Monday, July 1, 2013

Pilot Review: Siberia


 Siberia (Mondays at 10:00 on NBC; Premieres July 1)

If you haven't heard of this show, I'm not surprised. Siberia sort of came out of nowhere last month when NBC acquired it from Infinity Films (which was founded by Capote Oscar nominee Michael Ohoven). The series has made few waves so far, and there is very little information about it available. In this case, that's a good thing. Not knowing what to expect made the experience of watching Siberia's first hour fun; in fact, I'd go so far as to encourage you not to even read NBC's official blurb, because it contains a spoiler for a plot point not mentioned in the pilot that I think tarnished my viewing experience just a bit. If you follow the show's discoveries and unravelings along with the cast, Siberia can be a strange, engaging, curious way to spend your time.

Siberia is a mock reality show in which 16 contestants are dropped in the middle of the Siberian wilderness and asked to survive the winter. They are led to a tiny village, which is modeled after a community which mysteriously burned and was abandoned in 1908. The producers of the game show, also called Siberia, have recreated those living conditions and will offer the contestants no additional help, aside from a component of the game which will give them clues to foraging for food, etc. The only way to lose the game is to withdraw from it. Whomever is left standing at the end of the game will split $500,000. After getting better acquainted on their first days, the contestants begin to hear strange noises in the surrounding woods at night. The next day, they realize how isolated they truly are when one of their own goes missing and no one on the production team offers any help.

Part of Siberia's fun is that, from the get go, it looks like a reality series. The quality of the cinematography isn't too great, none of the contestants are real actors (at least not according to the credits, which confirm the actors are playing "themselves" on screen), and the game sounds totally plausible. It is set up as a sort of cold-weather version of Survivor (something fans of that show, myself included, have been dying to see for over a decade but never will due to the potential dangers), with an opening challenge involving a dash through the woods to the new campsite, shared living space, and an information delivery device similar to Survivor's tree mail. Nothing seems out of the ordinary for the first three quarters of the pilot, and I suspect that a good number of viewers will think they are watching an actual reality series for those thirty-or-so minutes. Everyone on screen, green as they are, plays their stereotypical roles to perfection. There's a nerd (Daniel), who also is the first to be injured; the cocky jock; the mysterious girl who won't socialize; the older gentleman; the exotic beauty; the social activist; the token black guy; and the list goes on. You would never know what Siberia has up its sleeves by watching these performances. There's not a hint of satire or parody in there... everyone is just perfectly portraying these well-worn archetypes to the point where they could be real.

But once one of the contestants goes missing while looking for food, it's clear that Siberia is something different. The final five minutes turn the entire objective of the series around. The show becomes not a mock-up of a reality show, not a completely on-point recreation of a reality show; it becomes a commentary on the lengths reality television goes to for entertainment. It also questions what reality is and how it is perceived, particularly when one is in the ironically unrealistic situation of living with cameras following your every move. It's a really interesting meta-commentary, and the episode's final moments are unexpected, so it's entertaining as well. The beginning half hour lulls the audience into a sense of false security. Up to that point, Siberia is exactly what we would expect a show making fun of reality TV to be. But with the introduction of the mystery element, it goes beyond a Survivor recreation and becomes a strange Survivor-Lost-The Blair Witch Project hybrid.

Seeing those titles together isn't something that should work. But it did for me. Siberia's first half is pretty dull, actually, and I can fully admit that while still recommending it to you and saying that I totally enjoyed myself. But, again, it's best to go in blind. Don't read anything about the show, don't Google it during commercials, don't pause to research the real-life 1908 incident which inspired this series. Just sit back and watch. And if you feel yourself getting bored at first, soldier through. The unexpected turns Siberia takes are worth waiting for.

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