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The 70s House

J.Cartwright

This is the show where executives have finally zeroed in on that most tricky aspect of addictive programming - the absolute lowest possible denominator.

I can just about pin point the exact moment when I knew my former roommate Steven and I would never ever be close friends. I was sitting on the couch, watching TV (of course). He had just come home from work. "Come watch Girlfriends with me," I told him. "It's so awful, it rules." Steve just stood in the doorway, slowly shaking his head in disgust. "Why is everything always 'so bad it's good'? I don't get that. Something is either good or bad."

I knew right then that Steve's inability to appreciate the pleasure of sitting around making snarky comments about bad television is something that would always divide us. But I suppose he has a point. In a day and age when television programming has reached new heights of mimicked mediocrity ("Last season we won ratings with The Apprentice -- How about if we repeat that but this season for a twist...we use lawyers?"), when viewers are surrounded by 40 years worth of re-runs and complete season DVD sets, it's easy to be jaded. When you are forced to view a show in immediate comparison to the previous series it imitates, it doesn't take a genius to notice its shortcomings.

I believe that if you linger in front of the tube long enough, you eventually become a scholar of the copycat canon. Earn your degree from home folks! Snarkiness becomes second nature, as does the recognition of the revamp. Indeed, imitation and remaking is so prevalent that even a 12-year-old can watch TBS's Gilligan's Island reality show and understand that it is referencing a sitcom that aired 30 years before he or she was even born. As a society we're on information overload and as for Hollywood, well, they just want to make a sale. Tinsel Town is going to ensure that media products they craft are safe bets and easy to access. Nice and easy, just like a large metal hammer gently patting your head.

But something strange happened to me the other night. After my friend George and I indulged in our weekly Real World: Austin habit, trying to out-do each other in our witticisms, we stumbled upon one of MTV's latest offerings: The 70s House. Now, maybe it was the influence of the booze, or the unbearable summer heat, but we spent the first 15 minutes watching the show in absolute silence. No quips. No jokes. When the first commercial break arrived we both turned to the other and sputtered in unison, "I want to be on that show! That looks fun! I bet we could win!!" And we were both completely sincere. Television execs had, at last, incited the feeling in us that all reality TV is intended to spark.

Apparently, this is the kind of programming it takes to get two cynical film grads to sit up, shut up, and pay attention. The 70s House premise may sound familiar, but trust me, it's pure gold. What we have here are seven strangers, picked to live in a house, and have their every action filmed as they try to maintain an authentic 1970s lifestyle. It's almost impossible to mock because it is the ultimate "rip off": it steals both an idea AND an entire eon. In the world of remakes and reruns, that renders it very novel indeed.

Follow my logic. The Real World: Austin for example, is a weekly 30-minute dose of redundancy, a show that has my friends and I shouting "Ugh! She's totally Cory from San Francisco" or "Hello, hot tub make out scene from Las Vegas". It's the key criticism of all Real Worlds after about 1997 face: all their "characters" are so conscious of the role they're been cast to play -- 'The gay guy', 'The soon-to-be-slut wholesome religious girl' -- that they become tired and cliché.

Now, TV execs are always relying on archetypes in order to guarantee a successful show. This is partly because they are really nothing more than lazy cowards, but I also imagine that this is something inherent in a trade based on images. Either way, we can see it taking place everywhere. 'Maya' from Just Shoot Me is the equivalent of 'Lisa' from Newsradio who draws comparison to 'Diane' in Cheers. The resulting standard is obvious: the uptight go-getter office bitch who always ruins the fun.

Or take 'Nina' from Just Shoot Me. She is analogous to 'Beth' from Newsradio who is an exact parallel of 'Carla' from Cheers. This time the character is that clever, crass, skanky co-worker model. The links even reach into reality. For bonus points you can go back even further and acknowledge that Wendy Malick's 'Nina' is clearly a nod to Janice Dickinson, the '70s so-called "first supermodel".

However, the bliss George and I experienced while watching The 70s House was not derived from such a connect-the-character guessing game. Instead it was the result of a total simplification of a past premise. This is the show where executives have finally zeroed in on that most tricky aspect of addictive programming -- the absolute lowest possible denominator. In the case of this show, all they had to do was get people to dress up in clothing from the era and perform passé activities from the decade, such as eating fondue and dancing The Hustle. Genius!

Under this ideal, a character on the show can still be a two-faced bitch and perhaps likened to Corey from The Real World Three, but the fact that her entertainment function is no longer personal, but rather as part of a group, allows the show to discover a whole different level. Even if The 70s House goes on for five or more seasons, it can never really be similar to The Real World because these people are being stripped of their "individuality" and then asked to fit into a pre-existing caricature attributed to an entire decade.

Technically, PBS created the original outline for the show with something called Frontier House. Yet even that initial show could not have this effect since it relied heavily on family feuds in order to create drama. The same applies to TBS's Gilligan's Island, which also uses bad blood to keep its plot lines interesting. Drama on the The 70s House, on the other hand, consists of "Dude #1" whining to "Bro #2" about how polyester pants make him itchy in the crotch. Talk about your potential tension and conflict.

Sure, you can argue that this isn't original programming, that it is merely another take on a subject already seen dozens of times before. But take it from me, it's a rarity when a program can pique my interest, not provoke my insults. And though it borrows from its MTV brethren, The 70s House is a revamp that really works. No snarky comments, here.

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