While other modern reality shows have had people looking for husbands and wives, or “surviving” on tropical islands while trying to win peanut butter sandwiches, PBS has taken their own spin on the genre. There has been a series of popular shows where modern folks forego the internet and cell phones to experience how people lived during certain times of history, like Colonial House, The 1900 House, and my personal favorite, Frontier House. Now we have a game set of people volunteering to live in squalor for about a month in Victorian Slum House.
Recreating a rough facsimile of London’s East End that was notoriously and wretchedly poverty-stricken during Victorian times, our cast of real people are taken through five decades of life in the slums, from the 1860s through the 1900s. A range of families, married couples, and single folks, they are all thrown into a muddy, moldy tenement lot, and given instructions on how they would make money and how they would live in the era.
It becomes alarmingly clear to these people and the viewer that though things have changed, the modern cycle of poverty very much mirrors the past. One three-generation family of grandparents, a daughter, and her kids, struggle through the ups and down of each decade because they don’t have a trade or specific skill set. The grandfather, who takes upon himself as being the main breadwinner, is almost immediately bedridden after one very long day of backbreaking physical labor. Then entire family, including children, do odd jobs like sell pigs’ trotters on the street and make hundreds of paper flowers in their one room apartment.
The single people fare a little better, including an Irish brother and sister who show up in the decade where Irish immigrants would work hard for less, and often move up in society because of this. A single mother with two kids fares much more poorly, partly because of work ethic, and partly because of spiraling debt. They flee the neighborhood (and show) after only a couple of episodes. Then somewhere in the middle is the single man who collects rent, and operates basically a flophouse for those with little means. He also has an artificial leg, and knows that even with the era-appropriate leg given to him for the show, he knows that in reality he would most likely be shit out of luck.
What I like about these era-appropriate reality shows is that they always offer an education about different social and historical aspects of the era. The modern women are excluded from political discussions (which of course piss them off), because they couldn’t vote. Everyone stresses when the kids are suddenly required to report to school, because they (and their parents) want to help earn money to keep a roof over their heads. A family of tailors find success, but also learn a humbling lesson that driving their underpaid workers long hours with little pay comes naturally to them. Who knew they’d be naturals as running a sweat shop? Ultimately, the “House” series of reality shows offer intriguing peeks at eras past, offering sobering history lessons disguised as entertainment.