CBS' controversial "Kid Nation" finally debuted Wednesday night, and the show's first episode was alternatingly uncomfortable, inspiring, and awkward. Its cast of teenagers and pre-teens were sometimes mean, frustrating, or annoying, but they also proved themselves to be remarkably self-sufficient, smart, articulate, and funny. In short, they were real, and rather entertaining.
Placing 40 kids in an abandoned ghost town (really a ghost town film set in New Mexico) certainly made the show seem like it could become Golding's "Lord of the Flies" set in HBO's "Deadwood." But like the real "Deadwood" and unlike the novel, "Kid Nation" did not and will not end disastrously.
Part of that is because the kids are, of course, not really alone, with camera operators and audio engineers hovering around them, never mind producers who interview them and other crew members who were undoubtedly present. There's only one adult the kids interact with on camera, though: host Jonathan Karsh.
Suggesting that allowing kids to run their own community would truly be impossible, he provides guidance and structure from adults, as does a book of instruction, which ordered that, for example, the kids divide themselves into four groups.
The host and rule book, along with the fact that the producers pre-selected four kid leaders (the "Town Council"), are there to inject artificial drama, which also happened after the host presented the cast with a challenge that left them divided into different social classes and assigned paid jobs.
During the challenge, the older kids ended up getting beaten by a younger group, and the youngest kids got a huge boost in self-confidence when they came in third. Since all four teams completed the challenge in one hour, they won their choice of a reward: either a number of new outhouses (they started with just one for 40 of them) or a TV. The Town Council selected the outhouses, and the kids cheered wildly, perhaps the first time kids have ever cheered for bathrooms on television.
Even when the artificial components of "Kid Nation" have positive, uplifting outcomes like that, these contrived elements remain the most regrettable parts of the show because they're such obvious attempts to inject drama, even if they're probably necessary to provide enough engaging material to last for 13 episodes.
But true reality shows, the ones that gave the genre its often-criticized name, either film people as part of their actual lives, or establish an artificial context. Either way, they let cameras roll to see what happens, and in "Kid Nation," a lot of real, really raw stuff happened within its artificial walls.
There was a lot of disagreement and strife, and there were a number of moments — when a kid pulled a muscle, when they couldn't figure out to cook pasta but were desperately hungry, when kids sobbed uncontrollably — that it seemed like an adult should step in. But then the kids figured out what to do, and even if the results weren't perfect (the first-night's dinner of macaroni and cheese did not look very appetizing at all), they made it work.
Heartbreaking and inspiringOther moments were more uncomfortable to watch. An older kid, 15-year-old Greg, seemed to have a generally bad attitude, and when he wasn't scrawling graffiti all over the town with chalk, he bullied 11-year-old Mike, one of the four leaders, and an extremely intelligent and wise kid who still cries a lot out of frustration. "I'm trying to be a leader here, and it's just really disappointing," he said at one point, after the other kids decided to go to bed instead of having a meeting. "I'm feeling, like, really stressed and really worried. It's been really tough. I guess I'm going to have keep pushing."
It's heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time, as it is when 9-year-old Alex criticizes Greg and another older teenager for their graffiti. "I think it was really, really stupid that they did that. It's juvenile; it's like 2-year-old behavior," he said, proving that age and maturity are not necessarily connected.
At one particularly uproarious and contentious gathering where Greg actually shoved Mike, a 14-year-old named Michael took control and told the group, "You're not just representing yourselves. This is to prove that kids of all age groups, like you guys, can actually take control, get organized, and then you can actually work together cooperatively."
And they can and did. These kids need adults for guidance and support, but they also don't need to be infantilized like so many of the show's pre-broadcast critics tried to do, arguing that having kids work and cook and maybe injure themselves was incomprehensible, as if they should be locked in a bubble until they turn 18.
Should kids, especially young ones, have been placed in this situation? Eight-year-old Jimmy didn't think so, opting to go home, even as the host subtly pressured him to stay. ("Do you want to leave this entire experience and go back home?") When he left, host Jonathan said, "Well, you are an extraordinarily brave 8-year-old for coming out here on your own and doing this."
Is he? Did he, like the others, consent? Or did their parents push them into it, like so many after-school activities that have their rosters filled because parents need to vicariously live out the childhood they never had? Should a major broadcast network have dangled fame and 40 days without a kid around in front of parents to get them to sign the show's ridiculous contract?
Those are debatable points. But after its first episode, "Kid Nation" has proven that once in the situation, the kids can function, and maybe teach the rest of us something along the way.
is a writer and teacher who publishes , a daily summary of reality TV news.