#2. They Can't Control Everything
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At the end of the day, the cast was made up of human beings -- young ones who weren't actors. They could steer us in a certain direction, but it was obvious that sometimes things went ridiculously and frustratingly out of their control.
With Kid Nation, uncertainty was kind of the point -- it was clearly promoted as a lawless "Home Alone Times 40" situation. But since lawyers exist, they were also careful to emphasize how safe we kids would be in their care. They walked a tightrope of promising to show the audience children left to their own devices, while promising equally hard that we wouldn't be left to die in the desert. So I knew we'd be monitored, but the amount of direction we had surprised me. However, that didn't stop several kids from drinking bleach.
"The burning sensation is how you know it's good."
Now, the bleach was hidden in an old-timey container, but I believe it was labeled, and they warned us repeatedly: "There's bleach in that thing, guys." The one kid I knew who drank it was a 14-year-old. He insists it wasn't labeled, but how does a 14-year-old pour himself a glass of bleach and drink it without realizing at any stage in the process "This is not root beer"? Anyway, four kids wound up drinking bleach over the month we were there.
There were lots of scenes that the producers clearly wanted to happen, but we just wouldn't go along with them. For some reason, they kept trying to get me to organize a bunch of other kids to watch me play guitar. I kept saying, "Nah, that doesn't sound like something I'd like to do at all," because even as a teenager, I wasn't that guy. But they hinted maybe a dozen times that they really wanted that "scene." If I was fiddling with a guitar, they'd say, "Oh, maybe people want to watch this! Do you want to show them you can play?" They clearly had a line they couldn't cross in terms of forcing it, so even as they got steadily more pissed off, all they could do was "hint" that I should do it. Over and over.
"Good luck, dude. I don't even own a horse."
My absolute favorite moment on the show in terms of absurdity came when we went on this elaborate hike and crested a hill to see three wigwams with a group of hilariously stereotypical Native Americans dancing around it. The producers said things like "You should join in this dance!" and we'd be like "No fucking way." That's right -- the producers had come up with an idea that even a group of children thought was idiotic.
#1. What Happens and What Airs Are Very Different
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Where most reality shows like to boil everything down to just the worst of the worst behavior, that wasn't true of the smallest children on the show -- they actually came off much better than the reality. In real life, they were sometimes temperamental and badly behaved, just like any children of their age. But on TV, you can't see that, because they'll never air an 8-year-old punching a 10-year-old's face (but honestly, tell me America wouldn't have gone nuts for that). We actually had a bunch of scuffles and fistfights they never aired, because I guess they thought that would be a little more Lord of the Flies than the network wanted. It's a fine line.
Likewise, as soon as we were away from our parents, everyone started cursing up a storm, but they cut those lines entirely, rather than just bleeping it out as they normally would (even though there is inherent entertainment value in little kids dropping F-bombs at each other). Remember Greg, the villain of the show? He was the only one they showed on screen being bleeped out, to solidify his status as the troublemaker.
"Let's run the South Park filter over all his dialogue."
And of course, where they couldn't manufacture real conflict among the group, they weren't above fudging it a bit. Perfect example: There's an episode late in the season when I was on the town council, our governing body. Some of the kids had heard me talking negatively about other kids on the council. So, on the show, you see those kids sit in the center of the town and refuse to work, resulting in a confrontation that played out for the cameras. In reality, the second the cameras left, the other kids were like "Eh, it's not such a big deal" and the fight fizzled.
Finally, it came down to the final episode and the prize money. They gave out three $50,000 prizes in the last episode, and I was on the council that got to give them out. We technically had the option to give them to ourselves, but that was never even discussed among us. The production company kept telling us, "Hey, you know you guys can vote the money to one of you," because they really wanted us to at least debate it so they could get that on camera.
"Nah, man. We still have souls."
I'm sure the ensuing fight would've been wonderfully trashy television. But we refused to mention it, because if it had even been brought up, it would immediately have made it to air, and then we'd look like the four dicks whose first impulse was to steal money from a bunch of children (the part where the producers prompted us to consider it would not have made it into the episode). And by refusing to play along, we actually gave the strange impression that people don't automatically stab each other in the back when left to their own devices. And what kind of reality show is that?
I should note that Kid Nation was cancelled after one season on the air.
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