By Ken Tucker
Updated May 21, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
Colonial House: Jamie Bloomquist

In the grand PBS tradition of ”The 1900 House,” ”Frontier House,” and — my favorite, though it exists only in my head — ”Charlie Rose House” (people forced to spend a weekend with Charlie and his very special guest who steals the bathroom hand towels while lying eloquently about it, Dr. Henry Kissinger), now comes Colonial House. This miniseries’ attempt to mix reality TV escapism with public-broadcasting castor oil showcases a bunch of whining chatterboxes dressed in 17th-century clothes, and ships them off to a constructed colony in Maine for four months. The series focuses on 26 people including three families and several singles who take such roles as ”indentured servants” and ”freemen.” We watch as they kill a sheep for dinner, trade fur pelts with real Native Americans, and milk goats with prissy disgust — one young woman describes it as ”sitting there with your face in these teats,” as though she’d been forced into a front table at Tony Soprano’s Bada Bing! strip joint. All this, plus the colonists are given among their rations a ”firkin of wine,” and nobody even cracks a ”firkin’ wine” joke!

But if certain vulgar opportunities are missed, ”Colonial House,” after a beginning as slow and long as a Maine winter, yields some ripe situations. There’s some offbeat casting here — such as two contrasting men of God: Jeff Wyers, a Texas Baptist minister who’s named the colony’s governor, and Don Heinz, a California professor of religious studies who is designated the group’s ”lay preacher.” Culturally, they are conservative and liberal, respectively; they also both love the sound of their own voices. And they’ll disagree about anything, such as whether Jeff is being a tad high-handed in demanding ”sole and exclusive authority for all decision-making.” Both men get equally cheesed off at the stubborn John and Michelle Voorhees, who don’t believe in God and decide not to show up for the mandatory Sunday ”Sabbath” service, opting instead to picnic and frolic in ice-cold Maine water…nude! I can almost see PBS’ ”NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” viewers clutching their pacemakers in reeling shock.

A soothing female narrator guides viewers through correct 17th-century customs for everything from servants’ duties to punishments (some naughtiness gets grouchy Michelle placed in ”stocks” with ”loose-fitting rope”). But the tension is really twofold: dealing with close-quarter living among strangers, and 21st-century people adapting to the laws of the year they’re simulating, 1628. ”Colonial House,” like many reality shows, dabbles in issues of race and sexuality. The series’ most prominent black participant, Danny Tisdale, designated a ”freeman/councilor,” is also, as the voice-over trills, ”a direct descendant of African slaves,” and he leaves angered by his marginalized role in this society. On the other hand, when ”servant” Jonathon Allen comes out, we’re duly told that homosexuality was punishable by death in 1628. Yet Jonathon not only escapes that fate but thrives happily.

”Colonial House” raises provocative topics that its four-night, eight-hour run can’t thoroughly pursue. The colony is visited by members of the Passamaquoddy tribe and Wampanoag Nation; they too go through the ”Colonial” motions, dressing in period costume. But the centuries-long anger these people feel toward the game-show contestants soon bursts through the series’ setup. One Wampanoag man confides to the camera, ”If I had my way, I would have burned the whole colony down.” The narrator quickly places that rage in revisionist history, but the exigencies of filming so many colonists prevent the racism topic from lingering.

There are surprises in ”Colonial House” — one family has to leave after an unexpected, 21st-century disaster occurs back home — and there’s a last-minute bad guy in the form of a ”treasurer,” Jack Lecza, sent in to whip the exhausted colonists into shape. This stuff won’t strike any viewer of ”Survivor” or ”The Bachelor” as particularly compelling, but PBS is probably banking on the fact that its audience hasn’t seen — and would, indeed, turn up their noses at — either show. And I gotta say, it’s nice to see someone like sixty-something Carolyn Heinz say she’s in this game not because she wants a million bucks (there’s no prize) or a hot lover (she and her hubby, Don, nuzzle like young-lover pups), but because she’s been ”so stressed about the direction our country is taking in international relations.” And she ain’t talking about the Boston Tea Party, folks.