Watching children suffer on TV is fun

by Brian Clarey

The CBS reality show “Kid Nation” caused a minor blip on my cultural radar, positing a scenario wherein 40 children – yes, children, between 8 and 15 years of age – are charged to live in an abandoned New Mexico town and create a society.

I remember chuffing at my television set when I saw the promos. Is that even legal? And I remember another passing thought: If this thing isn’t a total farce, those kids are doomed.

I came to this conclusion because I know kids. There are three of them living in my house as of this minute. And even though they are younger than the skew represented on the television show, they wouldn’t last 20 minutes as a group without parental guidance, assistance and interference.

They require near-constant watering and feeding, for one, and because they don’t know how to work the stove they would subsist solely on cereal and pretzels. Their clothes would within moments be covered in fingerpaints, smooshed Play-Doh and the sticky stuff that seems to emanate from their pores. And because they are… confrontational… with one another, there would surely be a fight, possibly to the death.

And smart money would be on the baby girl.

At any rate, my wife captured the hour-long show on our DVR and I watched it last week. And let me tell you: Henceforth I will not miss an episode.

A school bus drops the little buggers off in a remote part of New Mexico; four team leaders are carted in by helicopter. Get used to that, kiddies – politicians don’t ride the bus.

The leaders are a diverse group, 10-14 years of age, with a nerd (serious Boy Scout Mike), a pageant girl (10-year-old Taylor), a tough Boston Irish redhead (that would be Laurel) and a “genius” (12-year-old Anjay, who won the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2005). Anjay sets the tone.

“Adults have done a horrible job with the world,” he says, in one of those reality-show confessional moments, his tummy likely still rumbling around the peanut butter and jelly sandwich his mother packed for him.

And at this point I’m rubbing my palms together in anticipatory glee. I’m going to enjoy watching these kids break down.

Right off the bus they’ve got to hike a couple of miles to Bonanza City, NM, their little Neverland, towing by hand big carts of supplies. While they’re loading up a bunch of goats get loose and they break most of the eggs. Little spazzes. And 8-year-old Jimmy, the youngest of the bunch, is already crying for his mommy.

Fear sets in when they reach the city.

“I felt sort of weird,” says 9-year-old Alex, “because I thought there would be more adults?”

No dice, kid. It’s Lord of the Flies out here, and you’re the chubby one with the glasses.

It goes on. They can’t find beds. They can’t open cans. They can’t cook pasta. In the dining hall the little whiners are clamoring for food, banging on the tables and such. It’s kids being kids! Which of course means that they don’t fully appreciate cause-and-effect relationships or the effects of time and space on macaroni and cheese.

And instead of having the all-important town meeting, the one that decides where everybody will live and what they will do, they all trot off to beddy-bye, visions of sugarplums and all that.

There’s a lot of crying – Mike the Boy Scout (and, likely, future CEO of a company that makes no product) cries because one of the bigger kids bullied him; Taylor the beauty queen cries because it’s too hard; little Jimmy cries because, let’s face it, he’s a crybaby.

And there is an 11-year-old boy named Jared who gets the quote of the episode when he laments about the town’s single outhouse.

“I hope that I don’t have to take a poo,” he says, “because I am not ever using that thing.”

I love this kid.

By Day 4 the little suckers have managed to put breakfast together (though not to do the dishes. “I’m a beauty queen,” Taylor says. “I don’t do dishes.”). But the big kids are being bullies and the little ones are starting to get scared and Jimmy… the little puke hides behind a wagon and cries his eyes out. “I’m only eight,” he whines. “I think I’m too young to be doing this.”

Okay, okay… I’ll admit I get a bit misty when Jimmy says how much he misses his dad. I’m not made of stone, people.

A contest is staged, the results of which will determine what caste the kids will belong to and what their corresponding pay will be, another little shot of actual reality in the show. And my little Boston Irish Catholic girl takes her team – clad in green, natch – straight to the lowest tier of the fake society, playing out a piece of the tragic history of my people. We always have to start at the bottom.

I’ll be watching this show, not only because it’s other people’s kids suffering, but because it makes a convenient threat to my own kids: “Clean your room or I’ll sell you to CBS.”

And hopefully there will be more moments like the one where the smarmy host had the kids choose between seven new latrines and a television set.

It was like introducing crack into the equation.

For questions or comments email Brian Clarey at