NBC acquired the international production "Siberia" and has slotted it for 10 p.m. Monday, which may force the show to live up to its title as a viewer-free wasteland if it's frozen out of Nielsen ratings glory by the competing "Under the Dome" on CBS.
"Dome" opened with a huge 13.5 million viewers watching last Monday, the best summer drama ratings debut since "2000 Malibu Road" in 1992. "Road" lasted only six episodes. So it's possible the air could leak out of "Dome," too, but initially it seems like "Siberia" will be facing a ratings Goliath.
That's too bad because even though the "Siberia" pilot has its missteps, the show's concept is interesting enough to warrant tuning in.
Although "Siberia" is scripted and cast with actors, it's filmed to look like a reality show that sends 16 strangers into the wilds of North Asia's Siberian wilderness -- the show was actually shot in Manitoba, Canada -- where they have a chance to win $500,000 if they can survive the winter.
Host Jonathon Buckley -- all the actors use their real names -- tells contestants in a Phil Keoghan-like accent that there are no rules, but if they cross a certain line near their encampment, they will be out of the game. A red button nearby can be pushed to call for a helicopter to spirit them away.
Mr. Buckley tells the players that their encampment was first settled in 1908 by fur traders who mysteriously abandoned it never to be heard from again, a plot point reminiscent of the Lost Colony of Roanoke on North Carolina's Outer Banks.
Most of the first hour is devoted to the contestants' trek from a drop-off point to their camp. It gives "Siberia" the chance to introduce its characters, who are all archetypes familiar to reality show viewers.
There's the conceited, obnoxious country boy (Johnny Wactor), the snooty model (Esther Anderson), the helpful environmentalist (Tommy Mountain), the friendly geek (Daniel Sutton), etc.
A viewer coming into "Siberia" without forewarning could easily confuse it with an actual reality show. It starts to feel different when contestant Sabina shows up at the camp seemingly ahead of everyone else and from out of nowhere. And then the creepy, growling sounds from the woods start and "Siberia" shifts from reality TV mimicry to something closer in tone to "The Blair Witch Project."
Hand-held cameras show a desperate cameraman's point of view as what sounds like a dinosaur chases him through the woods. Or something.
The "Siberia" pilot's downfall is that it takes almost the full first hour to deviate from reality show tropes to clue viewers in that what they're watching is something different from the umpteenth iteration of "Survivor."
Finally, "Siberia" starts to get fun -- and then the first episode is over. It's a good hook to draw viewers back, but only if they stick with the show long enough to make it that far.
Written and directed by newcomer Matthew Arnold, "Siberia" holds the promise of a weekly dose of spooky summer entertainment. Viewers will have to tune in again to see if the show delivers.
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.