Here to Make Friends

photo by imp kerr

Kids are ideal contestants, making little league reality shows better than the adult versions. But what if they don’t want to play by the rules?

THE first few days of Kid Nation, a 2007 CBS reality television show that followed 40 kids ages 8 to 15 as they attempted to build a functional society in an abandoned New Mexico mining town, were stressful: The pioneers were sleepy, homesick, and divided over the proper way to cook macaroni and cheese. Still, they were committed to the cause.

“You’re not just representing yourselves,” Michael, a 14-year-old from Seattle with impressively shaggy hair, implored during an impromptu speech on day two. “This is to prove that kids of all age groups like you guys can actually take control, get organized, and that you can actually work together cooperatively, without greed.”

And they could. In the beginning, older Kid Nation contestants helped younger, weaker kids out and the dusty air was rife with auspicious anti-grownup sentiment. “Adults have done a horrible job with the world,” 12-year-old Anjay, a spelling-bee champ from Texas, explained matter-of-factly at the beginning of the first episode. Their goal, as the trailer put it, was to “fix their forefathers’ mistakes.”

But cooperative organization doesn’t sell cars during commercial breaks, which is why host Jonathan Karsh, a fully grown man, showed up halfway through the first episode and announced that the kids would be separated into a socioeconomic hierarchy—with an Upper Class, Merchant Class, Cooks, and Laborers—determined via arbitrary relay races. Karsh also gave the contestants the power to reward one of their own with a gold star, worth at least $20,000, every episode.

From then on, the kids were more interested in climbing the ranks of the pseudo-feudal class structure than subverting it. The collective goal became individual, like when a former bully suddenly turned oh-so-helpful, leading the other kids to grumble that he just wanted that real-world cash. When faced with a choice between “sensible” rewards (floss, holy books) and awesome ones (hamburgers, a nine-hole miniature golf course), the kids, hyperaware of adult-imposed judgment, picked the former.

Orchestrated controversies instigated by producers to further widen the divide between the “haves and have-nots” silenced the idealistic speeches for good, according to Michael, who has hosted two “Ask Me Anythings” on Reddit in the years since the first and only season finale. (Unfortunately for Kid Nation fans and aspiring sweatshop owners, New Mexico strengthened its child labor law soon after.)

Take the episode “Bonanza Is Disgusting,” in which, according to a synopsis, “the new Town Council struggles to find a solution for Bonanza City’s growing trash problem.” Bullshit, Michael wrote. The kids were disposing of trash just fine by themselves. The producers created the so-called “growing trash problem” by dumping it into the town. “Without the production crew, [Kid Nation] would have been fairly boring,” Michael wrote. “The producers engineered problems when we didn’t have any. Without them, the show would have reflected very well on the children, but it would have been a snooze.”

Reality television is most addictive when it’s edited. There’s a reason viral 24/7 live cams are usually fixed on pandas and puppies. Strangers are compelling enough for serialized television only if they’re not getting along. In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, essayist Rebecca Solnit argues that Survivor, the archetypical American reality show, wouldn’t be in its 27th season if the producers had simply dropped a bunch of people on an island and asked them to cope—“the goal was to produce a single winner rather than a surviving society, a competitive pyramid rather than a party of cooperation.” She continues:

Capitalism is based on the idea that there is not enough to go around, and the rules for Survivor built scarcity and competition and winners and losers into the system. These people were not in the wilderness but living under an arbitrary autocratic regime that might as well have been Los Angeles or London. The producers pretended we were seeing raw human nature in crisis conditions but stacked the deck carefully to produce Hobbesian behavior—or rather marketplace behavior, which amounts of the same thing here.”

Solnit also contests the premise of Survivor as the survival of “a disaster that consisted of being stranded in a remote place without the usual resources.” In fact, she writes, the contestants survive “a very different disaster that consisted of the social order enforced upon them from above and outside,” which is “in many ways an accurate model of the way things are, but from inside rather than outside the systems that usually contain us. We are nearly all forced to play arbitrary and competitive games that pit us against each other, and the consequences can be dire.”

A Paradise Built in Hell is about the joy adults feel when they band together after natural and man-made disasters, and what that means about unmet social desires and possibilities. After life calms down postdisaster, Solnit explains, people return to petty gripes and preordained structures.

Most adults who have lived their entire lives under capitalism lack the imagination and energy to truly reimagine society. But children, essentially debt and credit free, don’t have any mode to revert back to—unless an adult steps in to move them in the right direction.

When they get the rare chance to appear on reality television, kids actually defy the infamous TV trope that contestants “are not there to make friends.” The children on Kid Nation relished the chance to govern themselves without the imposition of a social order that reinforces inequality but didn’t get the chance because TV execs feared a true Kid Nation would be too harmonious to entertain viewers.

This year’s MasterChef Junior, a kid version of the prototypical cutthroat cooking show, proved that reality TV would be significantly less obnoxious if it were all kids, all the time. Even the famously terrifying Gordon Ramsay transformed into an inordinately friendly host. The 8-to-13-year-old contestants were hyper-competent and ultra-competitive, but they were also truly happy to be there. Every “Woah!” at the overstocked kitchen or mystery box ingredient felt genuine, as did their admiration for each other. Unlike adults, the children didn’t have their egos get in the way ,and they didn’t pretend offense when their competitors tried to compete.

Although the show’s structure was ultimately every-kid-for-themselves, the contestants still found ways to support one another by giving each other hugs and high-fives, tearing up when their new friends lost, and celebrating their competitor’s victories. When the youngest contestant Sarah tried to trip up the oldest, Alexander, with a cake challenge, figuring he’d try something too fancy, the producers asked him what he thought of being targeted. The 13-year-old gracefully approved of his challenger’s strategy without malice, even while struggling to beat the clock. During the finale, Alexander’s ultimate rival, Dara, had a panic attack; Alexander stopped cooking to soothe her without a second thought or dramatic appeal to the cameras. Kid contestants keep it classy and always hate the game, not the player.

Grumpy television critics swooned. The New Yorker noted how the show turned “the irritatingly macho cooking-competition genre … disarmingly mild and humane” and transformed foodie pretension into adorable awe. Buzzfeed gif-ed one kid’s appeal to the heavens—a dramatic floor slump—noting that “if an adult did this because he or she got saved from elimination, it would be obnoxious ... When a 10-year-old with a New York accent does it, you die.”

Kid Nation’s contestants yearned to radically reimagine an adult game but weren’t allowed. On MasterChef Junior, the kids played along but on their own straight-talking terms; they just couldn’t help themselves from having fun. It seemed as if they would’ve preferred to have a giant, all-inclusive potluck party if it weren’t for the adults who made them fight it out. Alas, no matter how cute kids are in white chef’s hats explaining that blue cheese tastes “feety,” the competition provided the only real drama—and that’s what producers banked on to get viewers tuning in week after week.

America’s most popular reality show isn’t real, but it’s scarily realistic. “I was flipping through images of reality television, there were these young people competing for a million dollars ... and I saw images of the Iraq War,” Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins once said in a video from her publisher, Scholastic. “Two things began to sort of fuse together in a very unsettling way.” In the postapocalyptic Panem that Collins created, the contestants’ goal isn’t professional or financial success, it’s literal survival: Laborers in twelve districts work tirelessly to serve the upper-class in the Capitol. As punishment for a past rebellion, one teenage boy and girl from each district annually fight to the death in a televised, high-tech arena.

When Collins’ literary agent begged her not to kill off Prim, the heroine Katniss’s younger sister, Collins said “Oh, but it has to be,” according to the New York Times Magazine. The Hunger Games books aren’t fairy tales, she explained; they’re war. But more than war, they are about revolt: the unavoidable third term between the ways things are and another way they might be.

In The Hunger Games, children don’t kill each other solely for the Capitol’s enjoyment; they’re forced to fight to remind viewers that subversion is dangerous. The most subversive action possible, then, is to bond together. When Katniss and Peeta, her District 12 partner and part-time lover, impulsively decide to die together instead of kill each other at the end of book Oone, the desperate act sparks a district-wide uprising. In the sequel, the Hunger Games contestants learn they still haven’t broken the system: All living victors must fight to the death once more. When they appear on TV before game time, the would-be enemies link arms and look fiercely at the screen rather than smile for the cameras like they’re supposed to. Instead of killing each other, they choose to help each other; at the end, Katniss shoots an arrow into the literal fabric of the game that has entrapped her and her friends. “Remember who the real enemy is,” Katniss’s mentor tells her. By the final book in the trilogy, revolution is underway, thanks to kids who have proved that it’s possible not to play by the rules imposed by adults, who will always win the game they design.

It’s safe to say that shmucky reality television producers don’t lose sleep in fear of the children’s revolution. But it’s not a stretch to say the class that decides what goes on TV has a vested interest in people thinking human nature is at base competitive and petty. Michael told Redditors that he and Sophia, another Kid Nation contestant, shared a running joke that they were “operating all too well” at the beginning of the series. The two kids begged the producers to let them secede and “kick off their own meritocracy,” Michael claims, but CBS wouldn’t allow it. A Kid Nation actually overseen by kids would have run too smoothly. Kids’ self-organization teaches a different kind of lesson about what so-called human nature looks like underneath society than the one we’re used to receiving. But since free association is ideologically troubling, producers intervene to ensure they act like grownups.