PBS tries reality TV with trip to `Frontier'

Journey to the past marred by all-too- modern bickering


April 29, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Frontier House, a PBS reality series featuring three 21st-century American families living 1880s style on the Montana frontier, is public television trying to have it both ways.

While the narrator speaks in the high-minded tone of a college lecturer describing the culture of 19th-century frontier life, the producers give us pictures and words directed at our baser, voyeuristic impulses - just like the commercial networks. After six hours, you're left wondering what the show is all about and why you invested all that time.

Is it about seeing a strained marriage crack up with a husband calling his wife "Hitler," while she mocks him for "whining" constantly? Is it about seeing the 21st-century business executive cheat and break laws to give his family an economic leg up in the 19th century? Or is it about the night camera showing the rodents with their shiny little eyes running wild in the cabin of a newlywed couple?

Hey, I saw this same sort of unpleasantness on Survivor two years ago - at least then there was prize money to blame for how hard it was to separate the people from the rats.

Maybe the ultimate purpose of Frontier House is to deliver the stunning insight that life on the frontier was physically and psychologically brutal, and that most of our modern-day popular culture foolishly romanticizes and mythologizes it. For all its history-talk, that's about as deep as Frontier House gets, and my response to that lands somewhere between "no kidding" and "duh!"

In the 1880s, homesteaders received ownership of 160 acres if they could stay five years on the land. The families here spend five months. Based on the luck of the draw, one family has a cabin already built when they arrive via wagon train at Frontier Valley, a second family gets help building theirs, and the third has to do it from scratch.

Although there is no prize money in Frontier House, competition is the engine that powers the series, especially through the first four segments. The chief competitors are Karen Glenn, a school nurse from Tennessee, and Gordon Clune, a wealthy business executive from Malibu, Calif.

Karen Glenn is the 36-year-old wife who is compared to Hitler by her 45-year-old husband, Mark, an instructor at a junior college. Karen's two children, Erinn, 13, and 9-year-old Mark, round out the Glenn household.

Clune, 41, is the businessman who breaks the rules by building a moonshine still, as well as trading with Montana residents from the 21st century. His wife, 40-year-old Adrienne, three children and a 15-year-old niece make up the Clune homestead.

The third household is that of Nate and Kristin Brooks, both 28. He's a student events co-ordinator at Fisher College in Boston, and she's a social worker. Nate arrives with his father, Rudy, who helps him build a cabin. Once the cabin is built, Kristin arrives and she and Nate are married. Nate is the nice guy in the group.

Karen and Gordon, both Type A personalities, are another story. They take an immediate dislike to each other, especially she to him, and the producers exploit it for all it is worth, winnowing their 500 hours of film down to the six that feature incessant conflict between the two.

Beyond that story line, there is a lot of crying, considerable depression and even some hunger among the pioneers. The best "private" moment with the camera finds 9-year-old Conor Clune, saying, "I think we're wearing the shoes of our ancestors, but these shoes suck."

The phoniest moment has his 13-year-old brother summing up his experience by saying, "I discovered imagination."

That sounds more like a producer or PBS executive than it does a 13-year-old kid who misses cheeseburgers.

Frontier House

When: Tonight, tomorrow and Wednesday 9 to 11.

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26).

In brief: PBS tries to get real with three families on the Montana frontier.

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