Several years ago, I assigned my Freshman Composition class to write an essay explaining which time in history they would like to visit and why. To my surprise, over half the class said they would like to travel to the 1970s. Their primary reasons were the lack of gang violence and widespread drug use and the dreamy notion that everyone got along. In reality, gangs existed, cocaine was “in,” and race riots still rocked the country. The ’70s also gave us Watergate, an energy crisis, the Iran Hostage Crisis, the murder of Olympic athletes, staggering inflation, the end of the Vietnam War, disco, and the Bay City Rollers. It was not a pretty decade.
Yet, we love to romanticize the past. So now, 12 children of the ’90s are visiting the funkadelic decade in MTV’s The 70s House. The new series is cross-breeding at its most unlikely, a hybrid of The Real World and PBS’ popular series of familial experiments, The 1900 House, Frontier House, and Colonial House. (The BBC also aired The 1940s House.) The 70s House furnishes a house exactly as it would have been in a specific time period, only MTV has populated its house with a group of young adults as opposed to a family.
The potential hardships are immediately visible: no DVDs, PCs, or iPods. No cell phones or Playstations. Forced to wear polyester and go without Biore strips, the housemates, aged 18 to 25, must also learn ’70s lingo and converse without using current slang or references to anything of the last 25 years. The one who adapts the best wins “some groovy prizes,” including a 2005 VW Beetle and a tour of Europe.
Guiding the 12 through the competition are the “queen bee of the house,” Dawn, and Oscar, a character who gives the competitors their orders via speakerphone, ala Charlie in Charlie’s Angels. And they do need guidance, as they have been told only that they will be living in a Real World-type situation. The ’70s element comes as a shock to all, and no one is pleased with the twist.
Herein lies the first of The 70s House‘s many problems. The families who participated in the PBS shows knew what they were getting into, and spent weeks learning about their assigned eras. MTV’s crew was caught off guard, and the slightest infraction landed them in the elimination round held at the end of each episode. In Episode One, Andrew used the ’80s phrase “freakin’ awesome,” and Geo mentioned he wants Botox injections when he gets older. These slips led to the elimination round, where they faced off over a game of “Operation.” (Geo lost.) The lesson to the other contestants was clear: they should keep their mouths shut, lest something contemporary slip out.
Aside from language lapses, they don’t face great trials, as the ’70s is hardly so distant from today. They have to dial a rotary phone and cook on a stovetop instead of in a microwave. The initial grumbling about the décor of the house (which is hideous even by ’70s standards) and the loss of cell phones soon dissipated as the crew made use of what’s available to them, playing Atari and listening to eight-tracks.
To make the competition more demanding, the show includes weekly challenges. In the first week, the housemates were divided into two basketball teams, each playing against a high school team. The group who did best against the high schoolers won exemption from elimination and had a fondue party (one contestant called it “fon-don’t”). Not surprisingly, the second team to play won, having the advantage of playing against a team who had already played one game.
The other major challenge for the week was learning the Hustle. Anytime the song was played over the house’s intercom, all contestants had to stop what they were doing, dash to the den, and dance. This challenge provided one of the premiere’s rare humorous moments, as contestants would literally drop everything to try to remember the steps of the dance. Poor Andrew was forced to twirl around the den clutching a towel around his middle, having just leapt out of the shower.
These silly contests mean the show loses what has made The Real World popular: interaction among the housemates. Viewers know no more about the contestants at the end of the premiere than they learned from their 10-second introductions. It’s safe to assume the contestants discussed their situation and attempted to get to know one another, but the only glimpse viewers saw of such scenes was Geo’s Botox comment, as it figured into the contest later.
Unsurprisingly, the focus here is pop cultural. So, costumes are amusing, straight out of the 1975 Sears-Roebuck catalogue. Though most kids back then wore jeans and t-shirts, not unlike today, that reality is here ignored in favor of the extreme end of ’70s fashion. Still, if MTV wanted the kids to experience the ’70s, they would have to endure gas rationing and news reports dominated by a Constitutional crisis. Families in 1940s House had to build a bomb shelter, while the families of Colonial House were forced to live under a hierarchal religious government. But The 70s House takes the easy road. In ’70s lingo, that makes for a show that’s a real bummer.