A few years ago reality television was approaching its social-experiment phase, with new series that appeared to have been cooked up in university psychology seminars. In 2006, there was “Black. White.,” in which two families — one white, one black — switched races for several weeks with the aid of makeup and some credulous supporting cast members. The next year came “Kid Nation,” which unleashed a group of rugrats onto a spit of land in New Mexico and watched them attempt to build a new society, all while flirting with the fine print of child labor laws.
On the surface, “The Week the Women Went,” which has its premiere on Lifetime on Tuesday, is in that tradition. For one week last year, more than 100 women from the town of Yemassee, S.C., were whisked away via Amtrak to a Florida retreat, leaving their husbands, boyfriends and children to fend for themselves.
And yes, within a day, fathers are feeding their tykes ramen and lollipops and walking around with the shocked demeanor of trauma victims. It’s “The Twilight Zone,” but voluntary, and is predicated upon the rigidity of gender roles, in the town and also in the viewership.
It’s too soon to tell whether this amiable show, which runs for five episodes, will upend those preconceptions, though it’s probably not in its interest to do so. As social engineering it’s nowhere near as revelatory as “Kid Nation,” which demanded a degree of extraordinariness on the part of its cast that’s tough to match, nor is it as divisive as “Black. White.” That show sought, with limited success, to emphasize the intractability of certain social norms.
This one instead shoots for the soft family-oriented middle of shows like “Wife Swap,” where domestic friction is played for laughs, a bit of tension and, ultimately, as a means toward revelation and self-awareness. That it doesn’t aim higher is clear enough from the fact that narration is provided not by a reserved voice of authority but by Jeff Foxworthy, comedian of the rural mundane.
As in many of these family-values shows, the real stars are the children. Here, that includes Ellie Kate, 4, who drinks coffee with breakfast and is more articulate about her family’s power dynamics than her beleaguered father, and Bailey, 6, who loves pageants and loves to scream, both of which vex her well-intentioned but harried dad.
Taken expansively, the show’s children also include Justin, 21, the town’s fire chief who still lives at home with his parents but who longs to marry his girlfriend, Amy, over his mother’s objections. The tension between these two women is part of the show’s other story line, which follows all the women as they relax at a resort and try, and largely fail, to forget about what they’ve left behind.
That the separation of the sexes would be reduced to a woman’s fantasy or a man’s nightmare is perhaps the most unfortunate conceit here. Maybe the backdrop of small-town naïveté is the last place against which the cynicism of reality television can be fully expressed.
But not so naïve after all: Yemassee — a community of roughly 1,000 equidistant from Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga. — lobbied the producers to film in town as part of an effort to revitalize the area. (The show’s format is an import and already has been used in several countries, including Canada, France and Morocco.)
But whether Yemassee signed up to have its values challenged is another question. The smartest reality television aims not only to depict some version of truthful living but also to serve as an instrument of learning. “The Week the Women Went,” though, appears to be on the path toward reinforcing the values it’s ostensibly challenging — not much of an experiment at all.
The Week the Women Went
Lifetime, Tuesday nights at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.
Produced by BBC Worldwide Productions. Jon Kroll, executive producer; Elli Hakami and Jane Tranter, executive producers for BBC Worldwide Productions; Rob Sharenow, Gena McCarthy, Colleen Conway and Noah Pollack, executive producers for Lifetime; Jeff Foxworthy, narrator.
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