That "kids say the darndest things" is a fact writ large in the Great Book of Entertainment. We big things like to watch the little things of the world as they struggle to become big things themselves. It's cute -- the way puppies are always cute -- but as the subjects are former versions of our in-many-ways-lessened selves, it is also poignant.
So it goes in "My Life as a Child," premiering at 7 tonight on TLC. Cameras were handed to 20 children ages 7 to 12, who were then charged with documenting their particular worlds over a period of four months. Their footage was then edited by the adults at the network into a neat six episodes, two of which have been made available for review, and each of which makes me want to see the next four.
"The series marries the raw and spontaneous real of user-generated content with quality network production values to give it a look, feel and tone that distinguish it from any other program on television," reads the relevant press release. (Actually, the show it does structurally resemble is the Britney Spears' self-filmed 2005 UPN series "Britney & Kevin: Chaotic," although the producers may be forgiven for not drawing that connection.) And while the children are nominally responsible for shooting and directing their segments, it is clear that, as in a science fair or Soap Box Derby, the parents may have made suggestions -- even the suggestion to turn the camera on, I would think -- guided conversations, shot scenes. But so what? Even the occasional intrusion of a musical soundtrack doesn't kill the sense that this is -- unlike most of what constitutes reality TV -- real reality and not the usual stage-managed kind.
It's the proud claim of unscripted television that "you can't write dialogue like this," and that such often does seem to be the case may reflect the sorry state of screenwriting more than the natural eloquence of the average Joe. And yet the ear of even many a gifted writer turns to tin when it comes to rendering the speech of children, a perpetually transitional jumble of adult phraseology, metaphorical invention and personal whimsy that makes kids sound both surprisingly precocious and adorably childlike. That is why it's best to let them do the talking.
The producers open full-bore with the 10-hankie "Hopes and Hurdles," which brings us Joshua (age 7, Baltimore), who would like to live in a neighborhood where he could play outside without worrying about being killed; Cole (8, Los Angeles), who suffers from cerebral palsy but finds focus in karate class; and Marc (7, Los Angeles), a piano prodigy who can play but not happily converse with kids his own age. I was in a puddle on the floor through much of it, though this again is testament to the restraint of the producers, who keep their subjects compelling by not overselling their stories. It is always an easy step into the sentimental when you're dealing with kids. "My Life as a Child" could as easily have been a Hummel figurine.
The kids are chosen because they have interesting stories (one has written a book, one lives on a reservation, one was left homeless after Hurricane Katrina, and so on).
As both a self-selecting and selected group, one could argue that they (even those we might think of as disadvantaged) represent the thin upper wedge of the normal curve. All the same, they represent a wider range of type, interest, class and community than TV usually invests time in, and the most unusually situated of them stand for something universal.
They are, as a group, perhaps more than usually self-expressive. Some of the older kids perform a bit more for the camera -- they have steeped long enough in the pop culture to wear it like a second skin. But none of the six I've seen have learned to regard the world around them with the habitual irony that is the teenager's stock in trade, and certainly not with the tired bitterness that is the portion of many grown-ups. They are powerless, and they are free. They are pure potential, the personification of hope, and terribly exciting to watch and to listen to.
'My Life as a Child'
When: 7 tonight
Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)