Pilgrims’ Progress in the Contemporary World of Reality TV


Every reality TV producer in Hollywood is looking for a hot concept that can be spun off into endless variations, à la the Survivor franchise. PBS has gone one better, showcasing a whole genre of reality television based on a boundless source of drama: history. Following on the heels of Frontier House is Colonial House, in which 26 ordinary people experience the rigors of life in a 1628 New England settlement.

“Can this group of strangers live by 17th-century rules?” asks the narrator at the start of each hour, as if setting us up for a sex-and-alcohol drenched episode of The Real World Goes Puritan. But the question isn’t rhetorical. The worst thing Real Worlders grapple with is their own youthful indiscretions, whereas Colonial House loads its inhabitants down with serious burdens. They must give up modern conveniences, live smooshed like sardines, and work together on the land to make their ramshackle settlement successful. A nearly impossible task, since most of the participants arrive with wildly varied motivations. Anthropology professor Carolyn Heinz hopes for a deeper understanding of America’s original ideals. Baptist minister Jeff Wyers wants to meditate on the hardships Pilgrims endured in search of religious freedom. He dreams of making the settlement a Christian utopia, which puts him in direct conflict with the Voorhees family, determined to rebel against all religious orthodoxy.

Although it lacks the scandal-per-minute tempo of traditional reality TV, Colonial House offers its own rude surprises. Even the party animals get contemplative as they struggle to obey strict laws regarding profanity, modesty, and idleness, or risk wearing a scarlet letter. The inhabitants come face-to-face with the underpinnings of American society—and find it hard to stomach.