Reality Nations: An International Comparison of the Historical Reality Genre
When 1900 House (Hoppe, 2000) premiered in the UK in 2000, a hybrid television form was born that would spawn spin-offs and imitators over the next several years in several other countries. These series place people in historical settings, asking them to leave their 21st century lives behind, and live within the material and social constraints of the past for a period of three or four months. For this chapter I examine a sample of seven historical reality mini-series that aired between 2000 and 2005 in English-speaking countries, ranging from four to eight episodes each. As existing scholarship on the historical reality genre notes, these programs tend to be nationalist projects pursuing an ultimately elusive goal, a way to “know” the past, to transcend facts and dates and get inside the heads of historical subjects. However, it quickly became clear that those who chose to participate paired the project of capturing the experiences and perspectives of people in the past with another, more personal project: to examine and come to know themselves. And yet, having to inhabit historical subject positions is frequently the catalyst for a crisis of the self, as people learn to live within the considerable constraints of the past. In particular, many find that they have to sacrifice their sense of individuality for the roles associated with their actual or assigned gender, race, class, or religious historical identities. In this way, the nationalist project embarked upon by the programs is threatened; the specificities of the volunteers’ experiences expose the abstractions, even the fictional nature of a national identity. The project of bolstering national identity is further threatened by the unpleasant historical realities that the series deal with, particularly the realities of colonialism. However, the theme of sacrifice repairs these fissures, ultimately transforming these programs into commemorative rituals of nationalism, for both participants and viewers. The unreality of reality television, and in particular the ways in which the re-enacted sacrifices can never approximate the actual sacrifices of the past, actually strengthen the series’ nationalist project.
Emily West. "Reality Nations: An International Comparison of the Historical Reality Genre" Reality Television: Merging the Global and the Local. Ed. Amir Hetsroni. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers, 2010.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/emily_west/13