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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Kid Nation: Money Changes Everything
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We are mid-way through Kid Nation, having survived "Day 20"". Whew! Never thought they'd make it this far. The audience that is, not the kids.

The day began with the industrious Divad deciding that she needed more money to buy...uh...more soda?! So she took the food from the kitchen, (food that is otherwise available and free for all the kids) and set-up a "snack bar" selling food "repackaged" for a mere five or ten cents. And while that may seem like a small price to pay for canned apples on a stick ("All you can eat"!) it is a small fortune in Bonanza City.

Some applauded her ingenuity, others were disgusted that she would take their food and sell it back to them. Jared, leader of the disgusted group, destroyed the snack bar in a fit of anger. Divad, trying to maintain decorum and demonstrate calm in the face of adversity, rebuilt. There were several references to Bill Gates, presumably a nod toward invention and genius, but it was a bit of a stretch in this context. The development of the personal computer v. apple kabobs.

But there was some good news in all of this. The Journal, that wise book of guidance and coincidence, just happened to offer an entry that dealt with money. Those pioneers of old really did have a handle on the future!

The Council found a treasure map in the Journal, followed it and found a cave full of bats and quarters. $18.50 in nickels is like striking gold. And so the Council deliberated on the fate of these new funds, ultimately deciding to use the money to purchase items that everyone could use. This turned out to be a very popular decision.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Sophia decided to see how far kids would go for money so she devised a disgusting little challenge. She took fifty cents and dropped it into a large bucket and then filled the bucket with garbage and food and slop and rotted vegetables and condensed milk and canned beans. She gathered the townsfolk and told them that they could have the money if they dug down for it with their bare hands. Initial reluctance gave way to repulsive foraging. All for Sophia's amusement. An odd sidebar to the evening.

The Council returned from the bat cave and presented the group with guitars and sports equipment and all the kids cheered and began to play together. This was the first moment of the entire, ridiculous, seemingly endless season where the kids really seemed like...well...kids. And it was refreshing. They were having fun! What a concept.

All the while, there was a new kind of conversation taking place about the coveted Gold Star. Kids were beginning to lobby for votes, hoping to prove their worthiness by doing extra dishes or being especially nice. The Council, to its credit, held the group to a higher standard and insisted ultimately that the reward be given to someone who simply did his work and did not have to tell everyone about it.

There was also the usual "forced drama" of two kids for whom there was palpable tension, in this case Greg, the oldest kid and often the bully, and Nathan, a shy boy, home schooled and ever so slightly obsessed with clean dishes. In a final scene between the two of them, entirely trumped up for effect and not terribly effective, Greg held out an olive branch and then recommended Nathan for the Gold Star. One might think out of guilt, but others agreed and Nathan won the star.

The evening's group "showdown" is not worthy of a paragraph; suffice it to say that raw eggs were catapulted over a fence and had to be caught in a large pillow. The reward was a choice between a laundromat, coin-operated (hmmm...there must be electricity!) or hand crank pioneer-vintage laundry machines and lots of new clothes for everyone. The Council quickly and unanimously chose the free stuff and everyone was thrilled. And in clean clothes for the first time in weeks.

The only other item of note in what was a terribly disjointed evening was that Jared, the one who overturned the snack bar early on in the episode, set up his own souvenir shop and sold Bonanza City necklaces that he made by burnishing writing onto small pieces of wood. These sold like hot cakes and soon the kids were calling him "The Bill Gates of Bonanza City". Sorry Bill, but at least it's not skewered apples.

We found ourselves asking what was the point of this boring, patchwork episode? Seems the point is Money Changes Everything. And Everyone. Another startling revelation brought to you by those wonderful folks who think eating bugs is entertainment! The kids who lobbied for the star were roundly dismissed as only caring about the money, not really caring about the community. The message from the Council was clear: no amount of "sucking-up" would earn you a star. Even if you worked incredibly hard. You have to be a kind person, nice to others, and genuinely contribute to the community. Evidenced by Nathan who won the star by keeping his head down, working hard all the time, and not demanding anything for it. This Council seems to care more about a person's genuine contribution than an outward attempt to impress. Which while admirable and surprising, poses a few questions:

If the show is designed to culminate each week in the awarding of a $20,000 gold star, why is it a bad thing to want to earn it? The producers have set these kids up for a struggle about money and once again not given them the tools to really address it. This is reflected in the confusion that erupts when kids try to discern what exactly is ideal behavior, balancing the desire to be a good citizen, worthy of reward, against the backdrop of a structured capitalist setting.

What's wrong with financial motivation, if as a result, the work gets done and done well? And why wouldn't kids who are in an environment of extreme deprivation, where everything is structured around earning a few cents, want to grab at the chance for that grand prize? Remember, the caste system is alive and well in Bonanza City, and it's based entirely on rewarding those who do the least amount of work.

The good news: the Council seems to be a tight, well-oiled machine, working together, often finding an easy consensus, and they are popular as much for their leadership as for their decisions. Taylor has been fairly silenced, which is not only a relief to the kids, it's a blessed relief for the audience.

This week in Bonanza City had much less to do with safety and wellness, the two things we care most about at Safety4Kids, and more to do with commerce and industry. But in the end, this show is still a frightful demonstration of manipulation and contrivance. It teaches very little and exploits a lot. And we still are left wondering about the aftermath. When these kids go home, and re-enter their real worlds, what have they learned and at what cost? Sure they'll be fed and cleaned (could take days) and clothed. But what about the internal issues and the emotional repercussions?

What they have learned in Bonanza City, so far, exactly replicates the world beyond those dusty gates. Money is power. The "losers" do all the scut work. The ones in charge make all the decisions. And in-fighting and resentment are a natural outcome. Nothing much new here. And it's certainly not what we were promised when all we heard about was a better world created by kids.

We suspect that the residuals these kids will receive will be more about dealing with their newfound confusion about life than any financial renumeration.

(c) John Sfondilias. Image from BigStockPhoto.com

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Posted by: Nancy Davis, Safety4Kids at 11/01/2007 06:02:00 AM

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