At times, NBC’s Siberia feels eerily like a real reality show. From the good but not great camera angels to the bitchy, abbreviated interview clips to the glitzy opening montage, painstaking work has clearly been put into the production to make it feel as authentic as possible. That helps to lend the show a fair amount of credibility, but it also saddles the scripted effort with all the typical reality competition problems.
Because of the way they’re formatted, it is damn near impossible to make a first episode of certain reality competitions compelling. With somewhere between ten and twenty contestants to introduce (this one has sixteen) and only an hour to do it, there’s no good way to make any of the individual players memorable without skewing the runtime toward just a few. Unfortunately, when a show decides to do that, it often tips its hand to viewers as to who the few people with a legitimate chance of going home right off the bat are. It’s not a matter of execution. It’s just a matter of being inhibited by the rules of the game and because Siberia wants to feel like Survivor, Big Brother or Amazing Race, it has to format itself accordingly. Consequently, a strong case could be made that only a smattering of the characters (yes, they are characters) on this fake reality show shine during the introductory episode, but luckily, as with all reality shows, real or fake, this one should start losing players soon.
While the rules of Siberia are there aren’t any rules, there technically are a few we were introduced to this week. Sixteen random strangers from around the world were dropped into the Siberian wilderness together and told to follow the red flags to an exact replica of a century old camp. The first fourteen to arrive will be living there for the winter, and any of those fourteen who make it through without quitting will split a large pool of money. It all sounds about ten percent too ridiculous to be believed, but then again, if it wasn’t, NBC could have just actually turned this premise into a real reality show.
Of course, Siberia’s introductory episode features its share of catty personality conflicts and comical attempts to implement survival skills, but the real pull is the larger mystery afoot. The original camp this one was modeled from was lived in by fourteen settlers who up and vanished. How? Why? No one quite knows, and there are reasons to think history may repeat itself. By the end of the first episode, something goes terribly wrong, and the players are forced to decide whether to take a fraction of that promised money or hold out in hopes of grabbing a life-altering chunk of change.
Like every other reality show, spoof of a reality show or fictionalized version of a reality show, Siberia can’t be properly judged by its first episode. The genre's best moments always come well into seasons. They come after a steady stream of eliminations has raised the stakes and after viewers actually have a good grasp of the remaining players' personalities. I’m not sure if the show will ever get those compelling moments we all hope for down the road, but as a start, this debut was certainly good enough.
Siberia airs on Monday nights at 10 PM EST on NBC. It was created by Matthew Arnold and stars Jonathan Buckley, Joyce Giraud, Johnny Wactor, Esther Anderson and almost a dozen more.