Who knew it would be PBS that would set off an escalating game of TV one-upmanship in the historical "less modern convenience is more" category? And who knows where it'll end?
The trend-ette started innocently enough in 1999 when public television -- picking up a program from Britain's Channel 4 -- launched the historical reality genre with "The 1900 House," the so-called reality show masked as an education miniseries. It was informative and fun, and viewers by the millions tuned in to see the Bowler family struggle to adapt to the harsh demands of living in a Victorian-era flat in London with none of the modern conveniences. The show was a sensation, or at least as much of a sensation as viewer-supported television tends to generate.
Not to be outdone by the Brits, PBS created "The Frontier House," which aired earlier this year. This time the challenge was tougher: Three families had to live like homesteaders in 1883 Montana. Now there were inter-family dynamics, and the participants not only had to live in old-style houses, they had to build their own.
Next? If you think not having dish or laundry soap in the Victorian house was hard, and enduring the harsh Montana winter with no indoor plumbing was a challenge, just try life on a mid-18th century tall ship.
That's the setting for the History Channel's venture "The Ship," which aired this past week, in which 40 men and women were crew on a re-creation of Capt. James Cook's ship, the one that brought the first Europeans to Australia. Out at sea, food was always scarce, water was precious, the work was grueling and as for diversions, well, there are only so many sea chanteys one can endure.
For next season, we foresee one of the well-meaning networks offering "The Medieval Castle," in which contestants would endure the plague, the rack and the Inquisition. Ouch.
And, perhaps for 2005, one brave network might offer up the ultimate: "The Caveman Cave." One lucky family would get the chance to live the full Fred and Wilma experience, sewing their own loincloths out of animal skins, hunting and gathering for food and felling a giant elephant with a spear they honed themselves.
It's bound to happen -- that's just how TV works. PBS, take it away....