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'Frontier House' reality for highbrows

Sunday, April 28, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

After the success of "The 1900 House," a short-run series that saw a family of modern Britons live as people did at the turn of the century, PBS seeks to replicate its success by sending three families to live on the 1883 Montana prairie in "Frontier House" (9 p.m. tomorrow).


"Frontier House"

When: 9 p.m. tomorrow through Wednesday on WQED/WQEX.


Like its predecessor, the six-hour "Frontier House" miniseries is a mildly educational and sometimes entertaining docudrama that shows the warts and all outcome of throwing families together in a setting that's a decent approximation of the past.

Produced by the same team responsible for "The 1900 House," this latest highbrow "reality" show gets off to a bumpier start that displays the dangers of the genre regardless of a show's pedigree.

En route to the homestead where they'll spend five months, Adrienne Clune is almost run over by a team of horses and her son Conor gets thrown out of the wagon as the horses pull away. Neither is seriously injured, but the incident raises questions about involving civilians - particularly children - in the filming of reality shows, even if they're not competing for a prize.

The Clunes - including husband Gordon and children Aine and Justin and teen-age cousin Tracy - are a wealthy clan from California who, in the early days of building their log cabin home, are prone to whining.

Competitive Karen Glenn, bullying matriarch of a Tennessee family, whines about the Clunes' whining. The Glenns - including husband/stepfather Mark and Karen's children Erinn and Logan - are the only family to have a fully built cabin waiting for them.

Familial harmony begins to disintegrate as holier-than-thou Karen harshly harps on Mark for everything and anything. Karen comes off as gleefully despotic and her behavior sometimes makes "Frontier House" painful to watch, especially when you consider how her children are affected. (Karen and Mark are currently separated, according to the show's companion book.)

Twentysomething Nate Brooks, the most spirited and humorous of the bunch, travels to Montana from Massachusetts, bringing his father, Rudy, with him. Nate's fiancee Kristen will join him and they'll get married on the frontier in the show's third episode.

The first hour of the series, "The American Dream," introduces the cast and shows them getting instruction in homestead living. Sensitive Logan, 9, is upset by the killing of a chicken. His concern for animals becomes a recurring theme. Later, he asks if the family can keep a calf "until its cuteness goes away."

Gordon Clune complains about restrictions on hunting for game; Adrienne and her daughters bemoan rules that require them to give up makeup for the duration of their experience on the frontier; and Conor cries.

"I fell out of a wagon, I lost my worm [while fishing] and I got attacked by vicious dogs," he says between sobs.

"When I volunteered to do this, I didn't think starvation was one of the things we were going to have to do," Adrienne says as the family's food supply runs low.

But by the end of their experience, filmed from May to October last year, the families grew to appreciate their new way of living. After a PBS press conference for "Frontier House" in January, the children said they regretted their return to modern society.

"I wish it could have gone on forever because it was really fun out there," Logan said. "It was really hard to leave. I wish I could go back and do it again."

Clune cousin Tracy, 15, said it was difficult to renew friendships after her frontier experience.

"Whenever I told [friends] about the frontier after I came back, they didn't seem to care," she said. "I don't really have friends anymore. I can't relate to anybody anymore."

Tracy is home-schooled now and she's getting a reminder of her Montana life by working with horses on a farm.

During the PBS press conference for "Frontier House," participants in the series said their virtual trip back in time made them miss friends, hot running water, baseball scores and mobility.

Producers said one goal of the show was to debunk flowery notions of "Little House on the Prairie," simpler life bliss.

"There's community, but there's also conflict between neighbors," said executive producer Beth Hoppe. "The Hatfields and the McCoys, which is one of the most famous disputes in American history, started over an errant pig."

"Frontier House" bears that out with bickering aplenty, but cast members won't abide comparisons to "Survivor."

"What does corporate manipulation and back-biting and back-stabbing have to do with what we did?" said Mark Glenn. "We weren't competing for a prize and we weren't out to stick it to our neighbors to forward ourselves or get face time on camera. This wasn't 'Survivor.' This was surviving."

Participating in "Frontier House" made the cast members consider, in varying degrees, about how easy we have it today. Little Logan, a sweet-natured kid throughout the series, sums up the realizations of several "Frontier House" participants in the final hour.

"In the 21st century... you have so much stuff, you're just bored of it all," he says. "In 1883, you had such little stuff, it was special to you when your mom would buy you stuff."

Two hour-long episodes of "Frontier House" will air Monday through Wednesday this week. It's an unfortunate programming decision that requires viewers to give up two hours of prime time during the first full week of May sweeps.

Why not air the show over six weeks in the summer when there's little on besides repeats? Even with a potentially popular program like "Frontier House," PBS continues to work in mysterious, self-defeating ways.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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