Sunday, October 24, 2010

DVD Review: Colonial House

Colonial House, an eight-part documentary, was one of a series of “educational reality shows” that aired on PBS a few years ago. I’ve liked all the incarnations of this idea, where they take modern people and make them live like people did in past centuries, from the gentle 1900 House to the whiny 1940s House and the savagely funny Frontier House.

So, what do we learn from Colonial House? This: People don’t like to be told what to do.

Colonial House’s recipe is fairly simple: Send 15 or 20 “colonists” (ordinary Americans from all walks of life) to a remote shoreline in Maine, add some log cabins and a lot of dried peas, and see how they get along with day-to-day life using only the technology that was available in the 1600s—essentially, sharpened sticks and handsaws.

The story starts out with the plucky colonists, wearing scratchy-looking costumes, arriving at the dusty encampment that they'll call home for the next three months. Their first job is to read their “charter” to find out who’ll be doing what—who gets to be governor, lay preacher, freedmen, and indentured servants. The one chosen for governor is a Baptist minister from Texas in real life, a kind family man with plenty of experience motivating people. But before long, we find he has an agenda: He wants this little colony to be a City of God—the kind of harmonious Christian community that nowadays can rarely be found outside of cults and communes. And right away, there’s trouble.

All begins to unravel when some of the colonists can’t bring themselves to follow the rules that would have governed a 17th-century settlement. The atheists refuse to attend church. The women don’t like wearing head coverings, and they resent having to cook for all the men (no small feat with 1600s technology) while being banned from sitting on the governing council. The indentured servants resent being—well, indentured servants, which turns out to be just as bad as it sounds. And the two African-American participants have their own set of objections to this proto-slavery system, and both leave the colony abruptly. So what starts out looking like a living-museum piece on how to split lumber turns out to be a crash-course in civics.

I can only imagine the producers of the show saw this coming. They decided, after all, that the “governor” would be a real-life Baptist minister. And the “lay minister,” supposedly plucked from the crowd and forced to learn preaching on the fly, is in fact a theology professor. So right away, I’m thinking, “Evangelical Christians running things? That won't fly with everybody.”

And it doesn't, at least not at first. The Bible-quoting leaders are frustrated by their church-resistant flock. They try a few kind words, and they get nowhere. They try force, and they get rebellion. They finally have to throw up their hands and abandon all hope of saving their countrymen’s souls, because the corn needs planting and nobody can work while everyone’s yelling or tied to a pole in punishment. I guess on a remote tip of northeast Maine, with winter already biting at your heels, you either get your priorities straight or you starve.

This all makes me wonder how many people died in the early colonies as a result of bad management. Colonial House shows us that an off-balance colony can quickly tumble into real trouble—food supplies dwindle and the local native Americans, who are in a position to help, are offended by the bad manners and clumsy bargaining skills of the colonists.

And while nothing’s really at stake here—these faux colonists are merely stockpiling supplies to see if they “would” survive the winter, which none of them will stay to see—still, it’s a fascinating look at the complex little system that’s duplicated over and over in human societies everywhere, from Rotary clubs to sports teams to the United Nations. Governing, large or small, is a tricky thing. There’s a fine line between leadership and despotism, and those who get a little power seem to want a lot. And suddenly your goofy, salt-haired fatherly type morphs into a dictator, and everyone becomes obsessed with bringing him down. Meanwhile, banks crash and people lose their jobs and small countries are invaded and soldiers abuse POWs, and…wait, that’s another reality show.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

DVD Review: Ballykissangel

Now deep into my Netflix addiction, I’ve just finished all six seasons of the BBC comedy-drama Ballykissangel.

Ballykissangel is one of those shows that had to grow on me. When I first encountered it on PBS years ago, it seemed like a self-consciously quirky knockoff of Northern Exposure­—a fish-out-of-water story about an English priest who’s been transferred to a backwater village in Ireland. The town comes replete with eccentric locals—the rich guy, the feminist, the rubes, the barflies—and, at first, the humor seemed cloying and the accents impenetrable.

But I soon realized that there was much more to Ballykissangel. Once I developed an ear for the accents, I found the show had writers, good ones, who could weave together disparate stories and somehow make them come out right at the end. They could elicit a satisfied sigh from me, or they could turn on a dime and suddenly make me think, hard. The plots are secondary; the main attraction is the relationships that grow and dissolve between the characters—beautifully drawn, complex morality tales of flawed people who, somehow, become important to us. And then, to lighten things up, there’s the occasional flatulent dog, or an automated confessional booth falling off a truck, or the impossibly beautiful 23-year-old Colin Farrell, already with the eyebrows.

The show went through a couple of bumpy patches and jarring cast changes, notably in seasons 4 and 6. But somehow the writers always pulled it off. Just when I thought they were about to shipwreck the show in a morass of slapstick, they’d stun me with a story about alcoholism, or the inexact sciences of preaching and policing, or the twin punishments of grief and guilt. I kept thinking, “How did they get me to care about these people so much?” And that, of course, is what a good writer does.

So bravo, Ballykissangel. I only wish there were more of you to enjoy.