Episode 1: Pilot
By: Carlos Uribe
Siberia is a show about a fake reality show where stuff starts to go wrong.
I think the idea behind Siberia is an interesting one. Movies have had a rich history of documentaries but there's recently been a genre born that mocks them. These “mockumentaries” tend to be horror but sometimes they explore other topics. They tend to use the documentary techniques in an attempt to literally make it like the events of the movie actually happened. To transport the audience into the actual scene or to pretend to live in a world where it's real. It's been effective and it's been carried over into television. We have shows like the Office, Modern Family, and Parks and Recreation that present themselves as fictional documentaries of their characters. Their well made and have helped lead to a resurgence of quality comedy writing. What has been less successful is television's foray into one-hour fake documentaries. The ABC network tried with the horror show, The River, from the creator of Paranormal Activity. It tried to use the nature show documentary to explore the supernatural. It didn't really work because it didn't have interesting characters, a compelling plot, or believable stakes but it was an attempt to do something that was working on the big screen on the small one. It is perhaps this reliance on doing what worked for Paranormal Activity that killed it. Movies, especially horror films, don't rely on character to the same level as television. In many ways, I feel like Siberia is more of a true television form than the River because it takes something unique to the television genre (survival shows) and uses it to add a whole different layer. Granted, it's not the first show to present a fake survival show. Total Drama Island and the cartoon franchise had already satirized the genre on Cartoon Network. It is the first drama on television to actually tackle the genre. Siberia has an interesting premise but it falls apart just like The River. Why? It suffers just about every single problem that show had but for different reasons. Siberia is a show that could have been more interesting but it messes itself up.
The ironic thing about Siberia is the reason that it messes up has to do with it's premise. The idea is that this is a reality show where something is wrong. There are hints to the supernatural (of course) and the pilot begins subtly setting up some mysteries. The problem is with the reality show it's depicting. I feel like the pilot of Siberia would have been a lot stronger if the death at the end came in the middle. Why? Up until that point, Siberia plays itself completely straight. If I hadn't know that this was a fake reality show, it could have easily fooled me. In fact, it mimics the genre so well that people who didn't know were shocked when the death scene came at the end. They thought this was a legit reality show until that moment. Which wouldn't be an issue because some survivor shows can be fun to watch. It's just that Siberia's reality show simply isn't that show. It's a great mimicry of a lifeless reality show. One that the network makes for cheap money, barely promotes, and quietly cancels. It's simply boring. If the death had happened half-way through then it would have at least allowed the interesting layer the show has (things go wrong) happen a lot earlier. It might have made the pilot a lot more bearable to watch as the boring reality show allegedly gets more compelling as the characters truly comprehend the life-and-death stakes they are actually playing at. It's insistence on playing it straight for so long only makes sense if the fake reality show was any good. It wasn't as it's a by-the-numbers one by necessity. Therefore, it should have revealed it's card earlier rather than sooner. The plot for the pilot of Siberia was thus dull. As for the stakes? It's hard to care about them when everything is so lifeless until the end. As a note: I could care less who gets the money.
The pilot begins with seventeen different characters, including the fictional host. That's a lot of them and only forty-two minutes to introduce them. This is where Siberia also suffers: establishing so many characters. In general, the more characters you have the less time you have to develop them. Lost managed to do this so well because it had a two-hour premiere. Siberia doesn't have that luxury. The good news for the show is that it gets rid of two of them by the half-way mark as they become disqualified by the show. A third one dies at the end which leaves them with fifteen characters. I'll spoil that they lose one more at the beginning of the episode: fourteen characters. That's still a pretty significant cast and they get as little screentime as most contestants do on shows like this. In shows like those, we don't really get to know them that well. They might play up who they are for the show, they might talk about what they want the money for, and they might try to open up to the camera but there's only so much time we can spend with a specific contestant. A scripted show is different as we're supposed to know these characters a lot more because we're going to hopefully be spending more time with them than an episode or season. This means giving them time to develop-but there's very little in Siberia. It has a plot, it has fourteen characters to handle, and it has to keep pretending it's a reality show. Is it no surprise then that all of the characters come across as one-dimensional creatures who only mimic real-life contestants on these kind of shows? There isn't a lot here and what's worse is how very few of them made any kind of impression. The characters on Siberia needed a longer episode to properly get introduced.
Siberia is a show that largely doesn't work. The plot is too boring as it sticks too hard with the reality show premise to enjoy itself. The money stakes aren't that compelling while the life-and-death stakes come too late. The characters are all one-dimensional because the pilot has very little time to develop any of them. There is no reason to watch Siberia because it didn't get anything right. As always, it's possible this show improves over time. At the same time, there is nothing compelling right now that's giving me a reason to see if that happens or not. Siberia is largely a summer dud due to very weak execution in it's structure.
I will give props to the pilot for actually fooling some people into thinking it was a real reality show.