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Looking Back on the Mesmerizing and Disturbing Kids' Version of 'Survivor'

On the ten year anniversary of "Kid Nation," we look back at how the bizarre and short-lived show proved that a group of 40 young children might be better fit to rule than adults.

Lauren Rearick

Photo by CBS via Wikimedia Commons

Ten years ago, a group of young pioneers tried to build their own society. They came from all over the United States, pulling into a desolate desert town on a yellow school bus. Viewers watched as the first—and what would be the last—cast of 40 children attempted to found their very own Kid Nation.

A network counterpart to Survivor, Kid Nation featured a cast of kids ages 8 to 15 left to their own devices in the desert ghost town of Bonanza City, New Mexico, for 40 days. These youngsters had one goal: to prove they could build a functioning society without any adult supervision. Aside from the production crew, the only adult on the show was Jonathan, the lovable host who proved a little too eager in his duties to crush the kids' spirits. Sadly, like any show that might draw comparisons to Lord of the Flies, the world was only graced with one season of Kid Nation. Though it didn't seem to catch on, the show proves to be the best of reality television ten years later.

Denizens of Bonanza City were divided into four groups, and each group had a pre-selected leader who was a member of the "town council." Luckily for these leaders, they're presented with a prop book called "The Pioneer Journal," said to be from 1854 despite remaining in perfect condition. The prop gives a detailed account of the "history" of Bonanza City, as well as recommendations on what changes should be made for future inhabitants to succeed. Each episode is loosely based around the journal's instructions and the kids' response. From implementing a curfew to establishing a religious service, the prop journal provides a limited sense of structure in an otherwise chaotic atmosphere.

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It's immediately clear that Kid Nation is essentially an endless series of adolescent mishaps. Minutes into the first episode, the children accidentally let a herd of goats loose and are forced to chase them until Bonanza City's oldest citizen, 15-year-old Greg, wrangles the animals back into their stables. Once that hurdle is clear, the children push their luggage on wagons through mud, causing 8-year-old Jimmy to erupt into tears and declare that this is "no fun at all." Meanwhile, 14-year-old D.K. suffers a muscle spasm and falls to the ground clutching his ankle. Thankfully, a group of 8- to 10-year-olds are on hand to offer their professional medical opinions.

According to one contestant named Michael, adults on the production crew would have stepped in for any emergencies, but for the most part, all actions were dictated by the children. Bonanza City came equipped with a shop and saloon, as well as a pre-stocked kitchen containing dry items like oatmeal or macaroni and cheese. But the children were responsible for butchering any live animals like the chickens they beheaded, which upset 9-year-old Emilie so much she decided to go home. If you're wondering how chaotic a group of self-governing children can get, they nearly mistake a bar of soap for a stick of butter while cooking. Whether the children are cooking, cleaning, or running Bonanza City shops is determined by their class rankings earned in physical challenges called showdowns.

Kids would compete in challenges like obstacle courses to determine their roles and prizes: First place is rewarded one buffalo dollar and the privilege of doing no work, second place is rewarded 10 buffalo nickels and assigned the job of merchant, third place is rewarded five buffalo nickels and also assigned the role of merchant, while last place receives two buffalo nickels and assigned the job of laborer.

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Watching a group of children compete in physical challenges is amusing, but it's the showdown conclusions that prove the most entertaining. If each group can complete the challenge within a given time frame, the children are able to pick between two prizes for the city (one being practical and the other being fun), like choosing between a hot pizza and microwave versus more outhouses and a television. Usually, the kids make the more practical choice, although they do opt for an arcade over a library.

Despite all the hijinks, the children generally succeed in proving that a Kid Nation is possible. The show provides a glimpse of the innocent and sometimes beautiful result of allowing children to speak their minds and build a world on their own terms, and serves as a reminder to "grown-ups" that we should be more like the citizens of Kid Nation: quick to come together and make new friends.