July 1, 2013



SIBERIA:  Monday 10PM on NBC-Worth A Look

SIBERIA holds onto its conceit for a very long time.  Until the closing minutes of tonight’s series premiere, the show presents itself as being what it’s pretending to be, which is the opening episode of a new reality series about a multinational group of contestants who are marooned in an isolated Siberian outpost, with no more necessities provided than a rural community in the 19th century would have had, and left to fend for themselves through the winter, with the, ahem, survivors to split a $500K prize.  (Despite the title and setting, at least at this point in the action, the environment–Siberia is shot in Canada–has no particularly wintry feel.)  The show has all the stylistic accoutrements of the genre, with “confessional” interviews delivered straight to camera, an Australian “host” who seems like a B-level TV personality, and music to tackily accentuate whatever the mood of the moment is.  There’s a sneaky contestant who tries to sabotage her competition, a seemingly kindhearted one who helps out when needed, a colorful one identified as a Brooklyn bouncer, and so on.  The actors portraying the contestants use their real names, and aren’t credited until the end of the episode (which must have led to interesting discussions with the Canadian equivalent of SAG/AFTRA).

What Siberia really is, or intends to become, is a supernatural thriller.  One of the contestants doesn’t make it to the end of the premiere, and the signs are that the template will change eventually from reality TV to The Blair Witch Project, with lots of hand-held camerawork and “contestants” wandering in the woods, running away from something.  It’s hard to tell how this will work based on the pilot, since none of that is really in evidence yet, but the idea that there are multiple camerapeople and sound crews in the forest with them all the time would seem to make it somewhat attenuated.  (There’s also the suggestion that watching the group get gradually murdered may be the “real” show-within-the-show, which is pointedly described as a “social experiment” twice in the opening few minutes.)

Give Siberia credit for not being the usual low-budget summer procedural, and also for its complete commitment to its premise.  Writer/director Matthew Arnold does a good job at avoiding the usually stilted “fake improv” that pseudo-reality (and sometimes “real” reality) simulations can overdo.  This imitation is far superior to last year’s bigger-budget The River.  The acting is uneven, and the characters aren’t terribly interesting, but that, too, fits the concept.  So far, at least, Arnold also soft-pedals the shaky-cam Blair Witch cliches.

For those of us who aren’t enamored of the reality-TV aesthetic, one problem with Siberia is that it’s all too close a facsimile.  If we wanted to watch shallow, disagreeable people engage in phony power games, we’d watch an actual reality show.  As for the horror aspects of the tale, they may make it all more predictable rather than less once they kick in.  In the end, there may not be more to Siberia than to the many low-budget thrillers available daily on every VOD system.  Nevertheless, the show is at least trying to take a step or two away from the network norm.

Siberia‘s bigger issue is that NBC, for reasons best known to itself, has placed it in what may be the single worst hour of the network week for it to have any impact, airing directly against Under the Dome, a much higher-profile–and better–story about ordinary people beset by incomprehensible horror that’s already looking like a giant hit. With so many dead spaces on the NBC schedule, you’d think its programmers could find a better place to put their new show than the line-up equivalent of… well, you know.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."