The latest entry in PBS's "hands-on history" series, Colonial House, lacks the entertaining verve of its two best predecessors, Frontier House and Manor House. At eight hours - four hours this coming week, four hours the following week - it's a lugubrious affair with few compelling characters for the audience to invest in. Who's to blame? Mostly it's just due to happenstance.
Too many characters are constantly entering and exiting the series, making it difficult to latch onto any of them. That's often due to circumstances beyond producers' control. Development of the characters who remain is within their grasp, and a few do bob to the surface, but mostly Colonial House - which airs from 8 to 10 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, and May 24 and 25 on PBS Channels 30 and 27 - is an inert series with a slow pulse.
This time, the setting is the Maine coast in 1628, as a group of colonizing pilgrims attempt to make a go of it in the New World. Colonial House was filmed over a five-month period last year and features 26 people - mostly Americans with a few Brits sprinkled in - residing in a 17th-century environment.
Jeff Wyers, a Southern Baptist minister, is assigned the role of governor of the colony. Don Heinz, an academic and Lutheran pastor, takes the part of lay preacher. Assorted players are assigned the roles of servants and freemen. Wives accompany their husbands but grow frustrated with their second-class-citizen roles.
Where Frontier House was a soap opera and Manor House a study in class stratification, Colonial House is more episodic with too many outside-world influences. (Two different groups of American Indians drop in, a treasurer for the English company that sent the colonists arrives, various settlers come and go.) The 21st century also intrudes frequently. The Wyers family departs early in the project after a daughter's fiancee dies in an auto accident back home.
Jonathon Allen, who plays a servant, announces his homosexuality to his fellow colonists during a church service.
At a January PBS press conference in Hollywood, Allen said deciding to tell the other participants he is gay was a difficult decision.
"It was really tough to reconcile that I was trying to replicate an era which would not accept me, that does not condone that," Allen said. "It weighed on me incredibly. I'm not sure if it was the right thing to do, because they didn't do this back then, but everyone was talking about love and how much they miss the people back home and I didn't want to be a liar, so I decided to be honest. Sometimes it came back to bite me in the [rear end]. Some people didn't appreciate that, but sometimes you get that in real life, too."
Colonial House attempts to replicate the era as
faithfully as possible, complete with scarlet letters pinned on chests for assorted sins (profanity, blasphemy, lack of modesty, etc.), but those who refuse to attend church services are not put into stocks as they would have been. And Allen survived the experience despite being gay.
"It was really not discussed or punished," said series producer Sallie Clement of homosexuality in 1628. "If you were [discovered caught in the act] it was death. But there were cases - if you were a particularly valuable member of the labor force - they could be punished another way. Death wasn't very beneficial to a small community."
It is somewhat interesting to see how some of the participants react when stripped of their 21st-century freedoms. "Everyone had very challenging roles that they weren't accustomed to in the 21st-century lives," said Julia Friese, who played a servant. "Being a very headstrong 21st-century liberal female, I found it quite difficult to become subservient and to have to keep my mouth shut."
But you expect that reaction. The class warfare in Manor House was more stark and the disintegration of one family in Frontier House was far more visceral than the small squabbles in Colonial House.
Additionally, I still think PBS programmers err when squashing these miniseries into eight hours over two weeks. These living-history programs would be far more palatable scheduled one hour a week for eight weeks.
Scrunched into such a tight air pattern makes for a fairly exhausting viewing experience.
Executive producer Beth Hoppe said Colonial House was the most ambitious "hands-on history" project to date (the British import Regency House premieres this fall; another American version is in the works, but details have not been announced). It features more participants and goes further back in time.
But I don't think the time period is what makes Colonial House disappointing; rather, it has too unwieldy a cast that, unfortunately, didn't prove as colorful as some of their predecessors on previous PBS educational reality shows.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette.