Early on in a recent episode of "Brat Camp," one of the teenagers muttered, "This is not therapy, this is hell."
That's exactly how I was feeling about ABC's smarmy new hit reality series, which centers on nine teenagers who've been shipped by their parents to an Oregon wilderness school. And during the two-hour premiere, as I watched them hike through snow, sass off, confess their failings and sob their broken hearts out, I wanted nothing more than to help them escape.
These teens may have screwed up, made abysmal choices, done stupid things, but they're still minors and deserving of a basic right: not having their pain paraded on national TV.
One of the show's conceits is "They're kids just like yours." Well, no, they're actually not. My daughter may wear too much eyeliner, but she has yet to be kicked out of two boarding schools, as Jada was. Jada is one of the teens of "Brat Camp," and boy, is she bad. But who wants to watch a goody-goody? Jada throws parties. She drinks. She lies. No wonder her father tells the camera from his plush Boston living room: "I think this is the perfect place for Jada."
Just so we don't confuse Jada with her rowdy peers, the kids have tags like "Angry Punk" and "Self-Destructive Drug User," shorthand so we don't have to dwell too hard on their individual stories. Even Lexie, a traumatized 17-year-old who was sexually abused by a family friend when she was in seventh grade, is dubbed "Hostile Outcast."
Fourteen-year-old Nick has dyslexia. "I can't remember crap," he sobs to one of the "Brat Camp" instructors. (Who, in contrast to the kids, have cool names like "Shimmering Aspen.") Nick wants to go home, but his parents are against it. "They said 100%?" he asks, his face ashen, crying harder. "Tell them I'm really sorry." A girl whose father died when she was 11 is shown one night weeping to the heavens.
I wanted to weep too. I don't doubt that some of these kids are manipulators or that their parents have had it up to here. But there's something truly alarming lost on the adults involved with this series, something that takes the show's transgressions beyond the most deplorable aspects of reality TV: its exploitation of troubled teenagers for ratings. Allowing emotionally volatile teens to be fodder for TV is not going to make them grow up or be truthful or contrite. If anything, it's only going to encourage the dead-end behavior their parents sent them to "Brat Camp" to fix.
Jada aspires to be an actress, but "Brat Camp" has already made her one. If you click on ABC's website for the series, you'll find a photo gallery of the 15-year-old and the other teens complete with "cast bios." Why should she change -- or listen to Mom and Dad at all -- when her defiance is glamorized on TV?
There's a lot of talk in "Brat Camp" about helping these disturbed teens feel better about themselves. "Can these kids gain the self-esteem they so desperately need?" the narrator asks breathlessly. I can't answer that. But I do know that you don't get self-esteem in 40 days or by rappelling once down a cliff.
I suspect that the only ones benefiting from this "reality" are the show's bratty producers.