The reaction to the outhouses is priceless.
The reaction to the TV set is even better. They are, after all, children but smartly go with the outhouses. I mean, if you’re working 14 hours a day, who has the time for television?
The second episode is where shit gets real. The kids realize that they need some form of protein (read: the Pioneer Journal, written by producers and left out every day, told them this) and the council decides they must slaughter a chicken. After much debate and protest — some of the kids stage a sit-in of sorts inside the chicken coop — the children gather around to watch as Greg, a 15-year-old with braces, chops the heads off of two chickens. I should note that this was preceded by a disclaimer that read “the following scene may be intense for young children,” remarking on CBS’ concern for the viewers but not the actual participants.
A later scene in the episode focused on two girls, an eight-year-old and a 10-year-old, who start a makeshift daycare center to take care of stuffed animals. The producers and editors of Kid Nation loved these “clever” juxtapositions that placed an emphasis on the conflicting elements that were at play throughout the series: the children being decidedly children (hyperbolic statements, candy addiction, “I love stuffed animals!”) vs the children playing adult (making practical decisions, cooking meals, “What is this, a Nazi regime?”).
If nothing else, the scenes where the kids “play adult” are fascinating to watch. Children slam down non-alcoholic beverages at the saloon at the end of a tough week. They stay up too late partying while eating candy and have sugar hangovers that render them unable to wake up for work on time. Episode 4 includes a religious debate between children that nearly splits the town. In the finale, when the rules are abolished, the children loot the town stores, taking fistfuls of candy and boxes of soda. They act the way they have seen adults act, both on reality television and in real life. In Episode 3, they swear at each other so much that eight-year-old Mallory starts crying. In a bizarre scene in Episode 10, three boys sit on the side of the road and “compliment” girls walking by with wolf whistles, commenting on their outfits while speaking in affected Hispanic accents.
The children are trying to be adults because they have no other choice: a reality show is an inherently adult setting. The more you watch the show, the more you realize that Kid Nation isn’t about kids building a kid society — or about the kids at all. Instead, it’s about kids building an adult society in an adult environment as adults gently coach them, because adults have put them into this predicament to entertain other adults and adults will reap most of the (monetary) benefits.
This isn’t to say that the kids didn’t have a good time. Only three of them left before the 40 days were up (it was always clear that the kids could choose to leave at any time) and, after filming, a few stated that they would do the show again. Yet it’s still kind of unbelievable that we let it exist. (I’m part of the problem: even while revisiting it, I still found plenty of entertaining moments.)
I wouldn’t say it’s explicitly harmful but there is definitely something cruel and warped about it — I mean, in one episode they force the children to choose between ponies or letters from their parents — and ultimately, it proved to be pointless. There was no definitive conclusion to the “experiment” because much of the program was so contrived that it couldn’t prove anything. At the end of the day, the only thing about Kid Nation that really stuck is the image of an eight-year-old boy in the pilot sobbing and saying, “I think I’m too young to be doing this.”