Upstairs, Downriver


Amid all the humiliation and idiocy, the bug-eating and catfighting, reality TV’s noble potential has mostly been squandered. Leave it to PBS to salvage the genre’s reputation, with what it calls “hands-on history”—programs that whisk participants back in time to experience everyday life, like a televisual Colonial Williamsburg. Historical advisers ensure they do it right, down to the last fanatical detail. In 1900 House, the inhabitants of a painstakingly restored home had to deal with the horrors of authentic Victorian food and the absence of labor-saving technology; 1940s House forced a plucky British family to cope with food rations and Nazi air raids. Frontier House sent several families back to 1883 Montana, where they had to build log cabins and forage for vittles, leaving them near starvation after six months.

Whether you’re a history buff or not, these shows are strangely addictive—a perfect blend of Survivor and Simon Schama, voyeurism and edification. And now the producers of those miniseries unveil Manor House. It’s a juicy exploration of class that injects historical commentary into every amusing episode. One upper-middle-class British family, the Oliff-Coopers, was chosen to spend three months in luxury and languor at a posh English mansion called Manderston. Another 13 ordinary people agreed to be their unfortunate servants. I say unfortunate because Manor House doesn’t mollycoddle these folks—many work 16-hour days without any time off for weeks on end.

A few of the servants fall into their roles shockingly fast. Mr. Edgar, a Scottish architect in his 21st-century life, mutates instantly into a brittle, starchy butler whose fealty to his master outdoes even that of Anthony Hopkins’s obsequious manservant in Remains of the Day. Edgar is determined to follow Edwardian customs, and his attempts to teach his charges the meaning of hard work leave him an emotional basket case. “What’s the matter with the young ones? What did they think they were going to do here? Appear on television for 20 minutes and swan around?” There’s no time for swanning around when your duties include emptying bedpans, keeping the oven stoked, and washing 180 pieces of porcelain and silverware for every meal. Edgar develops a fatherly affection for his staff, but they inevitably disappoint him. “Betrayed!” he whispers through trembling lips after he finds his favorite footman sleeping off a hangover in a meadow rather than hard at work.

The master of the house, businessman John Oliff-Cooper, takes to his role as if he were born to this very manor, lording it over his minions with appalling gusto. The rest of his clan is more ambivalent, though his wife, Anna—a high-powered ER doctor in real life—eventually surrenders to her role as a wispy Edwardian dress-up doll. “It’s amazing to be so cared for,” she utters dreamily. “To have so many people running around after you is just . . . magical.” Not so enchanting for the servants, of course. They almost launch a mutiny, agitating for better treatment. Right on cue, members of a socialist club arrive to fuel discontent; the narrator deftly points out that in 1905, servants’ options were expanding as work in shops and factories became more common.

Unlike most reality shows, Manor House doesn’t go out of its way to catch participants in compromising situations—even when there’s a steamy fling in the downstairs quarters, the camera offers us a strictly G-rated version. The closest thing to dirty talk is when Anna discusses her fussy Edwardian underwear: “Judging by my husband’s reaction, it’s a man’s fantasy . . . corsets and crotchless underpants and suspenders.” These historical docudramas love to zoom in on all the uncomfortable, mundane details: In 1900 House, the mother explained grooming rituals ad infinitum, and in Manor House, the female servants are aghast to learn that they’ll be using wads of fabric instead of modern-day sanitary napkins. The fixation on ancient minutiae isn’t restricted to women. In the first episode of Warrior Challenge, another historical reality miniseries running next week on PBS, men volunteer to live like Roman centurions. Although they do learn to fight in armor, the guys also obsess over stuff like lace-up underpants and iron masks that make them look like rejects from Mr. Personality.

These petty inconveniences are fascinating, but the real agonies of Manor House aren’t physical—they’re emotional. Manderston’s workers are expected to remain silent and invisible while their endless labor goes unacknowledged, and the skillful editing gets this across through the characters themselves. “All we have to look forward to is bedtime,” housemaid Becky confides to the camera one night. “People seem to forget that we’re human.”

Deprivation, endurance, teamwork, humility. The staff of Manor House should enter themselves in Eco-Challenge, because after three months of incessant toil they’ve got the right stuff to cross the finish line. An exhilarating annual adventure race now in its eighth year, Eco-Challenge is the less glitzy sibling of Survivor. Both projects sprang from the brain of producer Mark Burnett, a former British paratrooper-turned-reality-TV mogul who sends teams thrashing through the jungles, mountains, and deserts of a chosen locale—this time Fiji. This year, 81 teams from all over the world started the race, but only 10 made it to the end. The rest succumbed to bad luck (broken equipment, poor navigation) or injury (bike accidents, poisonous eels, falling into ravines).

Eco-Challenge is all about the vicarious adrenaline buzz, of course, mixed with disbelief that anyone would voluntarily put themselves through such extremity. Half the fun of watching this four-night extravaganza is withstanding the grotesque close-ups of gaping wounds, oozing blisters, and twisted limbs; the other half is seeing people triumphantly push themselves onward. Mike Trisler of Team Earthlink rows his canoe across the river even though he’s semi-conscious from a jungle virus. As his teammate describes later, “He was literally lying there in his own feces and throwing up. . . . [The inside of his canoe] was like a third-world toilet.” Any normal person would hail the nearest helicopter outta there, but in Eco-Challenge, if one competitor goes down, the whole team is disqualified.

Burnett sets the tone for Eco-Challenge, and his commentary sounds vaguely judgmental. You get the feeling he sees this as educational programming, full of virtuous messages about life itself. A devout believer in cooperation, Burnett frequently sermonizes about choosing teammates: “Their compassion, the way you gel, the chemistry, is probably more important than being physically fit.”

The show chooses a handful of teams to follow throughout the race, and inevitably some are portrayed as saints and others as villains, depending on whether they fit with Burnett’s philosophy. The bad guys this year also serve as comic relief. The military types in Team Lupus take a rigid approach to the race; self-appointed leader Scott demoralizes his team and refuses to listen to the advice of their sole female member, Diane, thus incurring scathing critiques from Burnett. On the other hand Team Mad River—a reality TV supergroup composed of former cast members from Survivor and Road Rules—come out of a jungle known as “the Lost World” smiling and cracking jokes, though they’ve been tramping around for two days nonstop. Could this be a subliminal suggestion that appearing on Survivor makes you a better person?

David Duchovny serves as narrator this year—a strange choice, but his nasal, neurasthenic voice adds a nicely cynical, doomy counterpoint to the show: “Lost and unable to retrace their steps, Jason and Team Earthlink head into the vastness of the Lost World,” he intones. “And they are headed in the wrong direction. Again.” Probably as profound a statement about life as reality TV can offer.