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Attack on the Clunes

PBS' 'Frontier House' focused on the bad and ugly and left out the good, the family insists

May 21, 2002|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Poor, poor little rich boy Gordon Clune.

Poor little starving Gordon Clune.

--excerpt from a PBS Net forum about "Frontier House"

The widely seen PBS reality series "Frontier House" captured the many sides of Gordon Clune and his Malibu family. It caught their whining side, complaining side, feuding side and cheating side.

But there's one side the six-part series, which chronicled the lives of three modern families as they struggled to live as 1883 Montana homesteaders, didn't catch: their good side. That part, or at least most of it, said Clune, is somewhere on an editing-room floor.

"If we were actors, we wouldn't have minded being edited so much," said Clune, who has shaved the beard he sported on TV but has maintained the lean frontier physique that initially caused him so much worry. "But we're just real people with real feelings and real lives, and if it really didn't happen the way they portrayed it, well, we're sensitive about that."

Certainly, based on the six hours televised, PBS audiences in general have taken a powerful dislike to the Clunes, casting the wealthy clan as the overprivileged Black Hats in an unfolding western drama. Since the show aired earlier this month, viewers have blasted the family on Web sites and in chat rooms and have delivered a bountiful harvest of mean-spirited mail.

"What the heck were the Clunes thinking when they decided to be on the show?" wrote a viewer on the PBS Net forum about the series. "Crying over makeup? Hopefully the sher'f will come and arrest them in a later episode for general stupidity and whining."

Still smarting from such reactions, Gordon and Adrienne Clune have been reluctant to expose themselves to media scrutiny again, particularly shielding their children, whom they want to return to normal life as much as possible in the wake of national publicity. Nevertheless, the couple recently agreed to talk about the pioneer experiment and their homecoming to modern life over a late breakfast at a coffee shop in their old La Canada neighborhood.

Though they object to what they saw as their cartoonish portrayal, the couple applaud the show overall, primarily for its ambitious educational goal of depicting homesteading life. The Clunes were among the three families who beat out some 5,000 applicants last year to forgo the 21st century and all its comforts for five months of 19th century hardships. No electricity. No Domino's deliveries. No toilet paper.

The show's producers were looking for families that displayed a certain hardiness of character, a passion for history and, perhaps most important, a nonchalance about being videotaped day or night. During a two-hour discussion, it became clear the Clunes didn't leave any of those traits behind in their Montana cabin.

"The whole time I was there, I was pure to being the 1883 guy," said Gordon, 41, president of a Los Angeles aerospace and defense manufacturing firm. "But to me, there were 1883 laws that were debatable; there were 2001 laws we had to live with, and then there were production rules--and, as far as I was concerned, that was a whole lotta laws and rules.

"We all got major backbone out there," added Gordon. "I took the [production] rules and crumpled them up, threw them on the floor and said, 'That's what I think of your rules.' Then, our puppy dog started chewing up the rules. Our whole family got defiant, and it was fantastic."

To some, such provocative statements might only confirm the series accurately portrayed the Clunes. The same Clunes who secretly put box springs in their bed. The same Clunes who once traded baked goods for meat with the outside world. The same Clunes who "liberated" a couple day's catch of fish--not caught on camera--from a lake outside the homestead boundaries.

And, of course, the same Clunes who helped triple PBS' normal ratings. Indeed, after the initial airing (PBS has since rerun the program several times), it seemed that from the jogging paths to the office water cooler, conversations frequently turned to the frontier and the three families: the Boston newlyweds, the bickering Tennesseans and the complaining Californians.

One of the Clunes' main objections was the show's very un-1883 restrictions on gun use. "We were supposed to give a predator two verbal warnings," said Gordon, who enrolled his family in gun-safety classes before heading for the frontier. "'Excuse me, Mr. Coyote, please don't eat my chicken. Excuse me, Mr. Coyote, please don't eat my chicken.' Then, you were supposed to fire a warning shot.... If that's what I had to do with the gun, then I told them I didn't want it. I said I'd rather take my chances with an ax."

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