powered by FreeFind

Apple iTunes


FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Kid Nation (CBS)

Mike manned up, Sophia won a $20,000 gold star and little Jimmy up and called it quits on the premiere episode of CBS' Kid Nation.

The kids are all right, and their show doesn't merit all the "controversy" heaped on it before Wednesday night's premiere.

CBS had better corral more advertisers, though, or Kid Nation will be building a big deficit instead of a new town. Stupidly withheld from critics by CBS, the opening episode didn't have a commercial break until 39 minutes into the show. All in all, its paid advertising added up to roughly one-third that of a typical one-hour slice of prime-time television.

Little eight-year-old Jimmy of Salem, N.H., Kid Nation's youngest "pioneer" and first voluntary quitter, pretty much summed up what faces CBS during the opening bus ride into deserted Bonanza City, New Mexico.

"I think I'm going to die out here," he said. " 'Cause there's nothing."

Sued for $70 million earlier in the day by Dan Rather, CBS snuck the first episode of Kid Nation into selected classrooms, including a high school in Mesquite. Then it encouraged some of its stations to run a "story" on the kids' reactions.

CBS11, owned and operated by the network, unfortunately had to knuckle under during its Wednesday, 6 p.m. newscast. Boy, the kids sure looked as though they were enjoying the show. Meanwhile, genuine journalism took another swift kick in the nuts.

The show itself has nothing to be particularly ashamed of. In fact, it's a lot less childish than many reality shows. Thirty-six kids between the ages of 8 and 15 got off a bus in a barren "middle of nowhere" before their pre-appointed quartet of town council leaders descended in a helicopter.

Host Jonathan Karsh was there, too. He's the show's congenial Ranger Rick, periodically appearing to announce pre-arranged competitions and rewards for winning same. Kind of like Survivor? Bingo, except there are no mandatory vote-offs.

Plucky, bespectacled, 11-year-old Mike from Bellevue, WA almost instantly became Kid Nation's first breakout star. He's a slightly built kid in a cowboy hat taxed with trying to take charge along with fellow leaders Taylor, 10, Anjay, 12 (from Pearland, TX), and Laurel, 12.

"I'm trying to be a leader here, and it's just disappointing," said a soon flustered Mike, who repeatedly fought back tears in Episode 1.

He persevered, though, surviving a little dustup with oldest kid, Greg, 15, who's basically cast as the evil Scut Farkus from A Christmas Story. For that matter, Mike might as well be Ralphie Parker, the movie's soft-faced but resilient hero.

The kids first were made to pull wagonloads of gear and supplies down a long, imposing dirt road. One of them, 14-year-old DK, fell down and hurt his leg a bit. So he got to ride in one of the wagons. And in his view, it was just a flesh wound. "They stepped up, and they were great," he said of his comrades.

Once in town, the kids taught themselves how to make very basic meals through trial, error and the dumping out of a big pot of macaroni. The town then quickly got divided into four districts -- red, yellow, blue and green.

In the show's first four-way "Showdown," they had to pump water from tower tops into bottles after first finding the right in-ground tubes. The winning team got to be the "Upper Class," with wages of $1 an hour eligible to be spent at the town's well-stocked candy and soda shops. From there it went to "Merchants" (50 cents an hour), "Cooks" (25 cents) and "Laborers" (a dime). But you can always live the high life by jumping up a notch or two in future competitions.

Each episode's hardest worker, as chosen by the four council leaders, gets a genuine gold star worth $20 grand. That turned out to be 14-year-old Sophia, who's also admittedly bossy.

Anyone who wanted to leave also could do so. Jimmy decided to return home despite the kids' urging him to stay. There was no shame in it, though. And he didn't have to have his torch extinguished or anything.

Kid Nation clearly is edited with an eye toward emphasizing group cooperation in the face of divisions and adversity. Children and their parents can watch it together without any fear of seeing a remake of Lord of the Flies. It's more inspiring than exploitive in times when roughing it now means going without an iPhone for too many early teens and tweens.

Unfortunately, CBS fed into any preconceived notions of "child abuse" by keeping the premiere episode under wraps while at the same stealth-showing it to selected advertisers and classrooms. But only a few advertisers, including Sears and Maybelline, bit on opening night. Now it's up to the Nielsen ratings and the first wave of reviews to either bolster Kid Nation's prospects or maybe soon send the show home just like little Jimmy.

Grade: B-minus