When you compare the eight-hour duration of PBS's "Texas Ranch House" to "Survivor" or "The Apprentice," which can run twice as many hours, it doesn't seem like that much of an endurance test. But watching eight hours of "Texas Ranch House" in four days (8 to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday) asks a lot of viewers.
Too much, I'd argue.
And perhaps that's part of the reason why I'm tiring of PBS's "hands-on history" shows ? too much show in too short a period. Also, after "Frontier House" (still the best), "Manor House" and "Colonial House" (easily the worst), the format is becoming predictable, especially when producers cast headstrong, modern men and women who refuse to adapt to the roles they would have had to play in the period setting.
In "Colonial House," a gay contestant came out of the closet, which he likely would not have done because it would have resulted in his execution in the Colonial era. On 1867-set "Texas Ranch House," 26-year-old Maura Finkelstein, who's cast as a servant to the ranch family, insists on playing cowboy, riding a horse bareback to the chagrin of the guys on the show who are cast as cowboys.
"I'd rather be a hero to the women watching this show" than worry about cowboy complaints, she says defiantly. As one of the more enlightened cowboys, Jared Ficklin, suggests, Maura has a chip on her shoulder. And she's not alone.
Ranch foreman Stan Johnston, a do-it-my-way-or-the-highway military man, is kicked off the ranch for getting into a fight with surly cook Ignacio "Nacho" Quiles, who has squabbles with ranch owner Bill Cooke over both his attitude and his unsanitary kitchen."There was a spectrum of the commitment to playing by the rules" of the era, Bill Cooke said at a January PBS press conference in Pasadena, Calif. "When we hit the ranch, there were several people that were very, very committed to it and remained committed to it. Others weren't as much on board with that. It kept things fractured. It was very difficult to play both sides."
Bill Cooke should know, because he tries to satisfy both those committed to the reality of the 19th century (the cowboys, who for their part, are not always as mature and responsible as they should be) and those who bring their 21st century sensibilities with them (Finkelstein and Bill's wife, Lisa).
Bill and Lisa frequently argue. The cowboys see her as the real boss on the ranch even though that goes against the hierarchy of the era. In one scene, Bill even asks Lisa to remove her microphone because he's afraid she'll come off looking like a rhymes-with-witch. (A report by the show's historical advisers in the final hour finds plenty of blame to go around, but the Cookes have more trouble accepting their share of responsibility.)
Though the three Cooke daughters and a few of the cowboys ? most notably Ficklin and Shaun Terhune ? come off as reasonable, too many of the cast members in "Texas Ranch House" are quarrelsome. These folks are definitely not at home on the range, and frequently there is heard a discouraging word and the skies are cloudy all day with swarms of flies from an infestation.
"The last two weeks, we could not go in our kitchen," said Hannah Cooke, 15, who asked her mom to apply to be on the show. "When you walked in, the flies were around you everywhere."
Filmed for three months last summer 40 miles south of Alpine, Texas, "Texas Ranch House" has fewer characters coming and going than "Colonial House" did and distinguishes itself from its predecessors by placing just one family, the Cookes, at its center. That certainly gives "Texas Ranch House" more focus than "Colonial House," but the Texas range proves to be a breeding ground for irritable behavior.
Every reality show needs a mix of those you cheer for and those you jeer against, but "Texas Ranch House" has too many of the latter.
TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Ask TV questions at www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.