Stressed out by modern existence? Frazzled by the technological grind? Weary of always-on work culture and the krunk music the kids are listening to? Well, obviously, the answer is farming your own food, wearing a rustic uniform and living collectively with strangers. “Fair enough,” says you. “If it’s good enough for Stalin!”
This is the premise of The Simpler Life (Tuesday and Wednesday, Channel 4) in which a bunch of addled British suburbanites are sent to live the life of the Amish with the help of a lovely Amish family and some cameras, lights and microphones that they've apparently whittled from bark and sticks. It's also set in Devon, so presumably the Amish family got there on a horse-drawn plane.
“I haven’t even thought about my phone once,” you’ll say, as the crops fail and rickets set in.
The Simpler Life starts with a premise that only a species that has grown ridiculous could contemplate
But before long you’re looking at your overly complex rural ways askance – the domestication of animals, the wheel, fire – it also feels abstract and stress inducing. You’re craving an even simpler life, specifically, being chased by wolves through a forest while you’re hunter-gathering berries and mice.
This is the premise of The Even Simpler Life, a show I'm pitching here. "I'm no longer overly concerned with the 24-hour news cycle!" you'll scream as Old One Eye, the pack leader, grips one of your legs in his jaws and your surviving family members watch in horror from a tree.
“I don’t miss the long commute!” you’ll gibber as Red Claw the younger alpha male upstart gnaws on your head.
It's definitely a simple life. However, as the wolves devour you, you think about An Even Simpler Life Still, a time before the nomadic grind, before you needed to know all of the poisonous plants and things that wanted to eat you, a time when our species was flopping around on a beach with gills and little stumps for legs as super-intelligent crab people held dominion over the land. That's the simple life.
And on it goes. Because, wherever you go, there you are. Pastoral utopianism is a slippery slope to even more pastoral utopianism. The Simpler Life starts with a premise that only a species that has grown ridiculous could contemplate: what if, instead of learning self-discipline, rejecting manufactured scarcity and devising higher ideals to improve our lot, we just ditched technology entirely and returned to a time when we had no choices?
It's an "experiment", of course, which, as I've said before, is a legal waiver that allows TV producers to create conditions of hardship for people with well-resourced embassies. There's even a boffin. His name is Professor Schwartz and he makes his pronouncements from somewhere with electricity, probably near a coffee shop. He thinks this will be very interesting. He's not wrong.
They should really give us some stats on the Amish family's 'life satisfaction' while taking part in this show
The principle is straightforward enough. With choices and individualism come anxiety and isolation, so let’s remove the choices and enforce communality. The logic is: fish don’t suffer from depression, let’s throw some people into the sea.
To remind us of the sciencey basis of the show, we’re given psychometric stats on people in a slightly scattershot manner. In the aforementioned case, it might be: “Gerald scores low on ‘life satisfaction’ but high on ‘not drowning’.”
The Amish family who have come to guide the participants are so pure of heart and intention it hurts. The three Amish children regularly stop their frugal labour in order to whip out instruments and sing in three-part harmony, which is quite something when you consider the terrible children the rest of us know. Look at him there, slumped on a beanbag guzzling Rancheros while punching a Furby.
They should really give us some stats on the Amish family’s “life satisfaction” while taking part in this show. By the second episode, Edna, the mother, is driven to tears by the squabbling. “I’m just not used to this,” she says, after witnessing a PR woman named Penny go off the deep end for the umpteenth time.
The signs that Penny might suffer are there from the moment she enters the farmyard, where she displays less rural knowledge than your average Furby-punching infant.
“Quack, quack,” says an unseen farmyard beast.
“What is it though?” asks Penny with alarm. “What is that noise?”
“Quack, quack,” says the unseen beast.
Penny also struggles with the basic concept of the show. One of her first suggestions is that the collective buy a washing machine (they don’t have electricity). Eventually she’s sabotaging community meetings. It’s probably because she works in PR.
Anyone who has spent time in an anarcho-syndicalist collective, a religious cult or Ranelagh will understand how oppressive upbeat conformity can be
In fairness, the gendered nature of the work feels like a complicating factor that should be addressed more directly. A project consultant named Fran finds herself negotiating the bulk of the chores for the “seven husbands” who live in the big farmhouse with her. When people dream of being princesses, they’re not typically thinking of the servitude of Snow White.
Some people thrive. GP receptionist Jamie and NHS administrator Jerome start the programme worrying about poultry combat. "Are you fearful of a chicken?" Jerome asks Jamie. Not an individual chicken, reasons Jamie, but "if there was 10 of them running at you..." Soon, they're launching themselves into land cultivation and barn-raising with gusto. Meanwhile, a young man named Kevin who has serious health issues, gains weight and self-esteem as he toils in the fields alongside new friends.
The most interesting thing so far isn’t the difficulty of the work, but how some people resist submerging their individuality into the collective. For every resident who doesn’t know what a duck is and craves a solar-powered washing machine there are others whose issues are more about temperament and psychological self-protection.
Property mogul Toby is hardworking and productive but balks at enforced sociability and the complexity of group conflict. He’s the first to leave. He walks for miles across the fields to get a train home. Some of the older residents bristle when their plan to spend their share of the community budget on booze is vetoed by the more puritanical youngsters.
Anyone who has spent time in an anarcho-syndicalist collective, a religious cult or Ranelagh will understand how oppressive upbeat conformity can be. In an actual rural community these outliers would simply be encased in the town "wicker man", offered up for the good of the harvest and that would be that. Here, because of Ofcom regulations and what remains of British human rights legislation, they are simply returned to the cities where they have ennui and anxiety but no longer have to live with 23 strangers in a rural labour camp.