Byline: Marc Peyser
It takes less than 40 minutes for the first person to start crying on "Frontier House." That's not so bad, given that "Frontier" is one of those semisadistic PBS shows where mild-mannered history buffs travel back in time to live just like the natives--in this case, like homesteaders in 1883 Montana. More than five months without telephones, running water or "The Osbournes" is enough to make even the most gung-ho pioneer break down. The thing is, Adrienne Clune doesn't cry because she wants her MTV, or even decent toilet paper. She wants something more essential. She wants her makeup. "I thought I looked like crap," Clune says in one of those video-diary moments that are mandatory even in a 19th-century reality TV show. "I'm sorry. I did not enjoy it. I tried all day not to cry." At one point she even smuggles lipstick and mascara under her skirt. She finally hands over the contraband when the producers apparently get suspicious, though not without a final request. "Can I just put lipstick on one last time?"
"Frontier House" is the sequel (or is that prequel?) to "The 1900 House," in which a family in England lived for three months in a town house scrupulously retrofitted to Victorian conditions. It was a spectacular marriage of reality TV and history seminar, and it became PBS's most-watched mini-series of 2000. PBS has tinkered with its formula for "Frontier," which debuts April 29. For one thing, the new show features three families, instead of one. That means three times as much history--and three times as much history-induced misery. More important, these are Americans, so you can forget all that British stoicism. Americans whine. Americans cheat. Americans have no compunction about complaining that the frontier is ruining their sex life, among other marital woes. "We're at divorce level," Karen Glenn says to the camera in the middle of a fight with her husband, Mark, about who rules the log cabin. "I'm ready to kick him out and just do it by myself." PBS thought "Frontier House" would be Laura Ingalls Wilder come to life. What it got was "Little Grouse on the Prairie. …