Ian Harris: Finding ‘Kid Nation’

Thursday, January 23, 2020 - 5:34pm

NOSELL

CBS

My house recently stumbled upon a gold mine. While casually browsing through YouTube one of my housemates came across a video entitled “Was Kid Nation the worst reality show ever?” After watching only two minutes of this video, my friend turned it off and immediately texted the group chat with two simple words: New show.

Over the course of syllabus week my friends and I binged all twelve episodes of “Kid Nation,” a short lived CBS reality show that aired in the fall of 2007. The premise is as insane as it is simple. 40 kids, with no parents, no supervision and no adults of any kind, will take over an abandoned town in the middle of the desert and attempt to form the first ever Kid Nation. The kids are split into four “districts” and they compete in challenges to determine what role in society they will hold. Each week one kid is awarded a solid gold star by the elected town council, worth 20,000 real world dollars.

The show is bananas. The fact that it ever existed it all is mindboggling. A Wikipedia search reveals that the shows producers actually classified and registered the set as a summer camp in order to avoid child labor laws. This is just one small factoid in the sea of madness that is “Kid Nation.” The show can only be found in grainy YouTube videos, because CBS all but denies it’s existence. While the entire thing is easily found, the subpar audio and video quality honestly kind of adds to the reality of the experience these kids are going through. The entire aesthetic of the presentation adds to the strange feeling you have while watching, that what you’re seeing shouldn’t actually exist.

The people in charge of this show put a group of tweens in a desert with minimal commodities or utilities and more or less sat back to see what would happen. From that standpoint, the show is cleanly divided in half. During the first half of the season, the town council featured four kids appointed by the producers at the start of the show. This led to a number of kids questioning the authority of leaders that were not chosen for them, some kids refused to do the jobs assigned to them, while others got into fights with each other. Obstacles as simple as cooking mac and cheese became gigantic issues with eight year olds dumping in more pasta than the pan can fill.

The first half of the season is filled with ridiculous nonsense like this, from kids eating so much candy they have sugar hangovers the next day to kids arguing which religion is best based only on the religions name. The chaos of kids trying to live by themselves is a setup rife with drama and conflict, but one that continually makes you wonder if it’s all right for you to be enjoying what you’re seeing. This show is kinda messed up. The entire premise is predicated on using kids’ pain to bring entertainment to the audience. How you square that is up to you, but the show was cancelled after one short season, so it’s doubtful watching it now is really causing anyone harm.

However, in the back half of the series things take an interesting turn. After (spoiler alert) holding an election, throwing out the original town council, and electing their own leaders, Kid Nation really stabilizes. A Reddit AMA from a few years back that was done by one of the kids who appeared on the show reveals that the kids eventually got bored of the “game” of the show, playing the challenges and changing districts and what not. They had developed a system of labor that more or less worked without much issue, and they didn’t even fight that much anymore. It’s less bombastic and entertaining than the early episodes, but there’s something kinda fascinating about the end of “Kid Nation” all the same.

At one point the kids are given a choice between a hot air balloon ride and a monument to the town they’ve built together that will stand there forever. As rightly pointed out by some of the kids, the real monument to the journey they went on is the show itself. But what started as a simple reality show designed to shock the audience eventually transitions into a strange meditation on the fragility of childhood and the inevitability of growing up. As their final days together come to a close, many of the kids we’ve grown to know become emotional about the fact that they’re about to leave people they’ve formed a connection with unlike any other they had before. As the kids run into their parents waiting arms, we watch as they experience joy, and  sadness too. It’s been said that kids do live in their own world after all, one where the rules aren’t always defined by adults or the strict impositions of the adult world. Alas, you can’t stay in “Kid Nation” forever; eventually you have to return to the real world. “Kid Nation” was brief, bright and no more. Long live “Kid Nation.”