When "Survivor" debuted in 2000, it seemed such a dangerous and unpredictable experiment — dumping strangers into a remote locale where they would have to struggle to survive. "Lord of the Flies" came easily to mind; the prospect of watching human beings both learn to live off the land and wrestle with their primitive inclinations was thrilling and disturbing.
Then, of course, we all realized it was just a game show. A new sort and a wholly addictive game show with some elements of physical deprivation and animal cunning involved but carefully produced, at least semi-scripted and very, very safe — being voted off the island was the real danger.
On Monday, we finally get a version of the "Survivor" that haunted some of our imaginations. In "Siberia," a scripted NBC drama about a reality series in which things go horribly wrong, 16 contestants are plunked into the middle of the Siberian wilderness with a camera crew and not much else.
The goal: to survive long enough to claim the $500,000 prize. It's a convincing, if a tad unregulated, reality premise (there are no rules save do what you must to survive). From the moment the hunky host (Jonathon Buckley) announces that the group will be staying at a settlement from which the original inhabitants vanished mysteriously 100 years ago, leaving fires burning and food on the table, it's clear something more is afoot. (If only "Croatoan" had been carved on a tree.)
And soon enough, top notes from "The Blair Witch Project" are rustling around in the dark.
Written and directed by Matthew Arnold, "Siberia" has fun with the tropes of reality, assembling familiar types — the diva, the cowboy, the nerd, the good girl, the beach bum with the prayer bead bracelet. But "Siberia" is more fright-night than satire. And though it does not have the built-in fan base of "The Dome," it could turn out to be just as much fun.
While blood 'n' guts horror is all too prevalent on television these days (including in "The Dome"), there aren't too many shows that employ straight-up, old-fashioned scare tactics. "Siberia" excels at this.
Other shows, including most recently "The River," have attempted to cash in on the "video footage" school of horror so popular at the cineplex, with not-great results. The well-trod format of "Siberia" may be its biggest asset, quickly building the kind of sturdy perimeters that horror so often needs; real fear emerges when the familiar and predictable become shockingly distorted (is any ghost as scary as a child ghost?).
The woods and the camp quickly shift from pastoral to menacing and back again. Meanwhile, the personalities of the contestants seem just as mercurial.
Because it requires such a complicated balancing act of mood and plot, the scary story is the most difficult to tell. Television adds the extra demands of compelling character. So "Siberia" could go either way.
The ingredients of a good ghost story are remarkably similar to those of a bad one; it's all in how you stir the pot.
When: 10 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence)