This is The Most Ridiculous Reality Show of All Time
It was a typical 2007 morning, I was getting up to get ready for second grade when my mom tells me about a new reality show premiering on CBS that night. “It’s about a bunch of kids that run their own town with no adults, it sounds interesting.”
“Kid Nation” was an American reality show that was hosted by Jonathan Karsh and premiered in September of 2007 on CBS. The premise of this show was initially inspired by the book “Lord of the Flies” in the sense that children had to create their own functioning society and set up their own government system with minimal adult supervision and help.
I was eight years old at the time this show aired, so if anything, I was their target audience. Watching other kids run a society with NO adults? Just all kids? Sign me up. Another bonus was I was able to stay up 30 minutes past my bedtime just to watch it. Remember, I was eight.
The Premise of the Show
The show takes place in an abandoned town called “Bonanza City” (I refuse to believe that was a real town) which is eight miles north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The town consists of 40 kids around the country with ages ranging from 8 to 15 and spend 40 days there. Essentially, the only interactions they ever had with adults was Karsh and the producers filming them day to day.
Out of the 40 kids living in Bonanza City, four of them were representatives for the “Town Council”. These were the leaders of the town who enforce the rules and propose new ideas to make the town run more smoothly. Most of these new ideas come from the town journal that was left behind by “the old pioneers” (but it was clearly written by the producers since whatever the journal said was the premise of that specific episode).
Halfway through the first episode, the Town Council reads the journal saying the town should split into four districts. Each district is represented by a different color (blue, green, red, and yellow) and has one member of the town council in each district. These are designed to assign the jobs around town to a group of kids and ranking their hierarchy in society.
How do they rank the districts each week you ask? By doing “showdowns” obviously. Showdowns were challenges where the four districts would compete against each other that were in the same pace and style as the challenges in the show “Survivor”. Every challenge usually imposed some kind of physical obstacle, mental obstacle, or both.
The district that wins first place will be assigned as the “Upper Class”, where they will be payed $1.00 in “buffalo nickels” (the fake currency used in the show) and do not have to work any specific jobs. The district that places in second is in the “Merchant Class” where they run the town shops and are payed $0.50. The third district become “The Cooks” where they cook all of the meals for the town and wash the dishes and are paid $0.25. Finally, the district to come in last place are the “Laborers” where they have to do multiple jobs including hauling fresh water, cleaning the toilets, and doing the laundry for the small payment of $0.10.
In addition to getting their class ranking, the kids also collectively work together to finish the showdowns within a certain time to win a reward for the entire town. If they meet the criteria, they get a choice between two rewards; one is usually a practical necessity, while the other is something for luxury. (For example, the first episode their choice of a reward was either extra bathroom stalls or a television.)
At the end of every episode Jonathan Karsh comes to the town hall and asks the kids if they like the way the council is running the town. But what makes this show stand out is every week the Town Council decides someone to earn a two pound gold star. Allegedly, these stars are worth their weight in gold and have a value of $20,000, and one is awarded to one of the kids at the end of every town meeting. The winner also gets a key to a phone booth and has the chance to talk to their parents for the first time since leaving home for the show. Everyone leaves the town hall meeting, the and cycle repeats for 40 days.
While the concept is entertaining and interesting, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to this show. The show was intended to be renewed for a second season but was immediately cancelled after receiving such a bad reception from the firsts season. A lot of the bad reviews centered around the fact that kids were upholding responsibilities that put their safety and other’s safety at risk.
That being said, let’s talk about what made this the most ridiculous reality show of all time.
The Living Conditions and Lifestyle
Since Bonanza City took place in New Mexico, it was an abandoned town in the middle of a desert. While I’m not 100% sure what time of the year the show was filmed, it is easy to see how crazy the climate was in the time they were there. One day, everyone would be wearing shorts and a t-shirts, sweltering in the heat. While other days, everyone would be bundled up in thick winter jackets and hats as if they were about to climb to the top of Mount Everest.
All of the kids resided in dirty, dusty bunks with nothing to sleep on the hardwood floor with except for a sleeping bag and a mattress pad the same thickness as cardboard. As much as this sounds like a fun summer camping trip, the difference though is that summer camp is fun. This was for television.
In the first episode, it’s also stated that for all 40 kids there was only one outhouse they could use if they needed to go to the bathroom, and the laborer class was in charge of cleaning it. For 40 kids, there was one outhouse. Also in the first episode after the first showdown, the town won a reward of having seven more of them (now one outhouse for every five kids) and I had never, until that point, heard kids cheer of excitement of getting more toilets.
Speaking of latrines, everything hygiene was essentially thrown out the window in this show. The only running water the town had was from water pumps almost a mile away, so showers and washing your hands turned into a special occasion. Imagine a 9 year old cooking your dinner after going in the same latrine as 40 other kids. This alone would make me quit on day one.
The Food (Both Dead and Alive)
If you thought having one toilet for all of those kids was bad, go and watch the second episode.
At the beginning of the show, the contestants were also given 40 days worth of supplies in regards to food and dry goods. A lot of the food given to them was canned produce. As for their source of protein, they got live chickens to collect eggs from. But somehow by the third day, they thought that eggs and baked beans wasn’t efficient enough for them. So they read in the journal (a.k.a. the producers told them) they should slaughter their own chickens.
Not just slaughter, but pluck, skin, remove the insides, and cook a whole chicken. I would be much more open to the idea if it wasn’t 12 year old taking the hatchet to the chickens head and cooking it with little to no real supervision. Luckily, the oldest contestant (who alone could make a whole story) 15-year-old Greg mentions he had worked at a butcher shop and knew how to properly kill and prepare livestock. He ultimately lead and taught the other older kids how to prepare the chicken properly.
What I thought to be entertaining though was the “controversial” part of this issue was just killing the chickens instead of minors attempting to disinfect and cook it for them. A few kids who grew up on farms had the argument said that “animals are friends” while another kid said the exact words:
“We sped up the natural cycle of life and death, and we gave these two suckers a shortcut.”
As I said before, this conflict seemed completely preventable as the kids had other sources of protein at their disposal. This was just another tactic conducted by the producers to make an interesting episode. On the bright side, the first night they ate cooked chicken for dinner, everyone acted like they were at the last supper or having dinner with the President, they were that excited.
Every kid (and their parents) that participated in this show had to sign a 22 page waiver to prevent CBS from getting in any sort of legal trouble in the event something happened to one of the kids. Since this show was so dangerous in so many ways for the kids, there was a lot of ground to cover. In fact, CBS mentioned far more than they probably needed to.
The contract stated points such as:
“I understand that if the Minor chooses to enter into an intimate relationship with another participant or any other person … I hereby assume any and all risks that may be associated with any relationship, including, without limitation, emotional distress, illness, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, and pregnancy.”
Everyone in this show is under 15, the thought of any of them being intimate is sickening.
“I understand that the Program may take place in inherently dangerous travel areas that may expose the Minor and other participants to a variety of unmarked and uncontrollable hazards and conditions that may cause the Minor serious bodily injury, illness or death, including, without limitation: general exposure to extremes of heat and cold; water hazards … crevasses, cliffs, and rock avalanches; encounters with wild or domesticated animals; acts of God (e.g., earthquakes).”
I thought this statement was bold of CBS to make, because there are many scenes throughout the series where the kids encounter wild bulls and other dangerous animals and instead of the producers intruding to stop them, they just sit back and film it. Don’t worry, despite the extensive contract, there were still problems that surfaced putting the kids at risk that got the series singlehandedly cancelled for the future.
The Bleach Scandal
One of the biggest controversies about the entire show is there were a few kids off camera that claimed to have accidentally drink bleach. One of the contestants and former town council member Laurel McGoff tried to talk the story down and making it not as serious as the media made it sound on her YouTube channel, yet the fact that it happened it still astonishing.
What allegedly happened, was in addition to cooking, all of the kids were also responsible for cleaning and washing all of the dishes. Since they had a limited supply of clean water, the producers would go in at night and disinfect all of the dishes for the following day. Apparently, a few cups still had a small amount of diluted bleach at the bottom of them, and a few children ingested it and had to receive medical attention.
According to Laurel, the town was surrounded by a team of people hired just for the show for all sorts of purposes including medics, so getting the needed medical treatment wasn't as issue. But, the problem still could have been prevented had the dished been thoroughly washed out and the kids had been more supervised.
Despite the fact that the “bleach scandal” happened off camera, there was one situation that was put in an episode.
11-year-old Divad from Georgia was frying potatoes in the kitchen when suddenly a patch of grease splattered and burned her face. She said to the cameras “A little grease won’t stop me, when you’re flipping potatoes you get splattered by grease sometimes but yeah know, it’s whatever”. After this scene premiered in episode seven, the parents of Divad filed a lawsuit against CBS for putting their daughter in danger. But needless to say, because of the extremely detailed waiver, they lost.
Regardless of the lost lawsuit or Divad’s nonchalant demeanor, it still didn’t look great to millions of people at home watching a young girl get burned in the face by hot grease.
As for the general atmosphere of the show, a lot of eyebrows raises since these kids were in Bonanza City all day every day and many people wondered if this violated any child labor laws. Somehow CBS was able to cover up the loopholes that made adults everywhere concerned by using the crew of people off camera to help the kids with any sort of issue.
Despite the fact Kid Nation was and still is one of my favorite reality shows and is by far one of the most unique, I can most certainly see why it didn’t get another season. Maybe someday, under less dangerous guidelines and circumstances, it could make a more receptive revival.