EmptyWednesday Sept. 19, 8-9 p.m.
For a show that we heard all summer long was more perilous than a Sally Field acceptance speech -- supplying incontrovertible evidence that television had finally Gone Too Far -- what we saw in Wednesday night's "Kid Nation" premiere was remarkably tame, not to mention tedious and tacky (though criminal only in the "They just stole an hour of my life and I want it back!" sense).
If CBS is going to make TV critics fume over being denied an advance screener, the least the network can do is give America something more substantial than this amateurishly manipulative and uninspired opener that landed in our living rooms supersized and advertiser-challenged. We went in expecting executive producer Tom Forman to roll out a transparently reprehensible production that shone a mirror on his blatant disdain for child labor laws, playing on his ability to replicate outdoors an overseas Wal-Mart sweatshop environment. All of that advance fury ("They're exploiting children! Children!") is about to be replaced by several months of yawning.
Confounding rather than calamitous, "Kid Nation" breaks nothing resembling new ground in the unscripted game. It instead revels in the usual: overly dramatic challenges, creative editing, pounding soundtrack and a camera-as-confessional conceit. It purports to tell the story of 40 kids, ages 8-15, who were sent to a New Mexico ghost town with instructions to create their own pioneer society minus any adult assistance (except for the couple hundred grown-ups overseeing production and plotting all of this juvenile "realism").
The advance controversy would have had us believe that what was perpetrated amid the tumbleweeds of Bonanza City, N.M., was nothing less than a real-life "Lord of the Flies," where kids were imprisoned and overtaxed mentally and physically for our entertainment pleasure: TV as internment camp. It's difficult to uncover much of that in the opener, however, aside from an apparent shortage of outhouses. See, the regular use of portable johns are a privilege to be earned via one's skills at lame teamwork games.
Yes indeed, this show is shameless, all right -- shamelessly hokey. And from the outset, the child participants blur into a faceless, angst-riddled jumble of stereotypes. There's the crybaby 8-year-old, the wise dude with the long hair, the diplomat, the organizer, the pessimist and the weirdo. They don't know it at the beginning, but they're competing for a massive gold star trophy said to be worth $20,000 that's dispensed at every show-closing town hall meeting. It's also here that host Jonathan Karsh works to separate the strong kids from the weaklings, like when he all but calls little 8-year-old Jimmy a loser after the boy professes a desire to go home to Mom and Dad. Those who craft "Kid Nation" no doubt see the abject humiliation of a distressed child on national television as simply the cost of doing business.
In the debut, the kids are permitted to flail with abandon for a couple of days until the adults who aren't supposed to be there at all set up a plan for them. Subsequently, every small tiff, every minor injury and every teary bout of homesickness is played for maximum melodramatic impact. Let it be said that my 11-year-old son fell for every last tug at his pint-sized heart, remarking repeatedly, "I love this show!"
However, judging from the scant four minutes of ads that sponsored the "Kid Nation" launch, he probably isn't the target demographic, which would appear to be people who hate commercials. A tough sell, that one. The first spot on Wednesday didn't arrive until the hour was 39 minutes along. The second cluster included an incongruous ad for Vagisil, which at least didn't expound on the medical ramifications of a four-hour erection. And thank goodness, as these kids have evidently been through quite enough.
Tom Forman Prods. and Good TV, Inc.
Creator/executive producer: Tom Forman
Co-executive producer: Scott Einziger
Supervising producers: Allison Chase, Jonathan Chinn, John Platt, Julia Silverton, Matt Schmidt, Jonathan Karsh
Producers: Brad Bishop, Julie Link, Jon Beyer, Keri Hammond, Nate Harrington, Andy Lipson, Alan Luxmore, Cynthia A. Palormo, Benny Reuven, Kathy Shugrue, Rebecca Shumsky, Emily Sinclair, Matthew Vafiadis, Derek Wan
Lead editor: Pedro Casais
Art director: James Carhart
Audio: Peter Gray
Casting: Lynne Spillman, Rebecca Rosichan