Frontier House – TV Review – PBS Tries The Real World

The recent rash of reality television I’ve forced myself to watch inspired in me a great longing for more of the PBS efforts into reality.  You’re probably familiar with at least a few of the “House” shows.  While I liked 1900 House and 1940 House, and some of the more recent trips into the past were pretty good, none of them really lived up to the theoretical potential like Frontier House.  For whatever reason, things just came together perfectly, and the show still stands out as one of the best things television has ever managed.  The show can fairly legitimately be said to deliver some real impact to viewers, but more importantly it changed the lives of the participants.  Perhaps no one could be said to have been more changed than Mark Glenn (who called me as a result of the following review, but the message was eaten by my answering system!), and his story is worth the price of admission alone.

Like all these PBS specials, this one is still available through Amazon and Netflix, and also has its own book treatment, which I own and is wonderful.

The review is from somewhere in ’02, when the show aired.

 

 

Once in a while something good is spawned by something… well, less than good. Even now I find myself not entirely without positive feelings regarding the first season of The Real World, perhaps even the second season was not too bad. Those in charge of the show soon learned, unfortunately, that having at least one anti-social (choose your expletive) in the crowd would get more people to watch. Today the world has gone mad for these ‘reality’ shows, and it is getting to the point that there are more of them than not.

Luckily for the general state of the universe, PBS and Simon Shaw saw something worthwhile that might come out of the broad idea of ‘reality’ television. First, there was 1900 House, wherein one family lived in the 1900s for three months. An excellent show itself, but a bit lacking in that there was little, ‘real’ human interaction between the family and anyone outside the family.

Following in the idea of that show, we now have Frontier House, and if we are lucky we will have many more, similar programs.

Frontier House follows the lives of three families as they spend six months (five months of actual project time, one month of preparation and etc.) attempting to recreate the experience of homesteaders in 1880. The families live the life in every possible way, apart from a few safety precautions. At the beginning, they load up their wagons to make their way to their homesteads. They build their log homes, tend their animals, plow the fields (sort of), and generally work, work, work.

We watch them as they try to adjust to a way of life that got the better of most people who attempted it. Three families find out just how much life can change in 120 years, and it is a wonder to behold. The best part of the series is how obviously good this was for everyone involved… with one exception. The series shows us the trials these families face during this adventure. We get to see footage shot by the production crew, and (in Real World style) footage of the ‘video diaries’ each family had access to.

In a way, curiously enough, Frontier House is the exact opposite of The Real World. It’s amusing to ponder this. The Real World takes some mostly useless people, throws them into one multi-million dollar residence or other, and does everything to make sure they have nothing else to do but ‘hang out’ and become more useless. Frontier House takes some mostly useful people, takes away all their money and throws them into a log cabin (that they have to build themselves), and does everything to make sure that they haven’t a free moment away from work, and makes them even more useful people.

Naturally, you will see these families doing a lot of work, exploring what it means to live in 1880, and trying to adjust to not having things they are very used to. But what you really see is just some people and their reactions to various situations. It is a full experience, with surprises (like the sudden need to build barb-wire fences because a herd of cattle will be coming through), a ‘Frontier Fair’, a school for the children, and a trip to the nearest store which was actually a very long walk to the far side of the hills. You will see all these things and more, and learn a lot about the near horror that was life for a homesteader. But mainly, you will see people.

The first family involved with the project are not, in a way, a family at the beginning. Nate Brooks and his father Rudy. Rudy, however, would only be participating for the initial phase of the project to help Nate build and settle his home. Once that was complete, Rudy would leave the project, and Kristen, Nate’s wife to be, would arrive, and Nate and Kristen marry on the homestead.

Nate and Kristen are 27. Of everyone involved with this project, Nate, Kristen and Rudy were by far the most easygoing. They tried to do their best and get the most out of the experience they possibly could. They were all in it for what fun they could get out of it, and for a chance to spend undistracted time with each other. At many points during the run of the series there were tensions between the families, and the Brooks family never got involved with any of it.

The second family are the Clunes. Gordon Clune, aged 40, President of his own company and godawful rich. His wife Adrienne, 39. His daughter Aine, 14. His son Justin, 12. His son Conor, 8. And a cousin, Tracey, 15.

Of the three families, I could most relate to the Clunes. Not (by a longshot) because they were a rich family making the transition, but because of many of the choices they made along the way. The Clunes found several ways to ‘cut corners’ as far as the project experience, and I really couldn’t blame them. At one point the Clunes somehow stumbled onto a modern, spring bedframe, and they smuggled it into their home, never to be discovered until the very end of the show. Their justification for using it being something along the lines of, ‘Hey, we just found it.’ If the real homesteaders had found a bed they would have used it.

The Clunes also wandered their way to some modern neighbors and traded them for some food. This, was going a little far off the project road, but they were in rather a bad way foodwise, and you have to do what you have to do. Which was generally their justification. The homesteaders had to do what they had to do, and there you are.

The third (and in ways the best and worst) family of the project were the Glenns. Karen Glenn, 35, registered nurse. Mark Glenn, 44, college instructor, step-father to Karen’s two children. Erinn Patton, 12. Logan Patton, 8.

The Glenns are the worst family because, in absolutely no uncertain terms, Karen Glenn is insane. As Adrienne Clune said at one point, the project is Little House on the Prairie, complete with our own Mrs. Olsen. Virtually everything the Clunes did had Karen Glenn in an uproar. The most self-centered, self-important person I’ve ever had this much exposure to, Karen nearly managed to single-handedly ruin the project altogether.

Everyone involved with Frontier House managed to undergo dramatic changes, as life on the frontier invaded them and exposed them to serious doses of themselves. As Mark Glenn himself said, “My life has changed as a result of this. I do not know if I will go back into teaching, even if I have a job waiting for me. Relationship-wise I am so up in the air. On the face of it I have lost everything by coming out here, but I found me.”

The reason for Mark’s statement is that by the end of Frontier House (or at least shortly thereafter) he and Karen were no longer together. This, to me, is the reason that I feel the Glenns are the best family. In the extreme circumstances on the frontier, Karen’s insanity came to the surface (assuming it was at some point not on the surface), and the tension between the two was quite intense at times. Mark was (during the course of the series… he’s not dead or anything), when most distanced from Karen, a remarkable man. A man who perhaps found that he fit better in the 1880s than in the present. A man who wanted to make his way, and get along with everyone.

Everyone underwent dramatic changes, that is, except Karen. She came to Frontier House firmly convinced that she was the most important thing on Earth, and the end judge on what is right, how things should be done, and how people ought to act, and she left exactly the same sort of ‘anti-person’. When Mark began to propose the idea that their relationship was in trouble, in a possibly permanent sort of way, her reaction was one of distant disinterest.

The real beauty of the thing is, of course, the children. Aine and Tracey of the Clune family provide a remarkable commentary with their repetition of attitude toward arriving and leaving. When they arrived at Frontier House, the two teenagers were smuggling their lipstick to the homestead because they couldn’t live without it, and their primary response to the whole affair was that it was boring. Nothing to do on the homestead with no electricity, etc. During the followup portion of the show we see Aine and Tracey relaxing in the swimming pool of the Clunes’ new multi-million dollar mansion in California wondering why people wear makeup and pointing out how boring they find life in the 20th century. Sure, they say, there’s a lot of stuff to do, but none of it is really doing anything.

Perhaps there is some justification in saying that the Clunes ‘cheated’ in several ways. I say, ‘Who cares?’ I can imagine a host of people (one in particular leaps to mind) who might have been picked for Frontier House and played exactly by the rules, and not gotten anything out of it. Cheat or not, the Clunes put into the project as much as anyone, and they got out everything anyone could have deserved and more. The Clunes, young and old alike, left Frontier House forever changed. Forever (I hesitate to use the word ‘better’ because I do not think it is absolutely accurate) richer people, who are more in touch with life, and more importantly themselves, individually and as a family.

One final note. Our homesteaders were at Frontier House on September 11th, 2001, and their reactions, individually and communally, only add to the excellent, exciting commentary on humanity, and instant piece of ‘Americana’ that is Frontier House.

If you get absolutely nothing else out of watching Frontier House, you will get hours and hours of conversation with those you watch it with.

Frontier House is ‘reality’ television with a purpose, or at least a use, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

It is, by the way, approximately six hours long.

 


 

Marc Eastman
Marc Eastman is the owner and operator of Are You Screening? and has been writing film reviews for over a decade, and several branches of the internet's film review world have seen his name. He is also a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Broadcast Television Journalists Association.

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