Monday, June 15, 2015

Reality TV, World War II, and Controversy

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: There’s a new reality TV show, an eight-part series called Holiday in the Protectorate, about life under Nazi rule in the Czech Republic airing now on Czech television.

This is not a joke.

If you don’t believe me — or just want a taste — a trailer (in English) may be viewed here

The show sends three generations of a present day Czech family back in time to the year 1942 and life under Nazi occupation, to recreate the circumstances in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia after the invasion of Germany. The family members are not professional actors, but the rest of the “cast” is, such as the Gestapo informers, who keep a close eye on the family.

The director, Zora Cejnkova, came up with the idea for the program, calling it “not just entertainment, but a kind of history lesson for all those who didn’t experience the period 76 years ago.” 

Critical reaction has been divided. While some people praise the show for its attention to historic detail and educational value, others have found much to criticize. A columnist for The Times of Israel wrote, “Fortunately, for the family, they will not be treated like the 82,309 Jews who lived in the protectorate” — who were deported to concentration and extermination camps. 

Lovely readers, I haven’t seen the show (if anyone can find it online, even without subtitles, please tell me), so I’m going to withhold comment. 

But I will say that my family and I have enjoyed many of the same sorts of shows from the BBC — 1940s House, about life in England during World War II; Manor House, an upstairs-downstairs view of the aristocracy and servants; and 1900 House, set in London during Victorian times.

There are U.S. versions “docu-tainment” shows as well — we just finished watching PBS’s Colonial House with Kiddo, who’s studying the build-up to the Revolutionary War. We all enjoyed it—and learned quite a bit.

Reds, what are your thoughts on these sorts of shows? And if you could choose produce a reality TV program highlighting a particular time and place, what would you choose? (Me? I’d go for Lower East Side of New York City at the turn of the 20th Century and call it Tenement House.)

RHYS BOWEN: I find that idea tasteless, since so many were persecuted and died. But I have enjoyed other reality shows sending people back in time. They had 1900s House, 1940s House set in London during the war, even Jane Austen house which was fun. I liked the American frontier one, although in each case I thought they chose the participants badly. These people had trouble adapting and did nothing but complain. Having grown up in an old unheated house in England I would have had no problem. 

But yes, Susan, a taste of the Lower East Side 1900 might be interesting, although I don't see how you could recreate the teeming masses. Ancient Rome, minus the gladiators?

HALLIE EPHRON: This question really stumped me. Maybe because I've never watched a reality show. Also because I'm devoted to my space and creature comforts. I remember reading Little House on the Prairie thinking how glad I was I didn't have to deal with what Laura Ingalls Wilder's family did. Or the stench and violence of Oliver Twist's London. 

LUCY BURDETTE: Can we spend just an hour or two somewhere instead of days or weeks? LOL I don't watch reality TV shows either, and I have to agree with Rhys — I do like the idea of making sure people don't forget what happened, but not sure this is the way...

Places I'd like to be for a couple of hours: My first thought was same as Hallie, Little House on the Prairie. But how about Gertrude Stein's Paris? That would be fascinating!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I'd go for Gertrude Stein's Paris! But then, it might not be nearly as glamorous as we like to imagine... 

Marcia Talley set one of her Hannah Ives novels in a fictionalized version of Colonial House (based on a real historical house in Annapolis) and she did a great job of showing the difficulties of adjusting to life without modern conveniences—and showing that these programs deliberately pick people who whine and complain and can't adapt because it makes "drama."  I'd like them much better with cast who really tried to cope! 

I was fascinated by the guy who came and spoke to the North Texas Jane Austen Society. He wore full period clothing and explained the history and use of every item. Made me wish I was writing Regency books!

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: My absolutely unscientific opinion is that the British on the various shows are better at "coping" than the U.S. casts, who are always trying to bend the rules and get away with things...

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Oh that is tantalizing! I certainly would love to be in Lady Georgie's world for a little while…the glamorous part, with heat and bathrooms at least. Or maybe in New York Society, in… The 30s? With the Stork Club and evening clothes and big bands and Broadway babies.

Do you know what would be really fun, though… To be transported to a Broadway musical. To be the lead in the Broadway musical, and know what it was like to practice and worry and have talent  and sing wonderful songs and have opening night. Well, perhaps that's A Chorus Line… :-)

And Susan, the show you mentioned… Not quite sure I would watch that…

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Agreed, Hank, I'd love to see a reality show set in Lady Georgie's time — although the contrast between upstairs and downstairs, or Mayfair and the Isle of Dogs would have been appalling in the 1930s. Really, being rich is always nicer in any era, isn't it?

I loved the 1900 House, the Colonial House and the one set on the American frontier - can anyone recall the name of that program? [Julia, it was Frontier House — xxSusan] 1900 House was perhaps the most interesting, because it was just technologically advanced enough so that the modern-day participants didn't spend all their time just trying to heat water or get food. Instead, they had to deal with the subtle effects of the class and gender roles they were saddled with. I recall the Royal Marine father coming over quite the Pater familias, while the whole upstairs family began to treat their maid as a sort of domestic machine.

As for the Czech show, I suspect a better, more comprehensive and more tasteful way of educating the current generation on life under the Protectorate would be a good-quality miniseries or multi-part documentary.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Yes! The fathers in every era seem to become (even more) overbearing with their white male power and privilege, don't they? That seems to be a constant, regardless of era.

I was discussing this idea with Hubby (who is Black) and we decided the one show we could never do here in the U.S. is Plantation House although he brought up the interesting idea of having African Americans in the roles of plantation wonders and European Americans in the role of the slaves....

Lovely readers, what are your thoughts on Holiday in the Protectorate? Have you watched any of the historical reality TV shows we're talking about? Is there any era you'd like to go back to? Please tell us in the comments!


  1. I am not a reality show watcher and I think I agree with Rhys that this Czech show sounds particularly tasteless; it doesn't seem to me to be the best way to educate folks about life under Nazi occupation. Julia's idea of a mini-series or extended documentary makes much more sense to me.

    What era would be fun to visit? The jazz age of the 1920s gets my vote . . . .


  2. I just don't get reality TV, so I've never watched it and don't fret that I might have missed something. It makes me grumpy thinking about it

  3. The Czech show looks to be well-researched and well-done — what bothers me is the family gets a monetary prize for surviving. For some reason that's the piece that seems ... off. Making it a game, not an experience....

    And Joan -- 1920s, yes!

  4. And when I mean surviving, of course I mean "surviving." Hence the problem....

  5. Very intriguing post, Susan.

    We have living history museums and re-enactments of battles. I was at Gettysburg two years ago for the 150th anniversary, and there were young men in butternut and blue uniforms camping out, cooking meals outside, etc. in prep for the three days of grueling battle play. (Grueling because it was 100 degrees and 1000% humidity.)
    Is this show a TV version of that?

    The monetary prize, though, that's the piece that doesn't fit. Prizes make it a game. No games in history.

  6. A flawed idea--trying to recreate the past in a 'reality' show. The producers would do well to remember their psychology studies. And, it can never be 'real', unless we can conquer the slipstream of time and place a hidden camera in a household of that or any other time--and how entertaining would that turn out to be? I agree, Susan, the idea of paying the family to 'survive,' when so many did not, seems a travesty.

  7. Have you seen UNREAL? It's a scripted show about the making of a reality show. So it's like a fake documentary about the making of a reality show. The characters are actors--acting like they're participants and producers of a reality show. So--its a fake show about behind the scenes at The Bachelor. But nothing is real. (Just like in the real show, where nothing is real. Very meta. And very funny.

  8. Before writing "The Last Refuge," my mystery set in Annapolis' William Paca House where Hannah is the last-minute replacement for the lady of Patriot House: 1774, I watched every historical reality show i could lay my hands on. Also read after-show diaries of the participants. All the cast members (and they are referred to as cast) come to this closed environment carrying lots of outside baggage -- husbands, boyfriends, children -- so already you've got an unreal situation. One of my favorite characters in Patriot House is Karen Gibbs, a young African American woman with a 7-year-old son. She is the cook (a slave, naturally) and her son the errand boy, building fires, fetching water, emptying chamber pots. Karen gains a lot of perspective into how her ancestors lived. One part about writing the book that I loved was using transcripts from my characters' "diary cam" recordings. Karen says, for instance, "I've never been a morning person, so waking up at 4:30 a.m. to start cooking breakfast for a whole houseful of people is a real chore. It's getting so I don't mind eating porridge, but the next time one of the cameramen sashays into my kitchen with an Egg McMuffin, I'm going to kill him." I LOVED researching this book. The Paca House gave me free run of the place so I know every nook, cranny and secret passageway, and I got to try on colonial clothing. My god, I have cleavage!!

  9. I loved Marcia's book! I was fascinated by learning about the everyday details of life in the time. Same with The 1940s House (I have book based on the TV series somewhere.) Great research material for a writer.

    But I think the Czech show, by paying the winners to "survive", took a very big wrong turn. Ugh.

  10. I agree, Debs. Last September, Barry and I took a 2-week Viking cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam and every city along the way still seemed under the shadow of the Nazis. And the local guides we had did not sugar-coat history. The atrocities of the Nazis plus the little-talked-about atrocities committed against the Jews BY THEIR OWN PEOPLE were appalling. I cannot imagine anyone wanting to base a "reality show" on, say the massacre of Jews by the fascist Arrow Cross Militiamen in the closing days of the war. The "Shoe Memorial" on the banks of the Danube in Budapest will break your heart.

  11. Hi Reds! I've been following the discussion of this new reality show, and am pretty much appalled. What really bugs me is the attempt by the producers to claim that the show will serve an educational purpose. It's certainly true that people in all of Central Europe could use more discussion about the historical realities of occupation and collaboration, but to present a "reality" that leaves out the reality of violence and death is worse than wrong. An accurate fictionalized story would be much more useful..not to mention a well-done documentary.

  12. I guess I'm alone in this, but I don't find this new show that bad. There is plenty of criticize about totalitarian governments besides the killing. If this show is truly highlighting that, it serves as a good warning. Yes, it is leaving out the murder, which is by far the worst part. But any kind of look at what life was like back then can be educational. And really, how would you "kill" someone for a reality TV show.

    Of course, I don't watch any of these shows, so maybe if I did, my opinion would be much different.

  13. FChurch, I don't think any of the shows are trying to "recreate" a past as much as show what adjustments modern families have to make (or not!) to adjust and what that says about us.

    Hank, I'll have to check out UNREAL.

    Welcome, Marcia! I agree with you about Colonial House -- my family and I loved it (and learned a lot from it) as well, especially my son, who was studying that time period in school. Seeing fellow present-day kids adjust was interesting for him.

    Ron, if you go to the web page (I provided a link above) there is a lot of education material. Do you read enough Czech to make sense of it? It looks quite thorough.

    Again, my issue is not so much doing it as making a "game" out of it. But I'd like to actually watch episodes, as I said. Maybe they will be on youtube at some point?

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  19. Hah, Susan, I was joking with an actress that I met at an event at the Morris-Jumel mansion last summer about what if PBS had ever thought about doing'Plantation House.' We both looked at each other and said 'house slaves!' I agree that the only way that a show like that could happen would be if it were reversed and the Europeans were the slaves. It might silence all those people who believe that slavery actually wasn't that bad. I would love to see a version of Manor House/Edwardian House set in Newport, RI. Imagine spending several weeks living in one those 'cottages.' It might not be a reality show but one can experience what life would have been like in a New York tenement just by visiting the museum on the Lower East Side.

  20. I also don't watch reality TV. I agree with others that keeping the history alive is important. The more time elapses since WWII, and the more people pass on, the harder it is to educate and we run the risk of turning that period into a dry, lifeless recitation of numbers.

    However, yeah, not sure this is the way to do it. A documentary would be one thing. Awarding prize money? Tacky.

    Period I'd like to revisit? America in the 20s. The Roaring Twenties, prior to Black Friday. I just thing the clothes, flappers, lifestyle, Prohibition-era clubs, Hollywood, gangsters (real gangsters, not what passes for "gangstaz" today) would be fascinating to see in person.

  21. I'd been thinking about this off and on since I first heard about this show. Yes, I'd watch it, because I'm obsessed with this era, but I agree with the Czech historian that it can't possibly recreate even s alight facsimile of the real dynamic of those times. The people playing Nazis on the show can't possibly behave the way they really did--with ruthless violence. The only thing the "reality" show directors could do to even slightly replicate this violence would be to have the people sign a contract agreeing that they'd not be paid and would be fined, oh, say, 30 thousand Euros each time the Nazis (if this had been real) would have engaged in an act of violence against people. It wouldn't be the same thing as having a beloved family member roughed up, imprisoned, tortured, or murdered by the Nazis, but it would create some pain in the participants and would give them something to dread and try hard to avoid. But of course no-one would agree to that. So I can't see how they can at all reproduce the experience of living under such brutal oppressors. The "villagers" can behave defiantly and heroically in this show without any fear of consequences.

  22. Susan, I read on the web site that the "villagers" did talk back to the Gestapo (actors) — which would NOT have happened. Or someone might have been shot. However, if they stop and say -- "you know, you feel brave enough to speak up for yourself because of the freedoms and protections you enjoy today, but someone living in the Protectorate in 1942 would NOT and this is why..." then I think it's a potential learning experience.

    Elizabeth, too funny that you and your friend also thought of "Plantation House" with races reversed. I still think it would be horrific -- there would been to be a team of psychologists on staff...

    Mary, Roaring Twenties, yes! And I'm all for Debs's idea: Gertrude Stein's Paris.... Honestly, I'd like my son to experience "1970s House" -- life without electronics... Maybe this summer....

  23. Following Susan's line of thought, if the "Gestapo" on the show were provided with paint ball guns, a lot of the "villagers" wouldn't make it out of the show "alive."

  24. Oh, putting today's teenagers in 1970's house is BRILLIANT! Really. Or even 1950's.

  25. Putting teens in a 70s house is brilliant. As long as I don't have to be the one to chaperone them. =)

  26. Wow -- fascinating that in the Czech Republic the show isn't considered too tasteless to air. A difference in cultures, I guess. We don't know what it's like to be taken over by another country -- and then again with the USSR -- and then a dissolution into two countries -- so their perspective on what's tasteless or not tasteless is likely to be different than ours, culturally speaking.

    How about making a bunch of gung-ho careerist 20-something women return to 1950s housewife house? :-)

  27. "How about making a bunch of gung-ho careerist 20-something women return to 1950s housewife house? :-)"

    Only if I can smoke again, Lisa!

  28. Marcia - and use lead paint for the house, and drive your half-block-long car with no seatbelts.

    I'd like to see WRITERS HOUSE: a group of authors on an ostensible writing retreat. It would be boring as all get-out during the day, but when the bar opens at six o'clock...

  29. We do not get that program here, but, I think I would enjoy the 1900 house and the 1940's house, others sounds depressing, which they would, it was a depressing time in so many ways