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The Reality Competition Show, Deconstructed

Courtesy of NBC

“Siberia,” the bizarre new series premiering Monday on NBC, is scripted horror drama framed as a reality competition show, which means that it replicates the thumping suspense and quick camera cuts of  “Survivor” and “Fear Factor” and “The Amazing Race" plus supernatural elements a la “Lost” and the mortal stakes of The Hunger Games. (“We don’t want a Lord of the Flies situation on our hands,” says a contestant at one point.)  There is a reliable cast of stock reality TV characters: the spoiled former model, the affable hippie who refuses to play dirty, the computer nerd who twists his ankle within moments of starting the race, the cocky Southerner with a chest like a Buick. Everyone looks impractically glamorous for the Siberian woods, and everyone hates each other with escalating intensity. This is not a good show: At least in the pilot, it is predictable and often dull. But it is oddly mesmerizing as a deconstruction of the reality competition show as a genre. 

The pilot opens with the blindfolded contestants in a helicopter overlooking an ominous forest. Then they are led single file into a dusty field and told by a host with a lantern jaw and boy-band haircut that they are about to participate in “the most extreme adventure ever created in this real life social experiment.” The only way back to civilization is a large red button that summons a helicopter and leads to instant disqualification. The goal, quite simply, is to survive—a feat that will be rewarded with half a million dollars. Nothing much happens in the “Siberia” pilot overall except a decidedly unscary twist at the end. It plays, for the most part, like an actual reality competition show, in which the drama feels elaborately engineered and most of the characters are so awful that you watch in a fog of appalled shock at their bad decisions.

And yet the show is compelling precisely because it is such a persuasive simulacrum: because—knowing as we do that it is actually a scripted horror show—every small reality-show trope takes on new weight and meaning. The terrible narcissism of the hot chick is shaded with dark potential. The handsome Southerner slinks up to the circle of contestants around a campfire and offers, ostensibly as a peace offering, a handful of berries he has picked in the woods; the thought that he might actually poison them is weirdly exciting. The standard reality TV mantra “I’m not here to make friends” has never sounded so menacing. We are told again and again that “there are no rules”—which, of course, is exactly the opposite premise of real competition shows, where rules are what seal the show off into its own synthetic little universe in which the dangled carrot of prize money is the single, consuming goal. “I wish there a couple more rules, honestly,” one character in “Siberia” says feebly.

The show makes the familiar business of the reality competition series seem newly obscene: the project of wringing drama out of adults on obstacle courses, the dubious non-interventionist ethics of producers. But there is nothing self-aware about its approach. “I’ve just realized now that I don’t think the show cares,” says one contestant toward the end of the pilot, when someone has emerged bloodied from the woods and the fun is over. And the strangest part may be that, in the end, watching a reality TV show degenerate into a slasher film elicits basically the same emotional response—a dim voyeuristic thrill—as “Fear Factor” or “Survivor," but with even less frisson. After all, “Siberia” saps the genre of its central drama: wondering what is scripted and what is real.

Follow @lbennett.