I'm not exactly a reality show kind of guy, but flipping through the channels in 2013, I stumbled upon one that intrigued me - A bunch of awkward strangers struggling to survive in the wilderness of Siberia. As someone who loves to camp in the heart of the woods - because camping with electrical outlets and a shower nearby sort of defeats the point - I zip like a moth to flame when anything that has an element of survival appears on television. Ready to see if this show could be the one to finally knock Survivor down a peg, I set the remote down to see how things would pan out... but then, someone died (not much of a spoiler, as it happens in the first episode). Instantly stunned, my mind began to fill with all sorts of questions, most notable of which being, "Why didn't the show shut down then and there, let alone continue to film and eventually air on television?" After the end credits rolled, I whipped out my phone to find an answer. It wasn't long before things began to make sense...
In short, Siberia is a scripted docu-drama, but with a twist that makes it more like LOST than Survivor. 16 contestants are dropped in the Tunguska region of Siberia, with their collective eyes on a $500,000 prize. All they have to do is survive for a set amount of time, and the winnings will be split amongst whoever's left standing. With death rocking the boat so early on however, contestants are offered a choice from their solemn host - Walk away now with a small amount of coin for their troubles, or stay and play to get substantially richer. Figuring the fatality must have been an accident, the castaways shake their initial concerns and decide to focus on the game. Needless to say, it's a decision they soon learn to regret. Noises emanating from the woods at night haunt them, food and supplies disappear at an alarming rate, poisoned mushrooms bring visions of death, cave drawings hint that the area may have a history of monsters, and the night sky lights to the horizon with green flames. Still, they try to find logic where there is none - It's all part of the show, right? Could this be some sort of social experiment to measure how people react in the face of the unknown? Reality sets in when a booby trap impales a contestant, especially when no one from the production camp comes to their aid.
The LOST meets Survivor format is brilliant for marketing (it managed to pull over 3 million viewers on the first episode), but living up to such hype is another thing entirely. While Siberia has moments where it satiates the appetite for drama and mystery, the scripted reality component collapses early under a hodgepodge of clichés, the castaways themselves undoubtedly the biggest offense of all. There's the woman that's sweet and bubbly on the outside, yet devilishly devious on the inside. To contrast, we also have a badass outcast that's hiding behind a heart of gold. Next, there's the obligatory genius - He doesn't think much of himself at the beginning, but his intelligence inevitably plays a key role in their survival. Furthermore, he develops a crush on a shy, kindhearted girl that's incapable of harming so much as a fly… so, obviously, there's a deadly talent hidden within. There's a man who assumes leadership and hopelessly clings to logic, as well as the strangely wise bald guy. There's more, but I think you get the gist - We've already seen these characters a billion times over, and their arcs are thoroughly predictable as a result. That said, many of the characters still managed to grow on me. Most of the cast - who are mostly, if not all unknowns - do an excellent job at making their on-screen counterparts interesting and likeable. At the hands of those less capable, Siberia would have been a lost cause.
As an extension of the character clichés, their actions cause key plot points to suffer. The most glaring example? 16 castaways signed on for survival in the Tunguska region of Siberia, yet when they stumble upon a massive crater, not a single one recalls the Tunguska Event of 1908. What, nobody bothered to research the area they'd be camping at before departing? The Tunguska Event, due to the attention it's received form conspiracy theorists the world over, is a pretty substantial piece of pop-culture. How nobody managed to make the connection is beyond me. Another head scratcher is how the writers completely mixed up each contestant's area of expertise. For some reason, the nerd knows more about land mines than an Israeli soldier. The Locke wannabe knows all about generators in one scene, but nothing about breakers the next. The entire season is loaded with similar discrepancies, and I can't think of a single reason other than oversight. Yes, Siberia was independently produced, but that's not what I'd call a valid excuse. Apparently, many others felt the same, as Siberia managed to lose about half of its original viewership over the course of the season.
At the risk of sounding like I'm talking out of the other side of my mouth here, Siberia isn't all bad. Take it for what it is - a fun mash-up of two completely different genres, perhaps even a satirical take on them - and regardless of its damning clichés and contextual blunders, it's still quite entertaining. The show manages to do two things extremely well - Suspense and mystery. In fact, these elements are handled so well, they go a long way in negating the 'shake my head' moments around every bend. Tensions continue to elevate from episode to the next, and after a while, I was having so much fun 'in the moment' that I didn't even care about the flaws. My favorite part of the show was that it peppered a bunch of clues throughout without holding my hand - I was able to analyze them myself and come up with my own theories, and after doing a bit of research, I think I've got a couple of solid ideas (pro-tip, they're not a crazy island that's home to a crazy smoke monster).
That said, Siberia hasn't been picked up for another season, so those theories will remain in limbo for quite some time, if not permanently. The finale ends on a pretty massive cliffhanger, and because the final two episodes were hacked down to one - because the Royal wedding pushed it out of its time slot one week - it all feels rather rushed. The lack of finality may be enough to deter some viewers, but I would urge fans of science fiction and 'reality' TV to at least give Siberia a shot. It's far from perfect, but the suspense and mystery alone make it worth the time. Allow yourself to invest in the characters as well, as cliché as they are, and you might find even more to appreciate.
Siberia aired in HD, but there's no Blu-ray release in sight. So, if you want to check out the program, DVD is your one and only option... at least for the time being. That said, Siberia fares pretty well in standard definition. The black levels are as accurate as the original source allows them to be, artifacts are surprisingly minimal considering the amount of 'shaky cam', and an astonishing amount of fine detail has been preserved. Contrast can be a tad hot at times - again, I believe this to be source related - and sharp colors (such as bright red clothing) can bleed at times (not so much source related). Other than that, there's really no complaint about the MPEG-2 1.78:1 widescreen presentation as provided by Lionsgate.
Siberia comes equipped with a 5.1 Dolby Digital track, and it sounds about as good as it did during the initial broadcast. For the most part, the soundtrack is front heavy, but the rears are used to accentuate odd noises that pan around the woods, as well as environment sounds. There's not much of a musical score to speak of, although there's a song or two that plays throughout the season (an episode capper), and the music is balanced well across the entire soundstage. The series doesn't have a vast dynamic range, but it's effective enough to hone in the creep factor. To round out the mix, dialogue is always crisp and prioritized, as you would expect for a 'reality' show. There ARE times when dialogue is a bit muffled, but that's by design as the producers wanted to emulate reality programming as much as possible (they compensate with on-screen text, much like they do for Survivor's post-Tribal council scene in the following episode).
Massive, massive disappointment. I didn't exactly expect anyone to hand craft a bunch of extras for a show that wasn't even popular enough to pick up a second season, but Lionsgate had a golden opportunity to provide the uncut versions of episodes 11 and what would have been 12... but, nothing. Even if they weren't already edited together as separate episodes, couldn't they have at least paid the director to piece together the episodes as he envisioned them?
Siberia has flaws... lots of flaws. The characters are essentially lifted from shows like LOST and various other dramas we've seen since the dawn of television, and their stupidity took me out of the 'reality' premise early on. That said, this show hits most of the right notes if you're looking for a drama with tantalizing mysteries, especially ones of the sci-fi variety. If you're not a fan of faux-reality programming, Siberia certainly isn't going to convert you. Others who are typically unable to overlook a firestorm of face-palming quirks will probably bail before the conclusion. For those who actually make it all the way to the finale... well, they may end up with some buyer's remorse, considering how many questions are left unanswered. Despite my lengthy rants in the review above, I actually had a decent time with Siberia and wouldn't mind catching another season if one manages to pop out of the ether. That doesn't mean I'm blind to its problematic run however, and in good conscience can't recommend anything but to Rent It.