Siberia: Mondays at 10 p.m. Eastern on NBC
(As a heads-up: due to the nature of this show, it is basically impossible not to spoil it’s major conceit, as a result I should advise you that if you want to check out the show with a completely open mind, you should probably watch it before you go any further into this review – Mike)
In retrospect I find this pretty ironic: I spend a disproportionate amount of time railing against the obviously fake aspects of reality TV but I genuinely enjoy a lot of the fake shows that skewer the conventions of said shows. Tonight NBC blurs the lines between “reality” and “drama” to an unprecedented degree with it’s newest summer series: Siberia.
At it’s core Siberia is a psuedo-reality drama set in the titular location – a place known for being as inhospitable as possible. Contestants are forced to live in a village that was seemingly abandoned in place 100 years ago due to mysterious circumstances. It is here that the contestants must fight to survive not only the harsh Siberian winter, but also themselves and the inhospitable and unnatural occurrences around them.
Sixteen contestants arrive blindfolded in the Siberian Forest, with our host, the Jonathon Buckley, arriving to explain the rules of our game (which he calls a social experiment) in which the winner receives a half-million dollars. We then learn the premise of our show: stick 16 people in the Siberian wilderness with no modern conveniences and make them survive until the end of winter. Jonathon then discusses the history of this middle-of-nowhere outpost whose settlers disappeared with no explanation in 1908.
Our contestants then end up on a two mile race through the forest and swamps to run to our tiny settlement. While many of the contestants arrive in a large pack, we are down to two groups of two vying for the last two slots in the settlement (the last two to arrive would be eliminated): an injured player and the bleeding heart who carried him through the forest, and a journalist who leads herself and another contestant down the wrong path. After they’re eliminated we get our next little bit of information: This is a contest of sheer endurance and is about the ability of our contestants to band together. There is a large box that will occasionally grant mystery items and a gate that once passed through eliminates a contestant. Otherwise there are no rules.
Immediately our contestants squabble off over the fact that there are 12 cots for 14 people. The box then signals mentioning the possibility of mushrooms, and the group goes off to find mushrooms and water. They find water but not mushrooms and have a kumbaya moment around the fire only to be interrupted by a nightmarish growl. The next morning, Tommy goes missing while looking for mushrooms, and a cameraman runs into the village bleeding from the head. After the cameraman is whisked away, Jonathon appears to tell us that Tommy died from a fatal accident.
While the plot synopsis feels very mundane, it’s that attention to mundane detail that lets this show shine. For the first three fourths of the episode, this shows plays out like a near perfect reality show to the T: surprise eliminations, squabbles over insignificant issues, the paint-by-numbers casting that every reality show uses, and even the very convincing testimonial inserts they use. The show even manages to ape the visual cues from reality TV: tons of cheap time lapse footage and reused stock shots can be found (the ax into stump shot in particular is used about a dozen times).
However, from the start of that horrifying growl during the camp-fire, the show then picks up into full blown horror mode. Things seem amiss, but very subtly so: a five legged frog, a mysterious shed that’s padlocked shut, Tommy deciding to go deeper into the woods leaving his group (and having a funny exchange with the girls he’s left behind). Unfortunately, the show elects to take it’s horror cues from the Blair Witch school of cinematography which means that many of our most direct horror moments occur off of the camera.
For what it’s worth, our cast more than holds up their end of the bargain. Many reality show participants come off as B-grade actors, and as a result it is no real shock that our unknown actors do an equally solid job sending up reality archetypes. Most of all, for all of the precious little screen time he gets, Jonathon Buckley truly steals the show as the obnoxious reality host in the most Probstian of molds.
The Final Verdict: Siberia is incredibly entertaining as a mash-up of two of pop cultures most renowned and cheapest entities: the reality show, and the horror flick. Our pilot did an excellent job of lulling the viewer into the calm before the storm, and slowly hinting that things are amiss, taking its’ time as if it were a long form horror film. Hopefully it will eventually deliver on this horror and not rely solely on Blair Witch type shots in lieu of occasionally showing the viewer what the contestants are up against. Check it out, it’s a pretty fun ride, though I could also see this show better suited as a binge watching experience.