense that the show’s casting department began by looking for “types” and then, thankfully, kind of did away with that notion entirely. The closest we get to those types is “the bully”, Greg, the oldest kid in Bonanza City, clearly used to using his muscle to get his way, and “the beauty queen”, Taylor, who lives up to her billing by being obnoxious until the bitter end. The creators seem intent on showing Greg’s sensitive side every so often, which is a nice counterpoint to his wrecking-ball persona. Although, it often seems that Greg and a few of the other kids may be putting on airs and working hard solely for the possibility of receiving the Gold Star. Taylor, unfortunately, gets short shrift in this regard and doesn’t develop much beyond her self-imposed catchphrase, “deal with it”.
But the real winners of the show are kids who are so strange and weird and real that they couldn’t fit into any box. Kids like Jared who, early on, adopts a wide-brimmed hat, poncho-like coat and cane, recites Shakespeare poorly and hilariously and often offers delectable, speech-impediment laden bon mots in his diary cams. Or, Alex, who has one, very large, front tooth and is clearly the smartest child and possibly person there, producers and camera operators included. And then there is Sophia, my personal favourite, who calls herself a 30-year-old in a 15-year-old’s body, who cons the town into giving her money for dancing terribly so that she can buy herself the store’s only bicycle and is often exasperated by the stupidity of the other players and the show itself. Late in the season, Sophia is appointed the town’s sheriff after the town abuses one of their rewards (in this case the arcade). The great thing about these kids and many of the other weirdos, freaks and smartypantses on the show is that they are so far beyond what we normally see of kids on TV. They are precocious, to be sure, but they aren’t saccharine. They are mean and dirty and sometimes sweet and kind and fiercely intelligent and kind of dumb all at the same time. If the producers were looking for types they failed in the best possible way.
(An aside here: up to this point I’ve been tiptoeing around the fact that these kids are super young and this, in many ways, was really exploitative and potentially a terrible experience for them. The show has a shaky premise and the supposed goal of giving these kids some kind of agency by making their own way is pretty strange coupled as it is with the reality game show format. Any kid could leave the show at any time and a few of them did so it is clear that they weren’t all having fun. I can’t really say much more on that front except that, if you have even a passing interest in the murky waters of the making of Kid Nation, you must read this amazing “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit from one of the cast members, Michael, many years after the end of the show. To find out that he and Sophia were trying to secede from the town to form their own community outside Bonanza is nothing short of a revelation. The fact that the producers wouldn’t let them do it seems insane knowing that something like that would truly be made-for-TV).
What Kid Nation gets at, and what likely failed the show and also what made it so great, is that real kids are often less easy to shape and mould than the adult reality-TV stars we so often see – they are bound to do the unexpected and unorthodox whether cameras are rolling or not. Some of these kids were certainly driven by the promise of fame but there seems to be less mugging, or if there is mugging, it is of a different, stranger and altogether more enjoyable kind. And even if it feels like the show is at odds with itself (is it a game show? is it a documentary?) it allows us, in brief moments, to see just how ugly and strange these kids can be. Because the show is really based on a half-lie, the lie that these kids are running a town without adult supervision, knowing, as we do, that there were adults there all of the time. It is the lie of all reality television, basically: that the things we see are as true as true can be. Even knowing that lie, especially knowing that lie, it is incredible how pronounced this realness can get. That kids like Jared and Alex and Sophia exist in the world is amazing. And I love the show precisely because these kids, all of them, Greg and Taylor included, by their simple presence, make the show more real than it has any right to be.