What is NBC’s Siberia?

NBC's new supernatural drama, Siberia, promises Lost meets District 9 meets Survivor. Rachael chats to creator/director Matthew Arnold...

If you feel like you’re watching a reality TV show when you turn on NBC’s new supernatural drama Siberia; good. You’re exactly where executive producer and creator Matthew Arnold wants you to be. Walking the path of other similar projects such as the Orson Welles radio broadcasts of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and the film The Blair Witch Project, Siberia aspires to be the first television show that will make people stop and question the what they’re seeing in the same way. “I think it’s possible some people will be scanning through the channels and not really have heard the promos so much to know and will just click in and be watching this reality show and then go ‘what the heck?’ That’s crazy,” Arnold told me in a pre-premiere interview. Much like Welles and company did with news reports and other radio standards to build a believable production, Arnold has built Siberia from dozens of tried and tested reality techniques and tropes into something brand new and its pilot nails the murky too-real-to-not-be-real energy right on the head. 

“Reality TV isn’t going away,” said Arnold. The fact that I can say Richard Hatch or Snookie and any American with a TV knows to whom I’m referring only proves his point. Siberia is his brutal take on “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Production of Siberia took the adage so close to heart that they pulled out all the stops to make their story feel like the real deal. They brought in an expert in reality producer Doug McAllie, who was involved in the production of over 200 episodes of Survivor, so they could shoot it the same way as the hit series, with four cameras following the actors for reaction shots.

The reality show aesthetic Arnold and his team worked so hard for lacks American glossiness. “That’s intentional. It’s meant to feel like a European-created show set in Siberia where they’ve taken people from all over the world and it’s a Russian production that’s putting it together and releasing it for American audience,” he said, giving me plot background that doesn’t makes it to the pilot. Said plot was of course born from watching reality TV. “I remember watching Survivor and they were putting them in some exotic location I was thinking ‘gosh I wonder would they ever be so stupid enough to put one of these reality shows in a dangerous location where, you know, some rebel faction is warring or something. And what if that rebel faction or pirates, Somalian pirates or something came across this reality show and what would happen? And what if the cameras were still rolling?” Arnold confides when talking about the birth of Siberia. “What happens if you take a reality show and put it in a dangerous situation and things spin out of control?”.

It’s this concept Siberia plans to explore. Instead of the tropical locales so familiar to Survivor, we are instead presented with with a ghost settlement that was mysteriously emptied in the cold, foreboding wooded area around the Tunguska blast of 1908 (which I’m sure most of you already know is the sight of “the biggest inter-dimensional cross-rip” prior to 1987 according to Dan Akroyd’s character Dr. Ray Stanz in Ghostbusters). In lieu of Somalian pirates there are mutant frogs, inhuman noises in the dark, and a hint of carnage. Because where’s the fun in supernatural stories if some people aren’t dying, I ask you?

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With the entire show being set on the location of a Roanoke-like mystery, it’s easy for a viewer to get a little gun-shy. “Everything is tied into a meta-story that’s created from the outset of the show and not sort of as we go […] Only me and the producers know the full story of what the show is and where the show is going, and what the real chaos is, and what the twist is to the whole final thing is all about. But all these things all these myths pay off like lore and legend of the Siberian wilderness. This area called Tunguska has with it a long history of mysterious occurrences of happenings that are true and documented and theorized by lots of different people who have been there and these all tie into what’s going on […] It’s a mystery series in the vein of Lost.” That’s both enticing and a little worrying. Many of viewers have been burned by unanswered questions on short-lived shows in the past. However Arnold promises that he won’t torture us like that. “Everything pays off in the end.” 

The fact that this pay-off exists could be at least partially if not wholly due to the fact that the entire first season of Siberia was independently financed – outside financial backers and an outside production team working outside the standard studio system. That alone makes this show a brand new creature, one that had legs of its own before NBC bought all the existing episodes. Siberia put power in a creator’s hands, rather than sending another writer through the pilot process. With crowdsourced projects like the Veronica Mars movie sowing seeds of change in the film industry, it’s possible that Siberia‘s journey marks the beginning of a change in the landscape of television as well. 

However, whether the show is the first in a new trend of indie TV shows or not, being independent must have allowed for significant freedom in the northern Canadian woods where it was shot for Arnold to create the show with his people his way. Though Siberia is a fictional drama with a cast of actors and written episodes, “they didn’t have scripts,” Arnold explains. “The actors weren’t told what was going to happen from day to day or moment to moment. So we sort of threw at them all types of strange and wonderful things to […] trick them. Our goal was to create an experience for the actors that was unusual to them and to play them against each other and give secrets to one of the actors that the others didn’t know. A lot of the things you’ll see in the show are their actual genuine reactions rather than play-acting.”

I’d go so far as to say that calling Siberia a scripted drama is a bit of a misnomer. Arnold said that he did write episodes, but the acting and direction style used is off the scripted map, creating what he calls “a true hybrid”. The closest I’ve seen to the scripted/unscripted concept was in the South African sci-fi drama District 9 but when compared to that film, Arnold said that what he called for from his cast was beyond improv. Based on the tactics described above, I’m fairly sure he succeeded at that.  

What we see in the contestants, nearly all of whom are using their real first names, proves that this method really works. Solo interviews provide insights into characters like Neeko from the UK, Irene from Taiwan, Johnny from the Deep South, Miljan from Montenegro, and Esther the Australian. Whatever reservations you may have about the characters themselves, it’s hard to fault the credibility of their responses to the situation. When wiry American computer tech Daniel finds a frog with three hind legs, the quiet unease is palpable, later when an inhuman sounds pierces the air – the responses resonate. When things turn truly ugly, it is Esther’s solo interview that hits like a fist, as she looks into the camera with tears in her eyes and talks about how the producers just don’t care about the contestants’ wellbeing. Arnold says that we can “smell wooden-ness” and there’s none to be had in that moment. If Arnold’s unconventional directing methods give us more scenes like that, then I say bring it on.

If you still doubt the dedication, sincerity or true genre nature of Sibera, let me share an on-set horror story Arnold told me during our interview. “There’s a scene that you’ll see coming up in a future episode where Johnny cuts off part of his finger in the show. That really happened.” Know then, that Arnold’s not kidding when he says “It was all real.” Scripted Siberia may be, but only in the loosest sense of the word, which gives it the sincerity other reviewers have rightfully praised it for. 

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Personally, it took me a little time to warm up to Siberia but once I realized that it was fiction in a reality suit, I got behind it as all I ask for from a show is that it follows through on its promises. On a second viewing, knowing the unreality I was facing, I could really enjoy the performances found myself loving it. Siberia promises supernatural drama via reality TV show and the pilot delivered exactly that. Though complaints that it moves too slowly for a supernatural drama are understandable, for a reality TV show like Survivor the progress was lightning-fast. Considering that Siberia is meant to be a combination of the two, middle tempo in the pilot is about right at the promised price.

Siberia is up against CBS’ Under the Dome in the Monday night schedule; a legitimate concern. It’s hard to compete with Stephen King material under any circumstances. That said, I think other critics are wildly underestimating the draw of people to reality television, aka the same audience Arnold wants and the people who are looking for something new.

Siberia wants to make people question what they’re seeing then take them on a rollercoaster ride. It doesn’t pretend otherwise despite pulling on two of the least real forms of TV (supernatural and reality) making it one of the most honest shows to air in ages. Only time will tell if viewers will be willing to take the ride. Personally, I’m not a fan of reality TV, but I’m already strapped in for next week.

Siberia starts on NBC on Monday the 1st of July. You can listen to Rachael’s interview with creator Matthew Arnold in full, here.

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