HEY KIDS, LET'S PUT ON A SHOWCIETY! The most pleasant surprise for me this television season, apart from the renewed understanding that a televised musical is a bad idea on every level, has been Kid Nation. The surprise isn't that the premise works. Despite the predominantly (though, in fairness to friends of this blog, not uniformly) alarmist pre-show chatter, I always thought the pitch -- drop 40 kids into something approximating a Rousseauian state of nature and see if they come up with the social contract or the Lord of the Flies -- was solid gold.
Instead, the surprise is that the show is succeeding despite every attempt by the producers to fuck it up. I can forgive the cheesy Pioneer backstory that, for some reason, the cast is pretending (not convincingly) that it believes, and the ham-handed themes of the week ("religion"; "Soviet democracy"; "killing chickens"). And I actually like the "instant gratification or long-term good" choice that they give the kids weekly (though we'll see how that plays out when the kids realize they're going home soon). Those, though, are little issues.
What I really can't forgive is the feudal conception of society the producers are trying to impose upon the kids. The show is built around a series of competitions -- representing war in the societal analogy, I guess -- that stratify the four teams by class, in an impenetrably tangled metaphor. The losers are deemed "laborers," for a nickel a week; the third-place team serves as cooks, for a dime a week; the second-place winners are the merchants, for 50 cents a week; and the winners are the "upper class," with no work obligations, for a dollar a week. The problem with this is that both the competition and the spoils are contrived. People (kids) will find non-artificial reasons to align themselves in conflict (witness the kids' societally-accurate conflicts over religion). As for the consequences of the competition, the rigidity of assigning both tasks and salary, as opposed to salary alone, seems to be inhibiting what could be a very interesting demonstration of the Coase theory at work. It would have been very satisfying to watch the hard-working kids separate the lazy winners from their consumer surplus. It's therefore particularly galling that the show's point seems to be that once you are given (or born into) a caste, you're stuck there, doing what you're told, until a higher power decides to move you up or down.
If the producers' anachronistic view of society is a huge problem, though, it's not insurmountable. Apart from the cuteness of the kids -- my favorite is the sensitive nine-year-old bespectacled genius with the lone giant tooth into which all of the wisdom of the world has been calcified -- the best part of the show is the struggle between contestants and contest. One ongoing plot line is the town's effort to get the Yellow Team, comprised principally of work-averse Jon-Benet-alike Taylor and her layabout minions, out of the kitchen to which they are routinely assigned, where they consistently fail to feed the town. The effort is led by Sophia, a hard-working pain-in-the-ass earnest white girl if ever there were one, and Zach, the Yellow Team's roll-up-your-sleeves pariah (note: what, exactly, is the show saying about the paradigm of the Industrious Jew?). The solutions, so far, involve the town banding together to do the work themselves and, alternatively, freeing Sophia (the town's best and most eager cook) from her outhouse-scrubbing duties to do the Yellow Team's work. This week, according to the promos, Zach will up the ante in an appropriately society-building way: by withholding Yellow Team salaries if the Yellow Team fails to do its job. Another loose plotline involves the town basically giving the finger to everything the producers tell the "Town Council" to make the town do, like organizing a townwide religious ceremony.
I'll enjoy the show for its kids-acting-like-they-think-adults-act way, its kids-acting-like-kids way (Campbell, last week: "let's do something fun. Looking at cows is fun"), and its occasional Charlie Brown kids-actually-acting-like-adults way as long as it runs. But what I'd really like to see is the kids rebelling against the caste structure and letting the market have its way. You want your toilets scrubbed, Blue Team? Then let's see you part with some of that dollar a week you're getting. Now that's how you build a society.
Wow, that's a lot of rambling about a reality show, albeit one that could have been one of the best reality shows ever if the producers had faith in its premise. Anyway, tune in tonight.