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Here's how the West was really won

Published May 1, 2006

Fancy life in the Old West, tenderfoot?

A few episodes into PBS's new reality show Texas Ranch House, and most viewers probably would rather stuff a scorpion down their pants than spend a day ridin' the range.

The latest in the "House" series, Texas Ranch House places 15 volunteers culled from everyday, modern life on a 47,000-acre west Texas ranch, following them as they live for three months as if they were pioneers back in 1867.

The swinging cowpokes of Oklahoma! and the huggable boys of Bonanza are replaced by swatting and sweating. As the cameras follow "ranchers" Bill and Lisa Cooke and their three daughters, along with the ranch crew, viewers get a glimpse of a whole different Old West.

Bill (a California accountant) and Lisa (a homemaker) found themselves in an unforgiving environment fraught with danger, from the craggy landscape to spiders and snakes. It's triple-digit hot, dusty and dirty. Water is hard to come by, flies infest every nook and cranny of the house, baths are few and far between. It's hard to imagine how anyone would prefer life on the frontier to life on the relatively civilized East Coast back then.

And it isn't just about "living" on Ranch House. Everyone has chores, and by the end, the newbie cowboys have to round up maverick longhorns and drive them to a packing house.

It's tempting to call the program a documentary instead of a reality show. There are no concocted challenges (well, maybe the cattle drive), no voting or elimination rounds, no product placement. It's just a lot of sweaty work.

"In Texas, you work until you're done or until it's too dark to see," Ranch House executive producer Jody Sheff told TV critics in January. "They endured a daily grind punctuated by hunger, saddle sores and setbacks, all culminating in a cattle drive without anyone ever yelling 'Cut' or 'Makeup.' "

Hannah Cooke, 14, said it was her idea to volunteer, and her mother answered the production team's online call for applicants. They didn't know they were in for one of the hottest summers in Texas history.

Asked privately what he was thinking, bringing three daughters, ages 14, 18 and 20, to such a situation, Bill Cooke said he had no idea what was coming.

"I probably wouldn't have agreed," he said, months after shooting was over.

But it was worth it, participants said.

"The most important thing to me was how close our family got. It was amazing when we came back. We were still so tight," 20-year-old daughter Vienna Cooke said. "We're tight now, and we can spend days together without killing each other, which was cool."

Like other House installments (Colonial and Frontier), the two-hour episodes are deeply detailed and the pacing is relaxed. Sometimes a bit too relaxed, but the long scenes allow viewers to talk about what they're watching together. There's time to catch up if you miss a few minutes of dialogue.

Life on a Texas ranch offers lots to talk about, and to make viewers thankful for their comfortable homes, air conditioning and modern footwear.

"People don't really realize just exactly how rough that territory is out there," said Jared Ficklin, a 30-year-old Web engineer who played cowboy. "There was an old man . . . he had been a rancher for 50 years of his life. He told us, 'This is not a benign environment. It is actively trying to kill you. It's not sitting there waiting for to you make a mistake. It's going to reach out and grab you.'

"We all came back with all 10 fingers and all 10 toes," Ficklin said. "And I'm not sure if that was anything more than luck and divine intervention."

[Last modified May 1, 2006, 07:58:39]

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