In the age of "Fear Factor," it was probably inevitable: a reality series in which participants risk cruel and unusual treatment along the lines of whipping, having one's head bound to one's feet overnight, branding with a hot iron, having an ear cut off and "cucking." That is, being strapped to a chair, lowered under water and exposed to the jeers of bystanders.
No, it's not "Survivor: Abu Ghraib." It's not even something concocted by bar-lowering programmers at Fox. It's "Colonial House," and you can find it around the corner, so to speak, from Mister Rogers' neighborhood on PBS. Sort of a mutant fusion of "Big Brother" and a community-theater production of "The Crucible," the show asks the question: "Can 26 people from 2004 survive life in 1628?"
Unfortunately, "Colonial House" fails to answer that question, and anyone tuning in to witness its much-hyped clash between 21st-century mores and puritanical intolerance is in for a disappointment. The series is half over and, despite the participants' regular infractions of moral codes, customs and laws, barely a pilgrim has been scolded -- never mind dunked under water.
"Colonial House" was shot over five months on an isolated stretch of the Maine coast and edited into eight hour-long episodes. Last Monday night's debut got off to a less-than-historically-exacting start when its 17 initial colonists arrived in period garb aboard a period tall ship, took turns making their way to land on a small boat called a "shallow," and then settled into the four period cottages that the show's crew had made for them in advance. It was probably prudent to spare these people having to build their own shelters, given how much trouble they had just making fire. For a while, it looked like that single task might take the whole five months.
In episode one, the first order of business was finding out what role each of the participants would play in the faux colonial settlement. Producers apparently decreed in advance who'd act as governor, lay preacher, bachelor freemen, indentured servants and so forth. As roles were divvied up, one of the show's chief shortcomings became apparent: By reality TV standards, this bunch of people is a snore.
I mean, there's not a single naked gay guy, scheming former beauty queen, beefy semi-pro athlete or hussy. Where's the fun in setting up a fake 17th-century village governed by howlingly barbaric laws if nobody breaks any of the big ones? Where's "Bachelor" Evan Marriot when you need him?
Lay preacher Don Heinz and his wife Carolyn are both sixtysomething university professors. Their idea of a wild night is sitting at home debating whether the women should be required to wear head coverings, as Puritan women were. A carpet salesman named John Voorhees, along with his wife and son, made the journey back in time out of a desire "to live closer to the land." The single men and women are a mix of Americans and Brits whose behavior in general would not be out of character with that of young people on a church outing, or employees at a frontier-themed amusement park. Laws prohibiting adultery, wanton dalliance and fornication do not appear to be in jeopardy of imminent violation.
The dullest of the dull, though, has to be Governor Jeff Wyers. A 45-year-old Southern Baptist minister from Texas, he has the best house, the most servants and responsibility for enforcing 17th-century law and guiding the colony to prosperity. "It's a harsh reality check," he reflects for the "diary cams" in the first installment. "This is serious business." He then proceeds to buckle in the face of every challenge.
Wyers decides the settlers need to plant maize. Though the show's narrator explains that real Puritans rose at dawn to begin chores, these fake ones are permitted to sleep until 9 or 10. Though the law against profanity prescribes punishments such as boring through the offending tongue "with a bodkin," Wyers doesn't so much as brandish a bodkin in a threatening manner on the many occasions when gutter-mouthed ersatz villagers utter obscenities -- which producers bleep. And though the law requires every man, woman and child to "repair in the morning to devotional meetings held upon the Sabbath day" -- in other words, go to church -- the Governor caves at almost the first protest and suspends the law. "Hey, if you come, we're thrilled to see you," he says. I doubt this is how the East was won.
Things get a little livelier for a while when real-time tragedy calls Wyers and family home to Waco -- his daughter's boyfriend is killed in a car accident. Emergency back-up Governor Heinz calls for an evening of celebration to boost the maize-planters' morale "with no rationing of alcohol." (Unlike "Survivor" contestants, the colonists start off stocked with rations including 500 pounds of fish, half a ton of meat and barrels of wine, water and beer). The revelers don't get much crazier than doing a few cartwheels, arm-wrestling and a little fireside dancing, but compared to life with Wyers, it looks like the heyday of Caligula.
The bad news is, Wyers returns. And amazingly, he's even more boring than before. While his family remains for a time in Texas, he mopes around the house and practices what he calls "synchronized prayer," meaning that he and his wife and kids all read the same passage of scripture at the same time as a form of communing with one another. But a tease at the close of episode four Tuesday revealed the good news: Wyers will be vacating the Governor's quarters and sailing off into the sunset in episode five.
But not before bumming out everybody one more time. On learning that one of the servants, 24-year-old Jonathan Allen, has revealed he's gay, the man of God meditates on the revelation and then offers words of wisdom: "We must learn to master our sins," Wyers pronounces, "and not pat each other on the back about them." No doubt about it: There are times when regime change is a good thing.
So, will the second half of the PBS series make for better viewing than the first? Will a new Governor usher in a new day and perhaps a more authentic, compelling experience for colonists and viewers alike? Is even one damned villager ever going to get dunked? Of one thing we are certain: The folks in charge of educational television have a lot to learn about reality TV.