The pilot episode of Threads introduces three children: 13-year-old Bradford, who has been designing since he was three; 12-year-old Cambria, who taught herself to sew; and 12-year-old Kenzie, who wants to have her own fashion empire when she grows up (she already sells her designs online). They are tasked with creating a red carpet-ready dress — and have a second task thrown in last minute, but I don’t want to spoil it — with just the help of their assistants. As you’d expect, the kids are overly ambitious, hard on themselves, and easily overwhelmed. In general, 12-year-olds do not fare well under pressure, especially when that pressure includes creating a dress from scratch, presenting it to famous fashion designers and celebrities (Kelly Osbourne, Jaime King), and trying to win $10,000.
The children aren’t really competing here — they are aware they’re in a competition, but mostly they are working hard to impress the judges, not to show up a peer — so it’s the parents who become the source of drama, especially when they butt heads with their children. The kids cry when frustrated — wouldn’t you? — and occasionally get angry with their parents for either not being helpful enough or trying to being too helpful. The kids also sometimes get distracted, in that way that all kids do, flitting toward a piece of fabric that they don’t necessarily need, prompting one mother to, almost subconsciously, snap “Focus!” In fact, it’s a mother who has the biggest freakout of the episode, paranoid that she accidentally sabotaged her child’s shot at victory.
Most of the tension in Threads stems from the fact that the parental assistants just aren’t good. Their children are far better designers and seamstresses, so, more often than not, the parents get in the way or slow down the process. On a program like this or MasterChef Junior, there is always an emphasis put on the children’s ages, with reminders of how young they are popping up in just about every conversation and on-screen chyron. It’s both to impress viewers with their young talents and also, to a lesser extent, make us aware that we’re not talented.
But that’s also half the fun: rooting for these kids who can do what we can’t and marveling at the idea of children excelling at adult tasks. These shows are light entries in the reality show canon and don’t quite fit in with sensationalism, cheap viewing, and exploitation. But reality competition programs featuring kid contestants are creating their own little niche with shows focused on empowerment, success, and encouragement — and the utter adorableness of children acting like real people!