On the surface, Regency House Party is just another entry in the collection of PBS "house out of time" shows. You know, things like 1900 House and Frontier House -- take a bunch of silly nits, plonk them down into a recreation of a period environment, and watch them flounder. And indeed, this show does have a lot of that in it.
What sets this one apart, making it both better and worse than the others, is that it was clearly designed by people with LARP clue. The others were just about the trappings: they dressed the moderns in period clothes, and forced them to uses outhouses, but really didn't try to get them to roleplay much. This one, OTOH, is all about the roleplaying, and it's roleplaying with consequences.
Here's the setup. They take five guys and five women, from different lots in life. The only thing that they have in common is that they're all a bit lovelorn, and on the hunt. They are set down in this high-quality recreation of an 1811 manor house, and given nine weeks to hook up in the context of a high-society summer house party. But this is, in every respect, a LARP. Each person is given a persona that is as closely modeled on their real life as possible. For instance, on one end we have the Countess, a real-life barmaid from an old British noble family, who is playing a Russian noblewoman desperately trying to conceal her family's improverishment. On the other side is the poor working girl who is cast as a lady in waiting, treated only a half-step better than the maids. Just as the real people range from rich executives to working-class types from Liverpool, so their characters match quite closely, and the modern class differences play out in the 19th century setting.
Moreover, while romance is the name of the game, it's romance by Regency rules. All the ladies are accompanied by older chaperones -- most importantly, the chaperone for the Countess, acting as the official Hostess of the party, who takes to her part with absolute flair, making sure that these children do nothing untoward without getting a piece of her mind. The chaperones have the explicit task of trying to see that the matches are made within the appropriate classes, and the resulting politics get very complex. Indeed, most of the "NPCs" -- the people taking more focused parts within the overall game -- are utterly brilliant. The 60-something sportsman who has come to teach the gentlemen about the fine art of "Pedestrianism" (how to walk energetically) is a model of the 19th century coot, and they hire a genuine hermit to play his period counterpart in the woods, an important X factor in the romantic game.
The result is a story that looks rather like the various Period House series, but with a subtly different flavor. On the one hand, this one isn't nearly as obsessed with laughing at the silly moderns who can't cope with period life -- there is a little of that, but the show much prefers to celebrate them finding their characters and getting into their skins, which most do with some real flair. (Unlike most such shows, they don't appear to have selected protagonists specifically for incompetence.)
That said, there's something slightly unsettling about the premise. These are real people, who are looking for real partners, and are being encouraged to find them within the confines of what is in every respect an elaborate, high-budget roleplaying game. Even by modern reality-show standards, this seems like a dangerous way to mess with peoples' lives.
We're still at the beginning -- the story consists of four episodes of 1.5 hours each, and we've watched the first. I surprised myself by being drawn in far more than I was to the previous such shows: the LARP element makes the whole thing far more interesting, and the stakes lend an urgency to the affair that doesn't exist in the others. I'll be watching through to the end, now, and I'm very curious about how it all comes out...