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Hat's off to 'Kid Nation' pioneers

Watching 40 youngsters try to create a social order in the desert of New Mexico proves downright delightful.

September 21, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"Kid Nation," a new reality show in which 40 young people, ages 8 to 15, are "left" for 40 days in a New Mexico "ghost town," perhaps to form a more perfect union, finally premiered Wednesday night after weeks of controversy. I will happily admit that my first response to hearing this premise was something like, "Cool!" If meerkats can have a manor, it seems only fair that kids, who are people too, can have a nation. Or can be made to look as though they do by the adults standing just over there. Anyway, I wasn't thinking about the exploitation, the injury (by bleach, grease and sprain, we have learned), or what AFTRA and SAG might have to say about it.

Indeed, I cannot even profess to be shocked -- shocked! -- to find TV executives acting like TV executives, thinking up new ways to make the most money from the least investment and covering their hindquarters with a contract written like a gazillionaire's prenup, designed to protect them utterly in case of disaster, disease or discontent. What does remain strange to me -- I won't even call it alarming -- is what people will sign to be on television, the flagpole-sit of our day. Even stranger, that they will sign it in the name of their children.

Some parents may have been genuinely interested in the sociological dimensions of this "experiment" in television ratings -- excuse me, in human behavior -- and what it might tell us about our desire for order and justice and our capacity for chaos and tyranny. (Of course, as an experiment, it can only tell us about the behavior of kids in a reality show.)

But they were also handing over their progeny to people whose primary interest was not to provide them with a fun-filled or educational sleep-away experience but to make "good television," which is another way of saying "money." (I don't mean to say that they weren't also trying to make good television.) Had they never watched "The Real World"? "Big Brother"? "America's Next Top Model"?

Be that as it may, there is now an airing television show to accompany the preemptive hand-wringing, and none of these issues will be obvious from what's being put on-screen. And as you might expect from a program that stars 40 kids -- at least some of whom will say the darndest things -- it is pretty delightful. (Of course, the first hour covered only the first four days; we can expect things to get worse, even as they get better.) Frankly, I would rather watch children trying to act like grown-ups than grown-ups acting like children, which is the usual way in the world of reality.

Like all reality shows, "Kid Nation" is only sort of real -- it's a Disneyland reality, dressed in a bogus narrative of a failed desert town given a chance for rebirth. These kids have not been exactly left to their own devices; there is one adult regularly on screen -- host Jonathan Karsh -- and much has obviously been arranged or suggested to them. (And notwithstanding the waivers, it would have been bad business to let them, you know, starve.) They are artificially arranged into classes, from "upper-class" to "laborers," with "merchants" and "cooks" in between. There are the period-themed stunts and games to earn them privileges and prizes. Having won the choice between a television set and seven additional outhouses, the kids exercise a wisdom beyond their years.

Of course, they were carefully selected -- they may have been chosen to represent a spectrum of ages and backgrounds, but they are not exactly a random sampling. (Producer Tom Forman has called them the "best and brightest," unconsciously echoing journalist David Halberstam's phrase for the Kennedy administration wonks who precipitated the Vietnam War.) There are a few breakout stars -- subtly forced on us, to be sure, like cards in a magic trick -- 14-year-old Sophia, who takes charge of the kitchen, and 11-year-old Jared, who does say the darndest things, led the pack early. But some of them you will hardly notice -- 40 is quite a crowd for a reality show -- like those characters wandering around the background in "Lost."

The appeal of the series is rooted in adults habitually underestimating the sophistication of children, while children don't recognize the degree to which their sophistication is tempered by inexperience. Whatever else it is, or may be, it is adorable; to the extent that it's disturbing on screen, it'll be an 8 p.m.-on-CBS kind of disturbing: revolution will not be televised. This isn't "The Lord of the Flies" -- for better or worse, just off screen, the grown-ups are still in charge.



'Kid Nation'

Where: CBS

When: 8 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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