Bait and Switch
Kid Nation bills itself as a high-minded social experiment. Can a crowd of teens and preteens create a viable “society” in a New Mexican ghost town established and abandoned by pioneers years earlier? CBS rounded up a diverse mix of youngsters, aged eight to 15, then dropped them in the wilderness to fend for themselves and find out if kids could succeed where adults could not.
At the outset, it looked like there was no hope for a kid hamlet, let alone a nation. “I think I’m going to die out here,” said moon-faced Jimmy, one of the show’s youngest participants. When the players arrived at “Bonanza City,” the place was chaos. Nobody knew where to go or what to do. There was only one outhouse for 40 kids. They had to cook for themselves, at which point they discovered you have to wait for water to boil before putting in the pasta. When they realized they have to sleep on dusty mattresses in dirty bunkhouses, a few started to cry and talked about going home. Mike, one of the four designated leaders, tried to organize a “town meeting.” The kids were too tired and hungry, so they went to sleep instead.
When the sun rose the next day, it became clear that CBS stacked the deck against the kids that first night. After one night of total mayhem, host Jonathan Karsh rode in and became the new “sheriff in town.” Using one loud bell, he called a meeting, his authority unquestioned. He explained the rules: the kids are divided into four teams to compete in a series of challenges for social standing. The first-place team becomes the upper class, earns a salary of one dollar, and has no specific chores; the last-place team becomes the laborers and has to haul water and clean outhouses for only two nickels.
Why would the kids of “Bonanza City” need nickels, anyway?
Karsh then unveiled shops full of treats, where the kids could buy candy, root beer, dark chocolate, Shakespearean plays, an old-fashioned bicycle. One shop even held tools that could help the kids in their day-to-day chores. It was a cruel trick, withholding these items when the kids were at their most confused, disorganized, and homesick. The revelation immediately changed the show’s tone and apparent goal. Now we saw that it’s not about kids working together to forge a “society.” Instead, it’s about kids being sorted into groups competing with each other over cash and social standing assigned by adults. That’s not innovative. It’s just like the public school system.
The kids embraced this familiar structure, taking on the roles of the upper class, merchants, cooks, and laborers. On the previous day, no one could figure out how to boil water, the youngest team suddenly learned how to whip up oatmeal, grits, and biscuits. Now everyone enjoyed the prize awarded to all teams completing the previous day’s challenge in under an hour: seven new outhouses (the team leaders had a choice between the outhouses or a television set). Whereas lots of children contemplated quitting on that first, disorganized night, in the end, only one elected to go home. And so it appears that Kid Nation does not mean to find out whether kids can do what adults could not. It means instead to demonstrate that these kids really would die without the intervention of adults.
In case you doubted Kid Nation‘s capitalist basis—even after seeing Sophia dance for nickels so she could buy the bicycle—you’re provided with another twist. In each episode, a hardworking player is awarded a solid gold star worth $20,000. To hell with nickel root beer! The gold star does not help the children with their labor and does not provide any more comforts for the community. It’s just money for one individual. And training for future Survivor contestants.