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Kid Nation premieres

 

Guilty as charged. Despite the hopes that most grown-ups would ignore the season premiere of CBS’s Kid Nation, some of us tuned in to the furiously debated show last night. Once again, the statement of poor publicity beating no publicity was proven correct. 

As promised, we watched a yellow school bus transport a group of 40 kids from differing ages, income levels and backgrounds to a ghost town in the middle of the New Mexico dust land. As the camera cut to bright eyes and smirks of nervousness, a voice-over told us the setup of the show: this diverse group of children would create and run a society that, under the rule of its previous inhabitants, had failed to succeed. 

CBS is obviously trying its hardest to paint this endeavor into riveting TV. A chesty adventure film score accompanied each challenge throughout the episode, from the hauling of carts to the cooking of macaroni, to remind us that these kids were doing something inspirational. At one point, the hopes of the producers were even articulated by a participant, who reminded his friends that this was an opportunity to show the world that kids could build a world on their own. “We’ll become a working machine,” he said to enthusiastic applause. 

Despite the lofty hopes, the flavors of a social experiment were poorly disguised. After first being asked to prepare their meals, organize their sleeping arrangements and hold meetings as a uniform group, the kids were broken up into four districts. The social rank of each was determined in an elaborate water carrying competition that resembled a toned-down version of MTV’s Real World-Road Rules Challenge. Winners of the showdown were named “The Upper Class,” while the losing team had to settle for the title of “Laborers” (the middle class, so to speak, were designated “Merchants” and “Cooks”). Besides an already questionable ranking system, the gaps between the groups were made all the more clear with varying income levels: The Upper Class would earn $1 an hour, while Laborers would scrape by with 10 cents an hour. So far the income differences didn’t initiate much drama, but we have a feeling that separating children into social classes won’t end with pleasant results. 

While the season premiere is likely to induce more discussion about poor treatment of children for the sake of TV (think 40 children using the same outhouse for several days), the most disturbing aspect about the phenomenon is the way it depicts the earnest emotions of children. When we see a self-doubting contestant in Survivor or The Real World burst into tears, we feel at least somewhat comfortable sympathizing with her, mocking her or commenting her behavior to our TV-watching pals. When an eight-year old Kid Nation participant huddles up by the wall of a wooden shack to sob because he misses his parents, we feel downright squeamish. This isn’t something we should be watching between commercials for iShuffle and hair coloring kits.

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