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Siberia S01E01: "Pilot"

Regardless of your opinion of unscripted competition shows, I think we can all agree that watching beefy and busty fame-whore reality-show contestants fall victim to creepy murders sounds like a fantastic way to spend an evening. Ladies and gentleworms, NBC's Siberia

If you didn't watch Siberia's series premiere but are so bored that you're reading this review anyway, please allow me to explain it. The supernatural thriller from NBC is a twist wrinkle on found-footage horror movies in which 16 contestants on a Survivor-like reality show are choppered out to a meteor crash site in Siberia (or more likely, Oxnard, Calif.) to survive the wilderness and participate in elimination challenges for a $500,000 purse. The whole series, or at least the first episode, is smartly and—let's not give it too much credit—predictably presented as a reality show, complete with familiar reality personas (whiny model, selfish jerk, total dweebus), individual interviews/confessionals, and a hunky Oceanic host who I can only assume works as an underwear model and plays rugby when he's not Probst-ing. But as soon as the contestants get comfortable in their new battleground and utter the first "I'm not here to make friends," things start to go wrong. Like, murder wrong! Is there a monster? Are there angry cannibalistic indigenous peoples? Or has one of the contestants gone psycho? That's Siberia's hook.

The appeal of reality shows, at their heart, is to satiate our perverted lust for voyeurism. Yes, we're all perverts, just accept it. We have an ingrained attraction to watching unaware people act "naturally" on camera. A "real" housewife who flips a table in anger is a thrill. A pair of randy roommates making a tent under the covers while a night-vision camera films them boinking is titillating and gross. A bimbo wondering whether tuna is actually chicken is comforting confirmation that we are not as dumb as millionaire pop stars.  

Siberia's early application of this conceit is where the series—which probably would have made a better two-hour movie—is already showing cracks. There was a lot of effort to whisk us into the world of a reality show, and it sort of worked. The problem was, we knew we weren't watching a reality show. We were watching a fake (kinda redundant, I know) reality show. So halfway through the episode when Whiny Model and Stubborn Asian Lady engaged in some typical reality-show theatrics by bickering for far too long about who was sleeping on the floor and who was getting the last bed because there were more people than mattresses, it started to feel like a waste of everyone's time. We put up with and are occasionally fascinated by this type of human-garbage behavior in reality shows because reality shows are ostensibly real and we're witnessing an idiot or bigot in its (somewhat) natural habitat. When that veil of authenticity is lifted and characters are acting like petty assholes out of a script, it's pointless. Siberia had a chance to skewer the genre with full-on satire, but simulated "real" moments like the bed fight—or the scenes where eco-hippy Tommy carried nerd boy and his flimsy ankles to camp—indicated that the show wasn't ever ready to commit whole-hog and embrace its own absurdity. Siberia producers should have watched Cabin in the Woods and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil on loop for a week straight before breaking script. 

That would have been the best-possible scenario for Siberia. But Siberia is not a "best possible" type of show. Of course, that doesn't mean Siberia isn't watchable. Because even with the haunting feeling that this fake-reality show too often tries to be a real-reality show in the wrong types of ways, Siberia succeeds as stupid fun. Why? Because people we barely care about are acting like morons (seriously Berglind, your strategy was to run AWAY from the obvious path?), and if the show lives up to its bare-minimum promise, those same people we barely care about will be gruesomely picked off one at a time by some unseen terror. It's kind of like that old 2009 CBS slasher-horror bomb Harper's Island packaged in a different way, and that show wasn't that terrible.  

But let's all agree that subsequent episodes will HAVE to cut down on the silly reality tropes and spend some time on the systematic slaughter of these dummies, otherwise the show will be a total failure. That's what we're here to see, right? We want torn cartilage and ripped flesh and screams of pain and really bad times for these contestants, and nothing more. Siberia is the modern-day equivalent of burning ants with a magnifying glass, but without the guilt; its "reality show" should dissolve into chaos as contestants are eliminated from life, and the thrills should multiply. By far the best parts of the first episode were when Siberia evolved into found-footage horror, and I hope that's the direction it'll go in, and fast. Spooky sounds in the woods! Ghost stories about old inhabitants! Three-legged frogs! Bleeding cameraman! By that logic, the pilot, with all its reality silliness and atmospheric setup, should be the worst episode. And that's why there's still plenty of time for Siberia to succeed (via mass murdering), though I'm probably being overly optimistic here.

Siberia also showed no preferential treatment for quality characters, as Trustafarian hippie do-gooder and nerd-carrier Tommy was the show's first confirmed kill. But idiots got their due, too, with Berglind and Harpreet experiencing the shame of being eliminated first. Or maybe the producers just hate difficult names. Their dismembered bodies better show up soon, or I'm writing an angrily worded letter. That's another thing about this series: There's no time to really get to know the characters, but that's okay. We just want to watch them die, so maybe it's better if we don't actually get attached. 

At this point, the real fun is in the audience participation portion of the show, because we can randomly root for one of these fake people to live until the end. It's kind of like betting on turtle races. My top pick is obviously the cowboy jerk Johnny (he's a Bull Rider!), because awful people are usually the best in these types of situations. Right after Johnny, I've got George the Boring Accountant because accountants need love too, Victoria the Shy Sales clerk from Canada in honor of Canada Day, and Neeko the Rugby Player because the terrible relationship between horror movies and black guys needs to end now! But really, I don't care that much and I hope Outback Joe the Host eats them all.

I'm also intrigued by the "no rules!" game design, because it encourages contestants to behave terribly. I'm not just talking hiding flag markers, tripping others, or putting itching powder in rivals' underpants. I'm thinking poisoning and Colombian neckties. Can't you just picture nerdy computer guy wearing war paint and hanging upside down from a tree to slit the throat of Miljan the Eastern European DJ? This is a fake reality show, after all, so let's see these people behave the worst they possibly can because no one is actually going to take this show seriously. 

In the meantime, we can enjoy Siberia as a cathartic distraction, and if the preview of the rest of the season is any indication, things are about to get all murder-y in the woods. That's what will make Siberia work, so kill them all, I say.


NOTES

– THOSE MUSHROOMS LOOK DISGUSTING. Red with white dots? What is this, a stoner tapestry at a head shop or Mario World?

– The series started with 16 contestants, and killed one and eliminated two in the first episode. That leaves 13 characters and 12 episodes left. Does that mean only one person will die per episode? Maybe Siberia should have started with 30 contestants to satisfy our bloodlust?

– It's a fake show and all the writers could muster up was a $500,000 prize? 

– How the show manages (or fails) to pull off the "this is still a reality show" construct while people are dying will be interesting to see. Will the competition stop? What will give the cameramen reason to continue filming?

Previously Aired Episode

AIRED ON 9/16/2013

Season 1 : Episode 11

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