Over the past few years Reality TV has taken off like a rocket ship. The relatively low cost to produce them and the tremendous number of viewers for the shows has made Reality TV the darling child of many networks. Unfortunately, the popularity of Reality TV has lead to a real glut of shows with a wide variety of quality. With many 'me too' shows out there (see 'I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!' and 'American Girl') the entire sector of reality based programming has begun to get a pretty bad reputation.
Given this, I found it intriguing that England's Channel 4 and US's PBS would work together to create their own foray into Reality TV. The project - The Manor House brings 13 British citizens from all walks of life together in a majestic Edwardian Mansion for three months to dress, eat, work and live within the rigid hierarchial structure of the 1905 Edwardian era.
The Manor House participants are split between 'the downstairs' workers and 'the upstairs' family and they are forced to adhere to the strict rules of conduct and work. One of the things that makes The Manor House so utterly fascinating is the great detail they go into about the worlds of 'the upstairs' and 'the downstairs'. This same world was explored exceedingly well in Robert Altman's acclaimed film Gosford Park, but The Manor House does it with a great deal more depth and understanding.
Unlike many of the other reality based shows, The Manor House is narrated by someone not actually participating in the show. The show's narrator Derek Jacobi does a fantastic job of pulling everything together and providing the context behind what we see on the screen. The narration turns out to be a pretty herculean task and Jacobi tackles it like a real pro.
The Manor House works well on a great number of levels. As reality programming it's as good, if not better than the other reality shows out there. There's certainly enough drama in The Manor House to satisfy even the most die hard reality TV Junkie. The constant struggle between the modern mentality of the participants and the rigid hierarchical structure creates a lot of drama and ultimately is the force that drives the show.
In addition to being entertaining The Manor House is filled to the brim with Historical learning. It brings the 1900's 'alive' in a way no other program I've seen has. If you are even remotely interested in the era, The Manor House is a historical feast. I never thought I'd spend 6 hours watching a show about Edwardian Life, but I found the show so compelling I quickly made my way through this 3 DVD set.
The Manor House is presented in anamorphic widescreen and overall looks pretty good. There are a number of scenes which are a bit on the dark side and some of the shots are brighter in the center than on the edges. It seems that this look is more a function of how the show was shot than the transfer to DVD. The 'look' did take a while to get used to but it does ultimately give the show a more historically stylized look.
The Manor House is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The audio is consistent and clear throughout the program. The dialog is easy to hear and understand and the voice over is well matched to the dialog in volume. With so many participants in the program, they've done a fantastic job of making sure everyone is heard.
In addition to the 6 hour main program, The Manor House also features 'Edwardian House Diaries' that run about 20 minutes. The House Diaries capture a much more private and confessional side of the show and the scenes provide a greater depth to some of the key plot points. In many instances you get to hear what the people 'really think' and how they coped with living in the Edwardian Era. Unlike the main feature the Video Diaries do not have any narration and ended up being much more free flowing. An interesting moment in the Diaries is when the participants learn of the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center and how it effects them.
Perusing The Manor House web site, I saw that more bonus material exists than what's on the DVD including auditions for some of the participants in The Manor House as well as additional video diaries. I would have liked to have seen even more of the Video Diaries make their way on to the DVD as they compliment the show very well.
If you've given up hope that there can actually be 'great reality TV', The Manor House will restore your confidence. PBS has managed to create a reality TV which is both absolutely engaging and amazingly informative. The Manor House is simply great television and a wonderful DVD. Highly Recommended.