The untenable premise of Colonial House. 

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May 19 2004 5:52 PM

Historical Fiction

Colonial House asks its participants to role-play like it's 1628.

Going to extremes for reality TV: re-enacing  17th-century Maine
Going to extremes for reality TV: re-enacting 17th-century Maine

As we approach the summer TV season and a new crop of reality TV shows, Colonial House (PBS, May 17-18, May 24-25, check listings for times) provides a look, if not at the death of the genre, then at least at its limitations. Reality television once put strangers together so audiences could watch them sing or fall in love, but now, several years into the genre, producers resort to elaborate, high-concept schemes to keep viewer attention. It's no longer enough for participants to be themselves; they have to become someone else, whether a surgically altered beauty pageant contestant (Fox's The Swan), a low-budget Bruce Willis (NBC's upcoming Next Action Star), or, on Colonial House, a lay preacher's wife in early colonial Maine.

Colonial House'spredecessor, the entertaining Frontier House,charted three families' efforts to live like 19th-century Montana homesteaders. Colonial House ups the ante considerably. In addition to eating, sleeping, working, and playing like it's 1628, the 26 participants are expected, as cast member Mrs. Michelle Rossi-Voorhees (the wife of a freeman) puts it, to occupy the "head space" of early English colonists. It's not enough to use crude tools and wear scratchy clothes as they did in Frontier House; in Colonial House,the participants are supposed to think and behave and relate to each other as if inhabiting a different time. If in real life you're an educated, outspoken woman, say, you're expected to mind your tongue in the colony. The idea is interesting in theory, but in practice the premise is too heavy a burden for these otherwise smart, well-meaning people to bear. The harder the participants work at being true to the past, the more they look like products of the present.

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To give the Colonial House cast their due, the six months they spend working 1,000 acres in coastal Maine make Survivor look like a vacation. The participants were first trained in the period's building, farming, and cooking methods—they learn mundane but difficult tasks such as how to light a fire—schooled in its customs, and apprised of its laws. They were then assigned specific social roles, such as governor, lay preacher, freeman, indentured servant. Each participant is expected to behave according to his or her station, and the entire colony is expected to function as a 17th-century minisociety. Indentured servants work tirelessly for their masters; women must tend to hearth and home, but, like the servants, they have no say in community affairs; attendance at stifling, three-hour church services every Sunday is mandatory, regardless of one's beliefs; and since democracy hasn't been invented yet,the governor's word is law. With fun, easy-going rules like these, what could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, just about everything. Colonial House is proof that you can take the man out of the 21st century but you can't take the 21 st century out of the man. During Tuesday's episode, for example, cast member Jonathon Allen, a 24-year-old graduate student, tells the colony he is gay. It's an awkward, uncomfortable moment, but not in the way you might think. The weirdness doesn't come from the fact that Allen comes out on television—MTV's The Real World did away with that social taboo ages ago—but from his breaking the rules of Colonial House. "In 1628 I wouldn't even be having this conversation," says Allen, "because the governor would probably put a stop to it and take me out there and kill me." Allen says that he can no longer not be himself—a strange sentiment coming from a man who decided to spend his summer pretending to be a 17th-century indentured servant.

And then there's Gov. Jeff. I never thought I'd be in sympathy with a conservative Baptist minister from Waco, Texas, but Jeff Wyers, playing the colony's governor, seems to be the only person who wants the show to be what it was intended to be. Last night, he attempted to model the colony on the Puritan ideal of a utopian "City on a Hill." But when Gov. Jeff lays down the law—no profanity, women must cover their hair, mandatory church attendance on the Sabbath—almost everyone, in his or her own way, rebels. Saucy indentured servant Paul Hunt keeps swearing up a storm; Mr. and Mrs. Voorhees ditch church to go skinny dipping (!); while freeman Dominic Muir sneaks off to town for a beer and a plate of fries. Implementing historically accurate enforcement measures—wearing scarlet letters, being tied to a wooden stake—proves to be a modern pain in the ass, and work is brought to a near halt. Because the colony is expected to be financially viable (project rules dictate that the cast pay off imaginary "investors"), Gov. Jeff capitulates, proving that at least he's well-versed in that most modern of religions—expediency.

Colonial House is by no means a bad show. On the contrary: It's painstakingly researched, beautifully photographed, and it effectively debunks myths about the colonists as a bunch of dour, buckle-shoed squares. The viewer comes away with a good sense of how arduous life was for early settlers, and somewhere in there is buried a message about the challenges of balancing individual freedom with the individual's responsibility to his or her community. But whether Colonial House provides a true flavor of life in early America, I can't be sure. The next time someone hopes to capture how it truly felt to live in 1628, I hope they hire actors.

Dennis Cass writes about television for Slate.

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