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Kid Nation: Toilets Beat TV!

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SPOILER ALERT: This post reveals the winners of the bleach-drinking contest and barefoot broken-glass race on last night’s Kid Nation, as well as which child was exiled to Starving Coyote Mountain.

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MONTY BRINTON/CBS

As you may have guessed, there were no bleach-drinking or broken-glass competitions on last night’s Kid Nation premiere, although who knows what ended up on the cutting room floor? Seriously, though, we can’t determined from an edited, packaged reality TV show whether or not the production was sufficiently safe, was well-supervised or violated child-labor laws. What we can do is assess it as an edited, packaged reality show, and thus assess one of the main charges against it: that the kids would be made to look bad in the editing and packaging of a reality show.

On that point, anyway, I didn’t see the damage. To the contrary–whether it was editing, reality, or the usual magic TV mix of the two–the kids of Bonanza City came off remarkably mature, level-headed and far more considerate of one another than 99% of adult reality-show participants.

Take the storyline with Jimmy, the homesick 8-year-old who ended up volunteering to go home. Not only did he show impressive self-awareness and reasoning for a kid his age (“I think I’m too young to be doing this”), but he brought out the parental side in the older kids around him, who took him out to chase jackrabbits and told him he should be proud of himself. (One thing the show captures are the age distinctions that kids observe: you had 10 year olds commenting that the experience “is really hard on young kids,” i.e., kids a year and a half younger than themselves.) Call me a sucker, but I got a little verklempt when his 12-year-old district leader volunteered to be his mom figure: “Just give me a chance.” Most important, how impressive was it that, despite all the older kids’ coaxing, he stuck to his guns and asked to go home? I’m not sure how many adults I know who have the self-assurance not to be peer-pressured in a situation like that.

Again, yes, I know: we have no idea how much of this is coaching or editing–but we’re talking perceptions, since so much of the criticism of the show was about how the kids would be perceived after it aired. And I know there are people who will believe the show was cruel because it made an 8-year-old cry. As a parent, my personal responses are: (1) kids cry in a lot of stressful environments, like school, and (2) while putting your kid in that situation in front of a camera may be different, it’s also more complicated and child-specific than people make it out.

The other kids came off almost uniformly well. (Or at least those we noticed: with 40 kids on the show, it’s going to be awfully hard to remember many of them.) The exception may have been teenager Greg, although 15 years old is probably old enough to realize that if you push an 11-year-old, it will not reflect well on you. A kid pulled a muscle and another–Greg, by the way–helped him onto a wagon to rest. The producers had the good idea to include a group prize in the reward competition, so that the losing players actually have a chance to become town heroes. Speaking of which–the kids actually chose toilets over a TV set? What’s wrong with kids these days?

If anything, the show may be too feel-good for its own good in the long-term ratings. Reality TV generally rewards entertainment of the laughing-at rather than the laughing-with variety. That may be why the show was too sappy even for the eighth-graders of Denver, if not for a sentimental parent like me. I’ll definitely watch another Kid Nation. But will the kids?

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