Screen Savors: Kids matter

Children fend for themselves without adult supervision in Kid Nation. But is it good for the Jews?

kid nation 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
kid nation 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
'Next week, you kids are going to do ALL the work around here!" Now there's a declaration that's been made in my house plenty of times. And for those parents who've always wanted to see how their children would survive if they had to do everything on their own, Kid Nation is for you. "40 Kids! 40 Days! No adults!" proclaims the opening of the CBS-created reality show now airing on - where else - HOT's new Family Channel. Think Survivor, but with smaller and sometimes whinier contestants. Actually, the idea for the series - similar to the novel Lord of the Flies, where a group of children fend for themselves after being marooned on an island - isn't so bad. 40 children, aged 8 to 15, were brought to the Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch, built on the ruins of Bonanza City, New Mexico "to build a world of their own." Think of it as a very long time-out. Divided into four teams - like in color war - each group was then assigned their social status, Upper Class, Merchants, Cooks and Laborers. Weekly contests determined whether you could go from Cook to Upper Class in a week, or vice versa. See under Bernie Madoff. All kinds of controversy swirled around the CBS show, including laws regarding the age of participants. But the episode I caught proved one important point that any adult already knows: It's hard to get people to come to religious services in the morning. Jewish issues featured prominently in this particular episode, from Jared, who told a friend that "back at my school, people said bad things about me because I'm a Jew," to Zach, a leader of the yellow team, who emerged as the man most likely to head Bonanza City's synagogue men's club, should they build one. Besides shots of the kids huddled against the cold or doing a variety of dirty jobs - while the Upper Class partied in the bar - a new challenge was presented in the "Journal," meant to be writings left over from the original town. "You need to feed your soul," it read. Heeding the advice, the town council, comprised of four kids, held a vote on whether to have several different services or just one. While everyone agreed on just one, when the time came for minyan, nobody showed and the cameras focused on the dark clouds hanging over the town. Maybe they should've served breakfast. While Zach, a nice Jewish boy from Florida, was first seen badmouthing religion ("Religion is most of the things that start wars"), he soon came around, as predictably as the rest of the kids did. Morgan, a multi-racial girl, made religion more intuitive, inviting the kids to share a few prayers around a campfire. Almost everyone came, including our man Zach, who belted out Adon Olam. "Thank you for friends because without friends, we'd never be able to get through any of this," he said as church-like organ music played. Get that kid a presidential bid. At least he was a candidate for a weekly $20,000 Gold Star awarded to whoever made the biggest difference in the community each week. Needing some kind of physical challenge for the kids in the spirit of religion and Survivor, host Jonathan Karsh had them raise a steeple made of puzzle pieces, leading to a reward for them all: a choice between a mini-golf range and a set of holy books. "To me those books are truly important. If you don't make the right choice, this town will fail just like it did in the 1880s," says Zach. Big surprise (not), the holy books win and Zach is shown studying Genesis with a non-Jewish kid. Still, what hope is there for a town where the only thing to aspire to is membership in the Upper Class? Ultimately, Zach didn't win the Gold Star this time. The stress here is on multiculturalism and everyone pitching in. So, Morgan got it. That's what's so annoying about the show. The bold format stays within predictable lines, so we ignore the fact that these kids are being exploited in a reality show that might leave some permanent scars - as one professor of pediatrics said. The plague known as bad ratings eventually sent the population of Bonanza City home, but we still have our hopes pinned on Zach, who does win a Gold Star in a later episode. While Kid Nation proved unworkable, he's got the gift and might one day be the Jewish Obama. Kid Nation airs on HOT Family Monday nights at 8:15 p.m.