Looks like it’s Amish season again. Sure as the kohlrabi fattens every summer and the cattle ripen on the vine, there comes a time every few years when the television schedules fill with tales of ordinary people eager to throw off the yoke of late western capitalism and try to find deeper fulfilment by disturbing the nearest peaceful Anabaptist sect and refusing to adapt to its ways. In the past we have had Living with the Amish (and various similar titles), How to Get to Heaven With the Hutterites and affiliated documentaries such as Inside the Bruderhof, all set up to show us the error of our overstuffed, consumerist ways.
Welcome, this time, to The Simpler Life (Channel 4). Here, 24 Britons from young to middle age are taken off to Devon to live for six months on a 16-hectare farm under the rule of Ohioans Edna and Lloyd Miller, without mains electricity or gas, without food beyond that which they grow themselves – or find in the store cupboard – and withoutany control over what happens to them in the edit.
The stupid, unnecessary gloss that is put on the endeavour is that this is a Bold Scientific Experiment (designed by California psychologist Prof Barry Schwartz) to find out whether hateful people who don’t like to work are better at arable farming without power and building a community with two dozen strangers than those who are reasonable human beings and have a semblance of a clue what a day’s graft means. Or not.
Honestly, it’s such meretricious nonsense you have to laugh. For God’s sake, it’s 2022, we’re 800 years into a pandemic, 72 hours away from World War III, and the planet is burning. Just point the cameras at the screen fodder and let us watch them for an hour trying to live without electricity and Nando’s.
Our first heroes are the double act Jamie (a twentysomething GP receptionist) and his friend Jerome (an NHS administrator). Jamie has never left the city before and expresses some anxieties about the forthcoming endeavour, especially the livestock element. “Are you fearful of a chicken?” asks Jerome. Not in the singular, Jamie avers. “But if 10 are running at you – it’s a no-go.”
The first villain is former footballers’ PA Penny. She is baffled by the introductory talk from Lloyd about the Amish philosophy of thinking and working collectively, and putting the group before the individual. “You’ve got to put yourself first, surely?” she says to the questing camera afterwards. “No, you don’t,” says younger daughter Azara. “I agree with them so much,” says older daughter Dilara. Again, we remind ourselves that everything depends on the edit. But it does appear, as time goes on, that Penny gives them much to work with. She hasn’t been there five minutes before she demands to go to the shops rather than eat out of the store cupboard (“There’s absolutely nothing here!” she wails, amid shelves groaning with tinned goods and jars of preserves), while they wait for the first crops to come in, and insists that her kids are starving, and generally seems set fair to do schmugger all other than make a prannet of herself (these are Amish terms that I just made up) for the next six months. We are solemnly informed that on the psychoblimpblomp tests that all the participants took before starting the project, Penny scored low on “agreeableness” and optimism, very low on “need to be part of a group” and high on “desire for power”. Amazing.
After that, it’s like every other one of these shows you’ve ever seen. “Some of the work is divided by pre-modern gender roles,” says the voiceover, which is a way of saying that any return to simplicity is generally dependent on the women being shuttled back into the home for a tediously repetitive round of handwashing clothes and dishes, and making – without any mod cons – enormous group meals three times a day. IT project manager Fran takes pride in keeping people happy but notes that she doesn’t know what is happening on the farm because she never has time to go outside. “I’m a human, lonely dishwasher,” she says. While this invisible and untelegenic labour goes, endlessly, on, almost literally behind every scene, we focus on the fine, visibly productive and rewarding life the men have – learning to farm, raise barns and returning home to the delicious meals that have appeared as if by magic.
What can you say? It’s fun to watch. We’ve seen it all before. It tells us nothing new. Nice people, it turns out, gonna nice. Shitebags gonna shitebag. Some life lessons will be professed to have been learned by the end of the six-part series. Maybe Penny will score higher in her agreeableness test at the end, or maybe they’ll kill her and bury her under the kohlrabi. I can’t say I care either way. Can you?