And so it begins. Thirty-six kids, ranging in age from eight to fifteen, get dropped off in the middle of the New Mexico desert. The grown-up host, Jonathan, then introduces them to the four members of their "town council," who arrive by helicopter: Taylor, 10; Mike, 11; and Anjay and Laurel, both 12. Before sending them all down several miles of dirt track to Bonanza City, Jonathan takes the council members aside and tells them they'll be awarding a "Gold Star" to one of the other kids at their first Town Hall meeting in a few days. This, mind you, is not some sticky little piece of foil, but an actual gold star worth $20,000. And then he cuts all the kids loose to find the town on their own. By the time they get there, unload the stuff, find places to sleep, and come up with dinner, everyone's too exhausted to have the meeting that Mike wants.
The meeting takes place the next morning instead, and it doesn't go well; Mike feels threatened by fifteen-year-old Greg's attempts to help him gain control of the chaos, and Greg storms out. And then fourteen-year-old Michael makes an inspirational speech that brings everyone together and makes him a front-runner for the Gold Star. The council members learn that they'll each be leading a different-colored "district," whose members they get to pick. Which they do.
Day 3 is all about a "showdown," in which the four districts compete with pumps and water bottles to determine which group will have which job (and which salary). Mike's red district wins, which means his group gets to be the "upper class," with a dollar salary. Despite having bigger and older kids, Anjay's blue district comes in second and gets to be "merchants," with a fifty-cent salary. Taylor and her yellow district are the "cooks" at ten cents each, and Laurel's green district are "laborers," meaning they get five cents each for stuff like scrubbing the one toilet that's shared by forty kids. But since everyone finished the showdown in under an hour, they get to choose between seven more outhouses and...a TV. The council picks the outhouses, to general approval. And then the kids all go shopping in the stores with their money. Fourteen-year-old Sophia wants to buy a bicycle, so she decides to earn the money she needs by dancing in the middle of the street. Which actually works, because plenty of the other kids are willing to pay to make her stop.
During Day 4, Jonathan presides over the first town hall meeting. Sophia, who was another Gold Star front-runner for running the kitchen at first (before getting demoted to "laborer," that is), challenges the council and the yellow district for not doing the dishes. Michael makes another big speech that makes it look like his Gold Star's in the bag. Then, instead of an elimination, Jonathan asks if anyone wants to go home voluntarily. Taylor, who has been on the fence all along, decides to stick it out. But Jimmy, the youngest at eight years old, bails out like he's been planning to do. And then the council presents the Gold Star to Sophia. The whole Gold Star thing is news to everyone else, and the fact that it's worth twenty grand seems to motivate everyone to do better from now on. And then Sophia gets to go call her mom to break the news that college just got easier to pay for. And she even has a bike to ride when she's there, too!
Yeah, I know. Seems like quite a lot of structure to impose on a bunch of kids who were supposed to create their own society, doesn't it?
So, on this show that's all about kids, the first person we see is...an adult. He's Jonathan Karsh, who's going to be the host/camp counselor for this little experiment. He walks around what looks like an abandoned movie set, but it's actually Bonanza City, New Mexico, an old ghost town. He tells us that the town already failed once, but now some new pioneers are on their way to make it work. And you'll never believe this: they're all kids! Whoa! Kids? What kind of show is this?
On board the yellow school bus (of course) carrying most of the kids, the very first one we meet is Jimmy, from New Hampshire. He's eight. Eight. Jeez Louise (I can't bring myself to curse yet with all these kids around). He thinks he's going to die out there. He may be onto something. Mallory, also eight and from Indiana, has reservations of her own, although she's glad to have her mute sister Olivia along. Jared is from Georgia, and yet he reminds me of a cross between Jonathan Lipnicki and Seth Green in Can't Buy Me Love as he borscht-belts about his fear of catching a disease or breaking a leg. Jared strikes me as your basic, weird, spazzy eight-year-old, which is kind of a shame, because he's eleven. Jonathan tells us there are no parents, no teachers, and the leaders are kids, too. "It's the first ever Kid Nation." Wait, you mean there are going to be more?
The title sequence is all inspirational-like, with kids doing stuff together and waving a big flag, but it's short, and there aren't any names in it. There are forty of them, what do you want?
Jonathan stands by the side of a dirt road, near a corral full of goats and a bunch of parked wooden wagons. The school bus stops there. The kids all pile off with all their stuff, and the school bus takes off, so they're stuck now. They gather in front of Jonathan, who welcomes them to the middle of nowhere. He says Bonanza City is a few miles down the road, and they'll be there for forty days. But not to worry, they have each other (they're doomed). Jonathan also says that four leaders have been chosen for them, although he doesn't really explain the criteria for their selection.
Right on cue, a big white helicopter swoops in over the horizon and sets down, disgorging Mike (eleven, a Boy Scout from Washington with glasses and a black cowboy hat), Taylor (a ten-year-old "pageant queen" from Georgia who still needs a bit of work on her "world peace" speech), Anjay (twelve, a bowl-cut spelling bee champ and Texan of Indian descent who can only think of three adults -- Washington, Franklin, and Gandhi -- who have done a good job with the world), and Laurel (at twelve, a "respected student leader" from Massachusetts, as if her Boston accent didn't give that away). Jonathan tells the rest of the kids that these four are in charge, and the rank and file clearly have their doubts. But that will have to wait. Jonathan points to the big, old-fashioned wooden wagons filled with supplies, which they'll have to pull the "few" miles to Bonanza City from here. He says they're in for a tough time, but there'll be a Town Hall Meeting in a few days where any of them can decide to quit and go home. "Pioneers! Are you ready!" Mike yells, and Jonathan cuts them loose. The kids rush to the wagons like it's a race, because kids are excitable and, more importantly, gullible. They start loading up and rounding up the goats. One of the human kids lassos a goat kid, which is really kind of impressive. Not as impressive as the reverse would have been, mind you. "In Chicago, nothing like this has ever, ever, happened to me before, ever," says DK, fourteen, as he walks down the dirt road leading a goat on a rope. Yeah, there aren't many dirt roads in Chicago.