"The 1900 House" is the closest PBS will ever get to MTV's "The Real World."
And that's a good thing.
Instead of locking oversexed twentysomething strangers in an immaculate home and capturing the inevitable fights and romances on tape, PBS installs a British family in "The 1900 House," where they must live like their ancestors at the turn of the century.
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"The 1900 House"
When: 10 p.m. tomorrow on WQED.
Starring: The Bowler Family.
It's one of the most entertaining programs on PBS in ages. A commercial network, or even a greedy PBS programmer, might try to stretch the series out longer, but it's a credit to the show's producers that it airs in four perfectly palatable one-hour installments Mondays at 10 p.m. on WQED.
Tomorrow's premiere, "The Time Machine," shows the process of selecting a family from more than 400 applicants and the daunting task of restoring the suburban London row house to the way it would have been in 1900.
Electricity is out, gas lamps are in. The flush toilet is removed from the house and put in an adjacent room out the back door (Victorians were fearful of germs, so they kept the toilet separate from the house).
Every episode of "The 1900 House" distinguishes itself from "The Real World" and its imitators by educating viewers about domestic life 100 years ago. Some drama comes from conflict among family members, but it's more often a battle between the family and their new period lifestyle.
Living in The 1900 House for three months proved an education for the Bowler family, too. Patriarch Paul Bowler serves as a warrant officer in the Royal Marines, but was transferred to a desk job for a portion of the series. Matriarch Joyce Bowler took a leave of absence from her job as a school and day-care facility inspector, because in 1900 a middle-class woman would not work outside the home.
Joyce is the most enthusiastic family member, but shortly after arriving at The 1900 House, on her 44th birthday, she loses it.
"I knew it was going to be tough and I knew it wasn't supposed to be so quick [to get things done] and I thought I was going to be much better at it than this," she sobs in the second episode, "A Rude Awakening."
The family agreed to a strict 1900s regimen, wearing Victorian outfits - including corsets for Joyce and 17-year-old daughter Kathryn - and buying only products and food that would have been available at the time. There's no phone, just a postal delivery/pickup four times a day. No music from a stereo, just a piano for entertainment.
The Bowler children face their own challenges, especially 9-year-old Joe, who doesn't care for the food. Twins Hilary and Ruth, 11, must share the same bed and sleep in the same room with Kathryn.
The heart of the house - the stove that provides heat and hot water - causes many headaches. And constant cleaning (especially dust) proves trying for Joyce. Along the way there are temptations, and at least once the family slips from their 1900s ways, but they confess when guilt gets the better of them.
By the end of their three-month stay, some of the family members are ready to depart, while others are sad and feel they've just begun to cope with their virtual time travel.
At the January Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif., Paul spoke of how their experience living in a 1900s house differed from living in a 1999 house.
"In the [early] 1900s we didn't have the technology, so everything that you had to do took a certain amount of time," he said. "Today we can go down to the shops and buy something, and if it doesn't work we can throw it in the dustbin because it's disposable and we can go down to the shop and buy another one."
Throughout the series, Joyce proves the most articulate and reflective member of the family. In January she said living in The 1900 House gave her more appreciation for small things.
"If you waited a very long time for a kettle to boil and you've warmed the pot and you're making your tea, you appreciate that cup of tea so much more than if you just dashed it out in the kitchen," Joyce said. "Our whole pace of life slowed down to the extent that when we came back it was quite difficult to readjust back into modern life."
Joyce also learned how life differed for women, and that discovery made a lasting impression.
"I've never been a strong feminist," she said. "I never really held any views. ... I was just trotting along happily in my own little world, and then I discovered that so very recently, just 100 years ago, the plight and the lifestyle of a woman was so different and so restrictive. It just hit me very strongly while I was living in the house."
Forget about the latest "Real World" or CBS's "Survivor" and the upcoming "Big Brother." "The 1900 House" is summer's most enlightening voyeuristic series.
Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv/ under PG Online Talk.