Academic journal article Film & History

"The Endless End of Frontier Mythology: PBS's Frontier House 2002"

Academic journal article Film & History

"The Endless End of Frontier Mythology: PBS's Frontier House 2002"

Article excerpt

Depicting three families of modern-day "time travelers" who immerse themselves in the rough and tumble culture of 1883 Montana, PBS's Frontier House (2002) series provides a critical, self-reflexive interrogation of romanticized visions of the U.S. nineteenth-century life on the frontier. Not simply a melodramatic retelling of history as escapist fantasy, the series reflects on trends within public history to attempt to represent history with multiple viewpoints. (1) As it portrays how modern participants experience discomfort with the gender, race, and familial norms of the Montana territory as they try to reenact, the series explicitly debunks the romance of "Wild West" Hollywood films or TV shows like Little House on the Prairie. Producer Simon Shaw notes these romantic media visions prompted him to launch the series and motivated some participants, and that the harsh living conditions forced everyone to abandon these fantasies. (2)

Yet at the same time, even while it tries to offer less idealized versions of history based on the cast's lived experiences of material conditions, the show nonetheless ends up reinforcing frontier mythology, specifically an on-going investment in the idea that the American West establishes American exceptionalism by fostering freedom, individualism, and opportunity (just as Frederick Jackson Turner theorized it in the 1890s). (3) The series' narrative continually returns to a vision of liberal pluralism, one that privileges an Anglo-American cultural legacy even as it critiques the excesses of Manifest Destiny or the history of racism. The show thus offers an updated version of frontier mythology in the context of television's current dominant ideological mode of address, liberal pluralism, and in the context of recent popular culture versions of what critics have dubbed "corporate multiculturalism."

The status of the American family is one of the main thematic cruxes where this process of demythologizing and simultaneously making new, updated mythologies is evident. Utilizing the techniques of literary analysis, specifically attention to text and context, or historicized textual analysis, this article examines these issues in the program's narrative, themes, and character development. The series' form and content both contribute to these ideological themes.


The show's production history and context illuminate the series' recurring narrative focus on debunking myths. The opening tag line of each episode promises to show viewers the "real frontier" behind the "romanticized mythologies." The concept for this most American version of an historical reality series followed upon the success of the British House series on the BBC, a suite of programs including The 1900 House (1999); The 1940s House (2001); The Edwardian Country House (2002), called Manor House when it aired stateside on PBS; and Regency House Party (2004). While those series were joint productions by Channel 4 and Wall to Wall Television, Wall to Wall came to the U.S. and partnered with the PBS station, Thirteen/WNET in New York to produce Frontier House and later Colonial House (2004). Other production companies have used this format, including a CBC series called Pioneer Quest: A Year in the Real West (2000) in Canada and a German series called Black Forest House, both about the nineteenth century.

Going into production in 2001 and airing in 2002, the series followed three families for six months as they tried to survive and provide for themselves on their assigned homesteads in the Montana wilderness, securing food and shelter, caring for farm animals and growing crops, and making ready for the winter. The historical focus involves the Homestead Act of 1862, a bill Abraham Lincoln signed into law stating that public land belonged to the people and could be given free to citizens; homesteaders could claim up to 160 acres by filing a claim, living there at least half the year for five years, improving the land ("prove up"), and then getting the deed at the end of that period. …

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