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Bonanza City, revisited: The pioneers of Kid Nation remember the controversial reality show

Bonanza City, revisited: The pioneers of <i>Kid Nation </i>remember the controversial reality show
Graphic: Natalie Peeples, Photo: Bettman (Getty Images)
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What do you get when you take forty kids, ages 8 through 15, and leave them in the middle of the desert to fend for themselves? The answer, of course, is the 2007 CBS show Kid Nation. In the realm of reality television, there has never been a series quite as bonkers as this one, in which school-aged pioneers were left to create a viable society on the sets of the Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch, the Butch Cassidy and Lonesome Dove shooting location built on the site of actual frontier ghost town Bonanza City. The premise, questionable in itself, was extremely Lord Of The Flies, with the cast divided into factions and vying for power.

Canceled after one low-rated season, the series was plagued by controversy before it even aired. A five-minute sizzle reel prompted calls for CBS to pull Kid Nation from its fall schedule and for viewers to boycott the show for blurring the lines between “entertainment and exploitation.” Reviews were generally negative, from the Chicago Tribune calling Kid Nation “pretty sedate, if not a bit bland” to the Boston Globe’s scathing note: “There is just something grotesque and creepy about seeing children being deployed on reality TV, a genre that we all know thrives on conflict, tears, humiliation, and exhibitionism.”

And certainly, tears were very much a part of Kid Nation, with a different kid crying on air nearly every week. But according to the citizens of Bonanza City, it wasn’t all bad.

“My experience on the show was the ultimate best experience of my life,” Laurel McGoff recently told The A.V. Club. “It was really the most memorable part of my childhood.”

McGoff, who was 12 at the time, was a member of the original “Town Council,” a unit of four kids chosen by the producers to make important decisions. At the end of each week, the Town Council would be charged with awarding one “solid gold star” worth $20,000. Eventually, teams were organized, with each member of the town council in charge of their own “district,” divided by color: blue, red, green, and yellow. A challenge or competition ensued each week, and the districts were further divided into social classes. First place was the upper class, followed by the merchants, then the cooks, and finally, the laborers. The upper class was paid the most and had to do no work, while the laborers were paid the least and put in charge of tasks like cleaning the bathrooms. The “money” they earned in Bonanza City could then be spent on goods and products in the town store.

Although the show made it seem as though the kids were on their own—save for the camera crew and the host—and fending for themselves in the middle of nowhere, that wasn’t actually the case.

Said McGoff: “I would say within the whole set, there were 200-plus adults there at all times”—including camera crew, producers, psychologists, student counselors, and doctors. “For every five kids, they had one [what I’d call] a camp counselor—that [the kids] could report to if they had any issues or problems. It’s CBS. They’re not signing up for that liability of kids getting hurt or something happening.”

Not that everything went smoothly. In one infamous, unaired incident, several of the kids accidentally drank bleach, the most publicized of whom was DK, age 14.

“They used to have this saloon in there,” said Anjay Ajodha, an original Town Council leader who now works for Microsoft in Seattle. “And there was seltzer water, and there was flavor that you could use to make sodas, and lemon flavoring looks a lot like chlorine bleach when it’s out of the bottle, and so from what I understand, [DK] grabbed the wrong glass.”

DK was checked out by doctors and returned safely and in “good spirits,” according to Ajodha, but that wasn’t the only incident of child negligence on set. In one episode, Ajodha said, “I’d gotten really dehydrated from hiking the town and had to go to the EMS because I was throwing up.” Ajodha described how the emergency was manipulated for air: “There’s actually a scene where the three other council members are meeting, and they ask where Anjay is, and it cuts to me sleeping. It wasn’t because I was lazy.” On the contrary, the 12-year-old was recovering.

“We weren’t abused,” Ajodha said. “We weren’t hurt in any way. But it was definitely a lot more exploitative than I remember it being back then. The thing is, we weren’t fully formed people. We were kids.”

In one moment in the series premiere, two of the older kids, Greg, 15, and Blaine, 14, get a hold of some blue spray paint and begin tagging the town, leaving the word “BLUE” everywhere out of loyalty to the Blue District. According to Ajodha, the spray paint was handed to Greg and Blaine by the producers, who gave them the idea in the first place.

“Things like that were shown, and things were edited to play up certain [events] that I didn’t realize were happening when we were being filmed,” said Ajodha. “So you learn about how your words can get cut, misused, reused, and changed to make a story that you didn’t think was possible.”

Re-watching the show, various archetypes emerge: hero, villain, nerd, bully, bratty rich girl, hippie peacemaker, etc.—the sort that might be found in an ’80s teen movie or a more conventional primetime reality competition, but in this case projected onto young children. Ajodha, who was cast on the show because he was the then-youngest person to ever compete in the National Spelling Bee, says of his casting, “I’m sure there was an element of ‘Oh my God, we found a brown nerd. We can put him on TV and typecast him so hard.’ I mean, I had a bowl cut and transition lenses. I didn’t really have a chance at not being typecast.”

When Kid Nation participant Michael Thot did a Reddit AMA in 2014, he expressed a similar sentiment:

They contacted the Seattle music camp I used to [attend] in an effort to find the long-haired-hippie-from-the-[Northwest] kid. I guess I fit that role exceedingly well. I kept telling them I didn’t care if I got on the show, and they should give it to someone that cared more, but they said that attitude is exactly why they chose me.

With those stock characters in place, viewers found sides to choose and stakes to take in onscreen feuds. The show was set up for the audience to absolutely hate certain kids, like Taylor, the 10-year-old beauty queen who refused to do dishes, or Olivia Cloer, who ran against Anjay in the Town Council election and accused him of doing a bad job for their district. Viewers had to constantly remind themselves that these are children, their words and actions manipulated to appear a certain way for television.

Answering a few questions over email, Cloer stated, “Ironically enough, I was bullied a lot before I went on the show, so the fact that the show portrays me as a bully was shocking for me as a kid. The thing about reality TV is that they only show the footage of you that’s consistent with what they want the audience to believe about you. They wanted to make me a villain, so they showed all of my worst moments and very few of my good ones. There are still thousands of people who have never met me, but they claim to hate me. People have posted death threats and rape threats directed towards me. I was a child.” She was only 12 years old when she appeared on the show with her younger sister Mallory, who she spent much of the series looking after and trying to protect.

“I actually went back and looked at the comments that people live blogged [as] the series went on,” Ajodha said. “There’d be reviews about how things would go and stuff, and the things people would say about children were just horrifying.”

Though Kid Nation pitted Ajodha and Cloer against one another—with the producers fueling the fire of their feud—the two remain friends. “We started communicating a few months after the show aired,” Ajodha said. “We’ve been talking ever since, checking in, saying hi here and there.”

“[Anjay]’s my closest friend from the show,” Cloer wrote, “which is hilarious because most of the fans think we hate each other. But we’ve been friends for almost 13 years now.”

McGoff, too, said she keeps in touch with others from the show, following one another on social media and keeping up with their life updates. “Anjay and I have actually formed a pretty good friendship over the years,” she said. “If I ever get married, I’ll invite some of them. You can’t break a bond like that.”

One of the most remarkable aspects of Kid Nation involved the tough conversations that the producers incited throughout the series. In each episode, the Town Council would read from a “journal,” allegedly from the 1800s, which introduced a new topic of discourse or conflict to the town. In one episode, the kids discussed religion and religious service, with some kids no doubt echoing the words of their parents and absolutely refusing to learn about other religions, while other kids proved themselves to be more open-minded. According to McGoff, there is also a whole unaired episode, deemed too controversial, in which the kids discussed politics.

“It was the height of the Bush administration, the Iraq War,” McGoff said. “Obama was just sort of starting to make his speeches, and everybody had all these different opinions, and religion played into it a lot, and there were some real arguments.”

In many ways, Kid Nation was a microcosm of the United States: a miniature capitalist society with all of the inequity, turmoil, and political division of the real world. According to Thot’s Reddit AMA, there were even “hook-ups,” as some of the kids were teenagers, after all. Essentially, it was a social experiment with children, staged for a broadcast television network.

Could a show like Kid Nation get picked up in 2020? The 12 broadcast seasons that have passed since the series finale have brought more and more kid-centric programming to the unscripted realm, though they’ve largely been “junior” variations on established competition shows or series in the vein of Kids Say The Darnedest Things: A Tiffany Haddish-fronted take on that old Art Linkletter hit, as well as Little Big Shots or Child Genius. But while the MasterChef kitchen and the Project Runway workroom might pose to tiny hands and still-developing-motor skills, we’re unlikely to see anything with the amount of liabilities and potential lawsuits posed by Kid Nation. As Olivia Cloer, who is now writing a book about her experience, says: “I can’t believe they ever got this show aired.”

One Season Wonder, Weirdo, or Wannabe? An absolute wonder.