Kid Nation, harmless TV or capitalist reality?

CBS television’s “Kid Nation” may profess to be a highbrow social experiment mixed with reality TV, but can a group of early teens and preteens build a viable “society” in a New Mexico ghost town abandoned many years prior?

The cast, ages 8-15, are deposited in the desert to fend for themselves and find out if they can make a success of a town adults could not.

At the beginning, it looks like there is no hope for a kid town, let alone a nation. “I think I’m going to die out here,” says innocent-faced Jimmy, one of the show’s youngest participants.

When the group arrives at Bonanza City, N.M., the environment is chaotic. Nobody knows where to go or what to do. There is only a single outhouse for 40 kids. They have to cook for themselves, at which point they realize you have to wait for water to boil before putting in the pasta.

And when they realize they have to sleep on dusty mattresses in filthy bunkhouses, a few start to cry, as young children would be expected to do in such a situation.

Mike, one of the four designated leaders, tries to organize a “town meeting.” However, exhausted from the day, the participants opt for sleep instead.

After one evening of total chaos, the host Jonathan Karsh rides into the picture and becomes the new “sheriff in town.” He calls a meeting.

It is here that the grounding for a capitalist structure is set forth. Instead of allowing the children to work out their own system of government, they are spoon fed one. Karsh explains the “rules”: the kids are to be divided into four teams to compete in a series of challenges for social standing.

The first-place team automatically is designated the “Upper Class,” earns a salary of $1, yet has no specific chores; the last place or losing team is labeled the “Laborers” and its members have to haul water and clean outhouses for only two nickels.

Karsh then unveils shops where the kids can — if they have the money — buy candy, root beer, reading material and even an old-fashioned bicycle. One shop sells tools that could help in their day-to-day chores.

Withholding these items when the kids were at their most confused was a mean trick.

Now we see it is not about kids working together to forge a “society.” Instead, it’s about kids being sorted into class-structured groups competing with each other over money and social standing assigned by adults.

The kids take on the roles of the upper class, merchants, cooks and lastly, the laborers. The youngest team suddenly learns how to make oatmeal, grits and biscuits. Now everyone enjoys the prize awarded to all teams completing the previous day’s challenges in under an hour: Seven new outhouses.

Whereas many of the children contemplated quitting on the first night, in the end, only one elects to return home.

And so it appears that “Kid Nation” does not mean to find out whether kids can do what adults cannot. It means instead to demonstrate to a young audience that these kids really would die without the intervention of adults. In case anyone doubted “Kid Nation’s” capitalist bias — even after seeing young Sophia dance for nickels so she could buy the bicycle — you are provided with another chance.

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 comforts for the community. It’s just money for one individual.

Besides training for future reality television series, I find very little good in this program. It portrays the cruel and biased structure of class and wealth distinctions, and makes negative impressions on our children, who invariably imitate what they see.

Darius Engel is a graduate student studying psychology in South Florida.