An interview with host Jonathan Karsh
The most pleasant surprise of the TV season to date has to be the CBS reality show “Kid Nation” (8 p.m., Wednesdays). Not because it turned out to be safe for the 40 kids involved — despite all the pre-debut hand-wringing, how could anyone seriously think CBS would endanger children? — but because it’s been fun to watch these 8- to 15-year-olds try to work together for the common good.
The show brought together kids from all over the country, plunked them in the middle of Bonanza City, an abandoned town in New Mexico that looks like a movie set, and gave them the run of the place for 40 days. For 11 weeks (Wednesday night, Dec. 5, is episode 12 and next Wednesday, Dec. 12, is the season finale), viewers have watched them attempt to govern each other, do the work needed to keep the town running, compete, fight, grapple with their differences, console each other and ultimately dole out gold stars worth $20,000 to those who have lived up to the highest ideals. The show introduced us to a number of kids you’d be proud to have raised and a few who’ve made really good reality-show villains.
Jonathan Karsh, who hosts “Kid Nation” — meaning he’s on camera to oversee the kids’ reward challenges and observe their town council meetings — said he’s been fascinated to watch the kids in action. And the best is yet to come, he said. This week will show what happens when Sophia, who describes herself as a “30-year-old trapped in the body of a 14-year-old,” takes over as town sheriff. And in the finale, he promises “an incredible surprise for these kids that will blow them all away — much more than a $20,000 gold star giveaway.”
In a telephone interview, Karsh talked about the show, which is now casting for a second season (though it hasn’t been officially picked up yet), the kids and more.
NUVO: At TV press tour this summer, there was a lot of hand-wringing about this show — about the danger of leaving kids unsupervised, making them work too many hours, etc. And none of the fears came true.
KARSH: We knew at press tour that if you watched the episodes and stick through the season, you would give up this fight against the show. There’s nothing to rail against. It’s just very interesting to watch these kids and how they interact, compete for the gold star, compete in the showdowns, motivate each other to work and get to know each other. So it was nice when the show started airing and people started to pay attention to the kids and not the concept.
NUVO: Should they have previewed the first episode for critics? Was that an error?
KARSH: I don’t think so. I think it’s good to hold out for a big, explosive premiere. We were excited to show it. We just wanted it to be the right time. We wanted to do it on the premiere night and show America what these kids are all about.
NUVO: Some of the concern was about how the kids would deal with how they’re portrayed on the show. Most of the kids come across really well. The one exception might be Taylor. How hard has that been to deal with? Clearly, you don’t want this kid to go home and be treated like a pariah.
KARSH: I remember running into her at a press event when the show was first getting off the ground and just the trailer was out. She said, “It’s so funny seeing me in that little clip refusing to do the dishes and saying I’m a pageant queen. I don’t even remember saying that.” And she thought it was funny. So that’s all I can go off of. I’m assuming she still has that attitude where she walks in and says, “Hi, I don’t remember doing that, but that’s kind of funny.” I don’t know if it sinks in with her the way it would with an adult.
NUVO: Did Bonanza City develop the way you expected it?
KARSH: Not really. I didn’t think these kids would be up for the challenge. We’re coming up on episode 12 and 37 of the 40 kids are there. When it started, we asked all the questions the critics asked: Is this going to be too tough? Can kids really handle it? Are we putting them through a social experiment that’s too much for a 9- or 10-year-old? We knew it was safe; that was a given. But challenging them on religion, politics, education, economics, pollution — all these issues adults face — are they going to want to be there or are they just going to want to go home to their iPods? It turned out they wanted to be there. And here we are, with 37 of the 40 committed to making the town work. And a lot of them wished they could stay longer. That was really surprising.
NUVO: And it took 11 episodes before they picked a reward that wasn’t the best thing for them. (In Episode 11, given the choice between a town library and an arcade, the town council chose exactly what you’d expect.)
KARSH: Every week the town council picked the responsible choice — until the teenagers got into office. Now that these four older guys are in office, they’re going for the fun stuff. I don’t want to say the arcade is the demise of Bonanza City, because Sophia does take charge in the next episode as town sheriff. Thank goodness. But it caused a whole lot of problems. There were meals to be made for 40 kids and when your cooking crew is in there playing air hockey, kids starve. So there are some real consequences to being in there all day.
NUVO: The gold star ceremonies always make me choke up. Those are such incredibly sweet moments, and the kids are so excited.
KARSH: What’s amazing about it is some of the kids understand just how much money that is, but a lot of the kids just want that phone call home. So they will work really hard to try to impress the council just to get to the phone to call their parents. And they say to them, “And, oh yeah, I also won $20,000.” They don’t quite process what that means. In the finale episode, there are much greater than $20,000 gold stars. It’s a huge money prize these kids are going to have a chance to win, and it’s amazing to see what it means to a 14-year-old kid or a 12-year-old kid.
NUVO: Did this experience make you more optimistic about kids?
KARSH: Oh, yeah. When you look at a girl like Laurel, a 12-year-old girl, who’s so maternal and so wise beyond her years. Or Morgan. Or Sophia. These kids are so together at such a young age. You hear what’s happening to this generation — they’re the MySpace generation, they’re not well read, they don’t care about school. And the truth is, if these kids are a representation of the rest of the kids in America, the future’s going to be fine.