Even on the newly hipped-up, post-Louis Rukeyser PBS, "reality series" means something different. Instead of thongs, you get bonnets. But the six-part Frontier House (check local listings), which sends three real-life families to lead the hardscrabble life of 1880s Montana pioneers, is not unlike Survivor. On both, the players slaughter pigs--and come close to slaughtering one another as well.
Frontier's families spend more than five months farming, cooking, tending livestock and felling trees--an especially hard life for the Xbox-deprived kids. But the real drama is psychological. Competitive Tennesseans Karen and Mark Glenn squabble with each other and with the Clunes--well-off, whiny Californians who sneak in food and gear, rationalizing that pioneers would have cheated to survive if they could have. (The Brookses, a young interracial couple, are neighborly and mellow, and thus get relatively little screen time.) The couples clash over purity of lifestyle, rules and personalities, all within a context of earnest communitarianism. It's like the most fractious food co-op ever.
The show offers some factoids about prairie life (makeup was considered immoral), but it's truly about 21st century society. The women adjust to an un-p.c. life of cooking and cleaning for their newly Marlboro-ized men. "The whole place is like a man's playground," one woman says. And a surprisingly moving epilogue follows the families' re-entry into mall-and-microwave life. Their conclusion--that we're alienated from our work and nature--is trite but hard earned. Does that mean they end up swearing off fast food and video games? Dream on, Pilgrim. --By James Poniewozik