Thursday, May 04, 2006

Reflections of Reality

I've been watching PBS's new reality show, Texas Ranch House. This is the newest in a series of "House" shows. The first, "1900 House" was a British production that was supposed to see if a modern family could live as they did 100 years ago. It was very popular and spawned both English and American follow-ups.

The set-up of the original 1900 House was very artificial. The family was supposed to live as if it was 1900 but they had no outside world to interact with. The husband adapted best. He was allowed to continue with his job as a military recruiter. The kids continued with school. The mother, on the other hand, found herself trapped in the house, worrying about dust bunnies. One insight was that the mother, a very modern woman, could not bear to keep a servant.

For the follow-up, the producers came to America and created a small community on the frontier called "Frontier House". This one featured three families including a newly-wed couple. A lot of the show was about the rivalry between the other two families.

Back in England, they did "Manor House", a recreation of an early 20th century country house complete with servants. Not surprisingly, the people living as lords found it a much easier existence than the servants. In fact, they had a couple of scullery maids quit.

The next American one was "Colonial House". This was their most ambitious. They created an small 1630s settlement complete with governor.

There were a couple of other English ones that I found unwatchable. One was about living in London during the Blitz and the other had something to do with the courting rituals of the upper classes. Both were too entrenched in British culture to play well in America.

Which brings us to the current one.

Since seeing the original shows, I have found out more about what was going on in the background. It turns out that the producers have been influencing the show in order to have a more interesting storyline. For example, in Frontier House, at the beginning a couple of women confessed at the last minute that they had sewn secret pockets into their skirts for cosmetics. It turns out that this was the producers' idea. Much of the rivalry between the two families was stoked by the producers who came through the settlement prior to the filming.

I've talked with people peripherally involved with Colonial House. They said that the producers were interested in the reactions of the people, not the 1630s experience. It showed. In fact, I suspect that several of the participants were cast specifically to produce conflict.

One example is the governor and the minister. The man appointed governor was an ordained Baptist minister in real life. The man appointed to be the minister was a professor of divinity. The producers probably expected religious conflict between these two. Instead, they became very close.

Where there were sparks was between a militant atheist and the colony. I am not sure why someone who refuses to attend a church service would sign up to be part of a 1630s Puritan settlement but I am sure that this is what got her accepted to the show. Plus we got glimpses of her skinny-dipping.

This desire for conflict is common on reality shows. I saw the Mythbusters in a live show over the weekend. They said that during the first two seasons their producer tried to stir up anger between them. American Chopper was a hit and the producers figured that they needed to imitate the conflict in that show.

Which brings us to Texas Ranch House. The social dynamics are similar to Manor House. There are two camps. One gets to tell the other what to do but is totally dependant on them to make the show a success. In this case we have the Ranchers, the Cooke family, and the cowboys. The Cookes employee the cowboys and keep demanding respect. The cowboys feel, with cause, that all of the real decisions come from Mrs. Cooke. Also, Mr. Cooke feels the need to micro-manage and Mrs. Cooke refuses to look at the job the cowboys are doing as a whole. Instead she looks at what they did as it relates to her.

The foreman, Robby, is an experienced cowboy and the other cowboys have a great deal of respect for him. The Cookes feel that this undermines their authority.

Mr. Cooke's mind is easily changed. He will agree with his wife about something, talk with Robby and agree to something else, then change again after being brow-beaten by his wife. This frustrates Robby who feels that once you have said you will do something you have given your word and should not lightly change it. Did the producers know that Mr. Cooke would have so much trouble asserting his authority or did they just get lucky?

Then there is the servant, Maura. She describes herself as having a strong rebellious streak and has competed in equestrian events. So what did the producers do? They cast her in a role where she had to watch others riding constantly and was to answer to everyone. So is anyone surprised that a great deal of conflict centered around her?

So, what's the point of all this? Do the producers stir up conflict to get us to watch in the hopes that we will learn something about history? Or is the historical angle there just to stir up conflict?

Since this is a distorted view of reality, should we just stick to watching Lost?

UPDATE - After watching the final episode, I lost any lingering respect I had for the Cookes. After getting less than he wanted for his cattle and a bad deal with some Indians, he descided to get his own with the cowboys. He offered to sell them horses but his opeing price was twice what he had paid. Worse, he had previously agreed with Jared, one of the cowboys, to sell a horse at a good price. Instead, he informed Jared that the Indians had stolen his horse and it was now Cooke's.

Mr. Cooke should have counted the transaction with the Indians as a cost of doing business instead of trying to recover his losses at the expense of one of the cowboys. Or he could have offered to split the difference with Jared. Worse, when Jared objected to the deal he ended up firing Jared and giving him a half hour to clear off of the ranch. This part was his wife's contribution. Mrs. Cooke suggested that she and her daughters weren't safe around Jared.

Furious at how Jared was treated, the rest of the cowboys quit. When the evaluation team went through a couple of days later the descided that this would have meant that the Cookes would have lost the ranch the following year.

The producers were probably thrilled at how the show ended but it sure turned bitter for the participants.


moe said...

I liked Texas Ranch House but, the Cookes didn't really embrace their history or try to live like a real 1867 ranchers family. The Maura the 'girl of all work', along with Mrs. Cooke seemed to want to rewrite history with their feminist agenda.

I enjoyed the show but, I think the producers selected these ultra-feminist pushy women on purpose to create conflict. I would have been more interested in seeing the details of 1867 life on a ranch instead of 21st century battles for power. The whole show would have been better without the Cooke family.

rattlerd said...

I agree with Mark 100%. What really came through to me in the show, though, is how our 21st century attitudes toward work have become so distorted. As the post points out, Mr. & (especially) Mrs. Cooke constantly saw the men's respect for Robby as a threat, not an asset, so they were continually trying to take their own foreman down a notch--typical middle management tactic circa 2006. Unfortunately, we live in a world now where respect is too often generated by position (a role embraced with smug gusto by Mrs. Cooke in particular), while in 1867, respect came from compentency and loyalty. Why the hell wouldn't the cowboys have more respect for Robby? He was the one out there with them in the heat and dust everyday, showing them the ropes and keeping them safe, while the the Cookes sat back at the ranch house tsk-tsking and trying to find someway to make themselves relevant. Definitely made me take a long hard look at the way I live my life.