Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Historical Fiction - Colonial House on PBS

I watched the just completed (at least the first airing) PBS "reality" series Colonial House. A very interesting project, though fraught with inconsistencies and innacuracies. This review at Slate does a good job summing up some of the problems. (For a good discussion of the various personalities and issues throughout the course of the show, go here.)

Basically, the main conflict was about the role of religion. Some of the "actors" were atheist and had a problem attending church services. This prompted many to ask, "What exactly did you expect in recreating a colony in 1628?" The Voorhees family, especially the wife, Michelle, were the most agregious violators. This religious controversy was portrayed in the show, and Michelle Voorhees correctly came off as being a bit sanctimonious in sticking to her "principles." However, what wasn't portrayed, and probably should have been, was the fact that the church services themselves weren't historically accurate. Apparently, concessions were made to 21st century religious practices in that modern songs and format were often followed. In particular, at least according to Craig Tuminaro, the Wyers (the Governor and his family; they had to leave the show for personal reasons) and Verdecia families were the beneficiaries of a bit of religious pandering (links to a RealVideo testimony by Tuminaro). I was critical of some of the colonists for not fully embracing the concept and refusing to attend the sabbath service and I must say that I am just as critical of this revelation. The services should have been more reflective of the time, simple as that.

There were also other problems. There was absolutely no hunting shown and fishing was a disaster. This is partially attributable to the relative lack of wildlife now compared to 1628 and the producers of the show should have made some concessions by providing game and fish. (More insight provided at this discussion board). Also, one of the colonists "came out" as a gay man, something that would have not been tolerated. I actually thought this was handled well by all, considering the different 21st century perspectives of the colonists, but still have one question. Was a gay man specifically cast in hope of creating some sort of conflict? If so, thumbs down.

Additionally, and probably inescapably, the "colonists" couldn't help but apply modern sensibilities to encounters with Native Americans. Despite this, the encounter with the local Pasamaquoddy tribesmen was probably pretty close: the same cannot be said of the encounter with the Wampanoags.

In my opinion, the Wampanoags brought too much of their own agenda into the show. For obvious, understandable, and mostly correct reasons, they were antagonistic towards the whole colonial idea. They confronted the colonists about how the colonies presence made them feel. They pointed out how this type of colony was "how it all started" and that while the concept may be exciting and adventurous to the colonists, to the Native Americans, it signifies a reenactment of the beginning of the end of their culture. All of this is true. However, there are two sides to every coin. We in this country have glossed over the injustices done to Native Americans, though we are aware that they have been done wrong. However, the Wampanoags were a bit too self-righteous for my taste, though I understand why they feel the way they do. I have some familiarity with this period, and it is historical fact that Native Americans practiced tribal warfare against each other as well as whites. It was not "The Colonists" vs. some monolithic "Native American" group. The tribes competed against each other and often allied with the European settlers against other tribes. The Wampanoags, Narragansetts and others were the loser's of King Phillip's War and the victorious English colonists were aided by Pequots, Mohegans and Eastern Niantic. We were wrong to make the White=Good/Indian=Bad analogy in our past, it is just as wrong to reverse this analogy. The truth lies in the middle. I intend no ill will towards Native Americans (I have Huron many generations back in my own family tree), I just ask that the entire story be told, not just the part that indicts the "white man."

As far as some more aesthetic factors, I think that the Heinzes came off as classic know-it-all liberals. They were ostensibly the lay preacher and his wife and were very "open-minded" until they became governor (when the Wyers left). I purposedly say "they" because Mrs. Heinz clearly relished her new role as Governor's wife. In short, she was the most irritating person on the show. It was their indentured servant, Jonathon Allen, who came out as a gay man. He was worried about how the Heinzes would receive the revelation, but they basically said "no big deal," which was perfectly fine. Jonathon began to look upon them as sort of surrogate parents, which was a mistake. When they became governor, they instantly instructed Jonathon to move out so they could have more room. I guess the feelings of an indentured servant didn't mean quite as much to a governor. Jonathon was predictably hurt and Carolyn Heinz said at one point he wouldn't be moving back into the house if he kept moping about. Gee, what compassion. Ironically, I think it was historically accurate, but it does provide a bit of instruction on the mindset of some liberals, no? On the positive side, I think Don Wood and John Voorhees came across very well (though I may be biased because they are demographically similar to me), as did Julia Friese, whose online testimonials I encourage you to view as they show some insight into a young woman who truly used the experience to learn more about herself. Amy-Kristina Herbert left halfway through the project (it was planned that way) and made an interesting point about the dichotomy of being African-American and playing the part of a colonial. The first governor, Jeff Wyers, also did an admirable job, but the religious controversy took its toll and he threw his hands up in the air and gave up trying to enforce the rules due to pragmatic reasons. Finally, Jack Lecza arrived late and played the role of the Company Treasurer and was charged to get the colony's economic engine running. He was perfect for the role and it was fun to watch the Heinzes pray for this obvious real-world capitalist to fail only to be confronted by his success. In short, this guy should have been cast as the governor in the first place.

If historical accuracy was the ideal, the series fell short. As Dennis Cass wrote in his aforementioned review at Slate:
"Colonial House is by no means a bad show. On the contrary: It's painstakingly researched, beautifully photographed, and it effectively debunks myths about the colonists as a bunch of dour, buckle-shoed squares. The viewer comes away with a good sense of how arduous life was for early settlers, and somewhere in there is buried a message about the challenges of balancing individual freedom with the individual's responsibility to his or her community. But whether Colonial House provides a true flavor of life in early America, I can't be sure. "

Frankly, parts of it were better than others. It was an interesting experiment in anthropology and history. I think that with some tweeking, it could be done again. I would recommend watching it if it re-airs, but try to take everything with a grain of salt. I won't ruin the end by telling what the final evaluation of the success of the colony was, but remember, it is PBS and we wouldn't want to hurt anybody, would we?


Ben said...

I like how you justify your criticism of the Native American aspect of Colonial House by pointing out that your ancestors include members of the Huron tribe. It gives me an insight into your mindset; that you have to somehow use tokenism to back up your idea. The show encompasses 8 hours of thousands upon thousands of hours of experience. Please shut your mouth. You don't know how things really happened so commentating is no more accurate then predicting the future with tea leaves.

Marc said...

Ben, I didn't use the fact that I have a sliver of Huron ancestry as the main reason to back up my idea. Instead, I referred to colonial history. I mentioned my Huron blood for full disclosure, not in the way you apparently inferred.

As far as your critique of me criticizing the 8 hours of the show that were shown, well, what else am I supposed to do? That is what PBS chose to portray as the essential experience of Colonial House. If they wanted to show more, they would have. This post was a review of the show and what I thought was historically inaccurate. Finally, if you have some insight of how things "really happened," I'm all ears.

I'm a grown up, Ben, I'm willing to listen to what you have to say beyond the simplistic condemnation you've thus supplied. I don't know you from Adam, so I'm not going to jump to any conclusions because I realize that the nuances of face-to-face communication are missing in textual correspondence. Additionally, the neat little pigeoholes we try to put everyone in based upon a combination of a snapshot of writing and our preconceptions often don't fit. Please keep that in mind before attempting to gain any insight into my "mindset" again. Or at least read all of my posts over the past 2 years.

Just holding you to your own standard.