As if so-called “Reality” shows weren’t already staged and scripted enough, we now have a burgeoning genre of outright fake, totally fictional Reality programs. ABC tried this gambit last year with the “found footage” mystery ‘The River’, and despite the failure of that show, NBC takes things a step even further with its new summer series, ‘Siberia’.
‘Siberia’ is presented as a Reality Competition show, and commits so fully to the premise that an unsuspecting viewer would be forgiven for mistaking it for a lame ‘Survivor’ clone. Everything about the pilot episode looks like a genuine Reality show, from the way it’s shot and edited, to the cheesy Australian host and the many confessional cutaway interviews. The episode opens with a perfect parody of the ‘Survivor’ credits, and takes at least 45 minutes before dropping any serious clues that something might be amiss on the set.
The gimmick is this: A large cast contestants from a diverse assortment of backgrounds (among them a model, a nerdy computer programmer, a bartender, a fashion designer, a DJ, a veterinary assistant and a super-hot Icelandic journalist) are dropped off in the middle of the Siberian wilderness and directed toward a pair of cabins said to be the location of a fur-trading settlement that was inexplicably abandoned in 1908. They’re left with only basic tools that the original settlers would have had, and told that they must work together in this “real life social experiment” to survive the coming winter. Occasionally, a mystery cabinet called “The Revealer” will sound an alarm and provide them with clues to help them overcome challenges. (The first clue is to look for mushrooms to eat.) Beyond that, the show has only one rule: If a contestant wants to give up, he or she should go to a designated Safe Zone and push a red button, which means that they’ve officially forfeited the game and will be taken home. However many contestants make it to the end of winter without quitting will divide up a $500,000 cash prize.
Right off the bat, two contestants are eliminated for getting lost and being last to arrive at the camp. They’re told that they’ll be sent home. (But will they??) Over the course of the episode, we’re introduced to the rest of the contestants and learn a little about their personalities. The rugby player quickly takes a leadership role, while an arrogant rodeo rider named Johnny sets himself up as the “I’m not here to make friends” villain who won’t help anyone do anything and will take any opportunity to stab the others in the back.
Typical Reality Competition contrivances generate some expected conflict. The producers have intentionally not provided enough beds to fit everyone, which leads to bickering about who will sleep on the floor. While the others struggle to build a fire by rubbing sticks together, Johnny reveals in his confessional that he stashed a lighter in his boot but has no intention of telling anyone.
But then, slowly, things start getting strange. One of the contestants finds a mutant three-legged frog. Two others locate a locked shed deep in the woods and decide not to tell the rest of the group. Weird, scary noises emanate from the woods at night. After one player, an environmental activist hippie named Tommy, goes missing while searching for mushrooms, the cameraman who’d been following him runs back to camp with a bloody head wound, muttering “I saw them” in Russian. He’s quickly rushed away by the rest of the crew, who start acting secretive and won’t tell the cast what happened. Later, the host arrives to inform them that an accident has occurred and Tommy has died. He leaves it to them to decide if they want to continue on with the show or scuttle the whole thing.
In the final scene, we in the audience (but not the contestants) are shown the cameraman’s footage, which suggests that they were attacked by someone or something. Could it be a Smoke Monster, perhaps? Some of the comparisons to ‘Lost’ are less than subtle.
For all that, how is the show? I haven’t decided. I think the ‘Pilot’ episode tries so hard and goes so far to establish its fake Reality program conceit that it almost loses track of the fact that it’s supposed to have a deeper story buried in there. It’s too convincing and takes too long to finally break the fourth wall. On the other hand, at least so far, the characters aren’t anywhere near as annoying or stupid as those in ‘The River’, and the mystery aspect has me a little bit intrigued. The scenes from upcoming episodes look promising. I’ll give this at least one more episode to see if it hooks me.