Television Reviews

Frontier House – People Have Changed Too Much in 100+ Years, and Not For Better

With the reality show craze at its height, PBS decided to get into the act in its own way. It aired a series of “House” shows, some in collaboration with British television, where modern-day families were transformed into families of a different era and sent to live in that setting.

In Frontier House, three modern-day families are brought to a remote valley in Montana to live as settlers did in Frontier Days.

The Glenns come from Tennessee. Karen is a Nurse and Mark is a teacher. Karen’s two children are with them. They get a cabin that was “abandoned” as their home.

Gordon and Adrienne Clune are better off. He’s a California executive who has already hired carpenters to start their cabin rather than doing the work on his own. They have three kids, plus a niece living with them.

Boston teacher Nate Brooks and his father Rudy arrive to construct the cabin out of what they find on the land. His fiancee, Kristen, will be joining them down the line.

The families get coaching and guidance for the first few days. The men do pitch in to help Nate and Rudy get the cabin ready. Nate plans to have it done when Kristin arrives as they will be married on the show, frontier style. It’s a nice glimpse at this aspect and I give the two of them a lot of credit for adapting their plans for the show. Since Nate is African-American and Kristin is white, it’s an unusual marriage for the era. However, interracial couples often did turn west to the frontier to escape the racism back in the settled country.

Information such as this is often provided through the narration. it’s a good corollary to the interpersonal relationships that are filmed as well as the cameras put into the homes for people to talk to. Sometimes it’s treated as a confessionary or “tell-all” and at others, it’s used to vent frustrations.

2/3 of the original homesteaders didn’t make it the five years necessary to prove up on their claims. The goal of this project was for the families to thrive enough that they could last the winter on their claims, even though they would leave the project before that was necessary.

The real surprise is how our 20th (21st) century personalities don’t translate well to frontier life. Karen Glenn seems to want to be altruistic and generous to the Clunes in the beginning. That soon unravels as she’s distressed when they won’t accept her offer of shelter, at least for their kids. She seems to take it personally. It also becomes apparent that there was some friction between personalities while they were receiving training prior to the trip to the Valley.

The Clunes initially appear to be the “Nellie Oleson”s of Frontier House. They whine over and over again about how it’s not fair, how they are losing weight, how they work so hard and deserve better, etc. Gordon Clune does have a valid point when he complains about the hunting regulations hindering them. The producers of this show should have figured out something to compensate for that, although the point made about the Crow Indian Tribe being allowed to hunt year-round and helping out the settlers is pretty good. This is especially haunting with the narrative of how the Crow were screwed out of this very land the show is being filmed on by the U.S. Government and then starved out.

However, it’s Karen Glenn who seems to have a hard time just taking care of her own house and not worrying about what’s happening over at the Clunes. She seems to see it more as a competition – that the hardier folk from Tennessee are going to teach those people from the West Coast a thing or two. There are snide remarks about Adrienne’s college education. Eventually, she seems to be so overcome by jealousy over everything the Clunes do that it penetrates every fiber of her being.

And this is most definitely a 20th-century trait. How many people are so worried about keeping up with the Joneses? That their neighbor might have it a little better than them? And when a neighbor does have a bigger house, nicer car, etc., how come so many of us delight in tearing them down or sit there smugly when disfavor befalls them? Perhaps if Karen Glenn focused more on keeping her own house in order rather than obsessing over whether the Clunes were “playing fair”, her situation would not be what is shown at the end of the show.

That’s not to say the Clunes are above reproach. Gordon seems to be unable to accept the criticism leveled at him by the experts throughout the show. He seems used to talking his way through any situation. He’s a salesman, pure and simple, and he thinks he’s going to “sell” all the experts that his family is set for the winter. Gordon seemed to treat the show more as a season of Survivor than what its true intention was. They definitely didn’t endear themselves to me at all, either.

Who rise above the whole situation are Nate and Kristen Brooks. They may have had it easier, as Nate points out because they didn’t have children to care for. But they seem to espouse true neighborly generosity as well as altruism. They would like to see everyone getting along better, but they seem to be in the middle between the Hatfields and the McCoys at times.

All this rivalry does make for a good show, however. Frontier House is one of the better ones I’ve seen in the series, at least from an entertaining perspective. What does that say about all of our modern sensibilities? Not much, really. We are all lesser people than those on the frontier were, it would seem.

In between all of this, the people must do what people needed to do on the frontier to survive. They must cut wood, tend gardens, raise livestock, attend a limited time of schooling, cook, clean, and make time to go to the local “store” to trade for other needed goods.

It’s a great series that will make anyone really appreciate all we have now. If you can look around your house and you flick a switch to get heat and light; if you can turn a knob to boil water; if you can just hop in a vehicle and head out to the store anytime you need food, then you have it pretty damn good.


• Behind the Scenes
• Making Frontier House

4 replies »

  1. When I see these sorts of things, I often wonder how well I’d do. I don’t think very well. I’m too attached to indoor plumbing. My grandparents had the old-fashioned outhouses for emergency use when the plumbing froze in the winter. I really hated those cold sprints with a roll of t.p. Plus, there was no light in the, um, room of requirement, so you had to leave the door open. Since it was the middle of the woods, not a big deal, but still, you spent more time there than was absolutely necessary.

    • I can imagine – I treat portapotties with the same disdain and generally only do in a real emergency. Geocaching has trained me to be able to #1 outside pretty easily but I can’t see doing #2. I’m too much of a 20th century child for that.