For the past four nights, Kris and I have watched the eight-hour PBS series Texas Ranch House. Like the other “House” shows before it, Texas Ranch House transplants a group of contemporary Americans into a particular historical era — in this case, the Texas frontier of 1867.

At the start of this show, a Foreman, a Cook, and a group of about half a dozen Ranch Hands prepare a homestead for the arrival of the new Owners, Mr. and Mrs. Cooke, and their three daughters. The Cookes bring with them a single retainer: Maura, “a girl of all work”. Over the course of 2-1/2 months, the Cookes and their employees are responsible for making the ranch a viable business. In the short-term, this means rounding up and branding as many free-range cattle as the Cowboys can find.

As always happens on these shows, though, the task is complicated by strong personalities and by the participants’ refusal to discard 21st century notions in favor of modes of thought and work that are appropriate for the era in which they’re pretending to live. And, as on previous shows, certain personality types drive me nuts. This time it’s Mr. and Mrs. Cooke who create a perfect storm of self-centered obliviousness destined to doom the ranch.

From the start, Mr. Cooke is unable to maintain the respect of the Ranch Hands. They feel he’s incompetent, and not true to his word. He fires his Foreman within days. He fires the ranch Cook soon after. (Though, to be fair, he deserved to be fired.) When another Ranch Hand quits, the initial work force has been decimated, and Mr. Cooke continues to struggle with bunkhouse morale. Matters are made worse because the Hands feel that Mrs. Cooke is actually running the ranch, and because Maura the “girl of all work” feels oppressed by gender roles, and because Mr. Cooke is pathologically incapable of making and owning a decision. (The Ranch Hands seem to do little to make things better on their end.)

To these internal conflicts, the producers of Texas Ranch House add external conflicts.

One day two of the Ranch Hands (and their horses) are “kidnapped” by Commanche Indians. In 1867, these men would have been killed, but for the purposes of the show, the Commanche leader comes to Mr. Cooke to barter. He’s willing to trade horses for some of the ranch cattle. He’s also willing to trade Jared, a Ranch Hand, for cattle. (He’s already let the other Ranch Hand free.)

Mr. Cooke is eager to trade for the horses, but not for Jared. “I refuse to trade for human life,” he says, as if this is somehow a noble moral principle. He is unable to view the situation from the point-of-view of the Commanche, or of the Ranch Hands. The Commanche chief tries to give him outs, but he doesn’t take them. In the end, the swap is made, and Mr. Cooke performs complex mental gymnastics to convince himself that he’s not trading for Jared’s life. (This incident further damages his reputation in the eyes of the Cowboys. Does their Boss not value them enough to save them from danger?)

The Commanches pull a fast one on Mr. Cooke, trading him one less horse than he believed he was getting. He doesn’t bother to count until they’ve ridden away from the Commanche camp. (This isn’t the first math mistake he’s made. This man, who is a hospital accountant in real life, initially calculated that he’d need eighty cattle to make his mortgage payment whereas the real number was closer to 200. At the end of the project, when the Project Evaluators deem his books “indecipherable”, Mr. Cooke’s excuse is that he doesn’t have a caluculator.)

In the final episode, the repercussions of the Commanche incident become apparent. In order to make the mortgage payment, Mr. Cooke must sell a certain number of cattle to an Army Outpost. His Cowboys drive 131 head of cattle to the designated location, where they discover that the Army will only buy the 86 animals that are ready for slaughter. The Buyer is a nice guy and gives Mr. Cooke a good price ($25) for each animal. He then lets Mr. Cooke convince him to buy the remaining cattle at a reduced rate ($18/head). It’s obvious to everyone but Mr. Cooke that the Buyer is playing along to give him a good deal for the sake of the project.

Rather than reward his Workers for their performance, when it comes time to settle payment, Mr. Cooke is a complete asshole. He takes delight in being a skinflint. The Cowboys are hoping to purchase horses from him, but he asks exorbitantly high prices. “I’m so proud of you,” his shrew of a wife coos after each cowboy has marched away in anger. (I kept thinking of Iago as I watcher her machinations.)

Mrs. Cooke is especially proud when Mr. Cooke re-negs on a deal he’d previously struck with Jared. Before the Commanche incident, Mr. Cooke had sold a horse called Brownlow to Jared for $25 (to be deducted from his final pay). Jared loves Brownlow. When settlement arrives, Mr. Cooke claims that Jared lost the animal to the Commanche and that the horse rightfully belongs to Mr. Cooke again. “I had to pay to free you,” he says. Never mind that in negotiations with the Indians he had made a huge deal about how he wasn’t trading for Jared’s life, how the very idea was abhorrent to him. Jared is shocked. He says that he’s going to take Brownlow because the horse belongs to him. “I’ll beat the shit out of you if you try,” says Mr. Cooke.

“I’m a man of my word,” Mr. Cooke told the Ranch Hands at the start of the project. “Honesty and integrity are important to me.” Except for when they’re not, apparently. The film editors have done a fine job of showing us what Mr. Cooke actually says, and then revealing how he often goes back on his word later, sometimes doing the complete opposite of what he had promised to do.

After the settlement, Mrs. Cooke convinces her husband to actually fire Jared, even though there are only two days left in the project. He does. When Jared rides off on Brownlow, the other Cowboys leave with him. Mr. Cooke doesn’t beat the shit out of anyone; he stands by with his family, accusing Jared of being a horse thief. Pot, kettle: black. He seems completely unaware that if this were 1867, he would have just doomed his ranch to failure. How’s he going to prepare for winter with no crew?

At the end of the project, the participants are evaluated by a team of Experts. The experts aren’t especially kind to anyone — Cooke family, Maura, or Cowboys — noting that not a single person truly embraced the roles of 1867. Nor did anyone exercise compassion or teamwork. The evaluations are especially harsh for Mr. Cooke, and rightly so. His family is appalled by the criticism, but that’s only because they live under a cloud of collective delusion. They are lazy, manipulative, dishonest, and pampered.

I feel that there is some common element that ties this show to Frontier House, but I cannot put my finger on it. (Frontier House is my favorite of this series; I just added it to our Netflix queue.) In each of these shows, a certain group of participants buys into the experience wholly, but another group treats it as a lark.

In Frontier House, Gordon Clune and his family continually circumvented the project by smuggling in makeup, trading with 21st-century families for box spring mattresses, and generally acting like asses. In Texas Ranch House, Maura — a woman I admire and whom I would love to be friends with in real life — is unwilling to do what she signed up for: play the role of an 1867 ranch Maid. She wants to break out of the gender roles. The Cooke family is indolent and self-absorbed. They constantly lay the project’s problems at the feet of their Ranch Hands, despite the absurdity of the proposition. (What? The entire group of Cowboys is trying to do you in?) When you have to fire your Forman, your Cook, when you have a poor working relationship with your new Foreman, and then when your entire staff quits in disgust, perhaps the problem isn’t with the help — perhaps the problem is with YOU.

The difference between the Clunes in Frontier House and the Cookes in Texas Ranch House is that the latter don’t seem to have learned a thing. The Clunes, especially the girls, grew as people during the experience, despite their foibles. The Cookes did not. The Cookes are, if anything, more convinced of their moral rectitude than when they started. They didn’t allow the experience to change them at all, and that’s a shame.

(One final note: During the summer, the ranch is infested with flies because nobody is willing to cart the manure from the ranch. “I guess this is something that they just had to deal with back then,” Mrs. Cooke tells the experts. Uh, no. They moved the shit away from the house, and they washed the dishes instead of letting them sit for days on end. The experts are appalled. I am, too. When I grew up, we had similar fly infestations every summer because the fields around our house were fertilized with silage. It sucked. It was gross beyond belief. The Cookes could have solved the problem; we could not.)

Here’s a collection of Texas Ranch House links originally compiled by Sir Linksalot:

Websites — Texas Ranch House
Texas Ranch House Official Site
Reality TV Links – Texas Ranch House
Yahoo Group – Texas Ranch House

News Articles about PBS’ Texas Ranch House
San Angelo Standard Times 5/3/06 Fort’s re-enactors get reality check
Inside Bay Area 5/2/06 The best little ranch house in Texas
Agriculture Online 5/2/06 Texas Ranch House provides a glimpse of ranch life in 1867
Chicago Sun Times 5/2/06 Home on the range
Western Horseman 5/1/06 PBS sends two cowboys back to 1867 for its latest historical reality-show, Texas Ranch House
NY Times 5/1/06 Saddling Up for a Bumpy Ride Into 1867 on ‘Texas Ranch House’
NY Daily News 5/1/06 PBS’ ‘Ranch’ ideal for slowpokes
St. Petersburg Times 5/1/06 Here’s how the West was really won
Dallas Morning News 5/1/06 TV: ‘Ranch House’ participants tested their mettle
Seattle Times 5/1/06 1867 cowboys wrangle with 21st-century women
NY Daily News 5/1/06 ‘Texas’ cook has a beef with getting fired
Hollywood Reporter 5/1/06 Texas Ranch House
Western Horseman 5/1/06 Ranch House Cowboys
Hartford Courant 5/1/06 Living Like 19th-Century Texas Cowboys
Chicago Tribune 5/1/06 ‘Texas’ is a boring look at life in the Old West
LJ World 5/1/06 Back at the “Ranch” 5/1/06 ‘Texas House’ too annoying
Caledonian Record 5/1/06 Barton Man To Be Featured In PBS Television House Series
Staten Island Advance 5/1/06 PBS wrangles with life on an 1800s ‘Texas Ranch’
Oregonian 5/1/06 ‘Ranch House’ needs to rustle up emotion
Lansing State Journal 5/1/06 Reality, snakes settle in at PBS ‘Ranch’
Deseret News 5/1/06 ‘Texas’ travesty
American Heritage 5/1/06 Texas Ranch House: Is This Historical Reality?
Equisearch 5/1/06 ‘Texas Ranch House’ Airs in May on PBS
Houston Chronicle 4/30/06 No comforts of home on the range

8 Replies to “Texas Ranch House”

  1. tammy says:

    How interesting that you too watched this. I dont usually stay up until 11 at night but the last four nights have found me riveted to the screen, watching Texas Ranch House.

    I did not like Mrs Cook. I personally think she made it hard for her husband to build a repoire with the cowboys. Her insistance that she be at all the meetings between her husband and the coyboys was just ridiculous.

    My symapathies were with Mr Cook most of the way. He lost me though on the last night when he dealt so harshly with Jared. You know who Jared looked like? He looked like the guy in that grizzly man movie who filmed all the bears.

    I never really came to terms with how I felt about whose horse that really was. Was it Mr Cooks? He did buy it back. But then again Jared was under his employ when he got captured so it was only what any good rancher would have done-to barter for his ranch hands life and that of the horse. And Jared had bought it fair and square.

    …and those flies! I was telling Greg that even as kids we knew better than to let the cow manure and pig slop pile up. I remember many times getting scolded by Pop for dumping the pig slop too close to the house. Our pigs grazed in the five acre field out front but as little girls we got sloppy and would just flop the garbage over the fence instead of taking it all the way out to the trough.

    And what was with that garden? They let most of the stuff go to waste. It was a gorgeous garden. But it’s like one of the girls said, they just weren’t used to eating from a garden. It’s pitiful really.

    And let me just say here that if we would have set around like those girls did my Dad would have had our behinds. Mrs Cook was sick at the time of the banquet so she called in help. In the meantime her big girls were just sitting there playing cards. We worked our butts off as girls on the farm. It’s amazing how little most 21rst century people know about good hard manual labor. Boy, that annoyed me. My sisters and I could have run that ranch as good as any 18th century women! I really believe that.

    My favorite of the series was Manor House; the one that was set in the Edwardian period.

  2. Nikchick says:

    When I was in England I ran across the 1940s House there, and I was enchanted. I bought the book and toured the house at the National War Museum, where it had been recreated. I would have bought the DVDs but I didn’t have the right Region player at the time… I caught part of Frontier House, but didn’t see all of it and frankly, it was too much like these other “reality” tv shows for my taste (with in-fighting and seemingly manufactured drama). My friend Ruth is from Texas and mentioned the Texas Ranch House series; I wouldn’t have heard of it otherwise. I’m sorry I haven’t watched it. Her comment on the show was that none of the male participants seemed to understand the concept of gentlemanliness that even “cowboys” have: no decent man would look at a woman trying to, I dunno, get the cows into the pen, and not even offer to hold the gate open or otherwise lift a finger… I hope I have a chance to see it.

  3. malthust says:

    If anything, I think you go too easy on the Cookes.

  4. Andrea says:

    I started working in an era where, as women, we had to fight for everything we got. Yet even I would have realized that, if I was hired as the maid, I AM the maid. And to expect to be placed on the cow hand crew while one of the male hands does the cooking was ridiculous. Putting her on as the cow hand cook would have been logical, but not leaving her in the saddle while the experienced hand handles the cooking. If she didn’t want to play by 1867 rules, she shouldn’t have signed up for the show.

    I agree that the cow hands became rude to the women, however, I would have become rude to those women if I had been treated that way. They were out in the sun and heat for large parts of the day. They came back to food that wasn’t ready and that made them sick. Then they got to watch the women of the Cooke family eat healthy meals with the better food and to watch them put little or no effort into the project. And a cowboy’s saddle belongs to the COWBOY. For Mr. Cooke to take their saddles without asking so that his daughters could go for a pleasure ride was unforgivable.

    Mrs. Cooke egged on Mr. Cooke’s more heinous treatment of his men, seeming to enjoy watching “her man” mistreat people. For Mr. Cooke to believe that it was all right to bargain for a horse’s life from the Commanches, but not for a human’s life was deplorable. And then to steal the man’s horse from him while his wife is kissing and petting on him was disgusting. The horse was stolen property. Mr. Cooke knew it was stolen property when he bought it back. In Texas, that makes Mr. Cooke quilty of the offense of Receiving Stolen Property. And yet he has the audacity to claim moral superiority.

    My, I never get this wound up about TV shows, but I usually don’t side with one group so whole heartedly. And if you think that I didn’t enjoy the show, I have to say that Robby Cabezuela was a breath of fresh air. Even through the worst of times, he kept his head, tried to keep everything on an even keel, and didn’t fall into a pushing match. His comments about the skirt/pants thing was his worst outburst and you have to admit that he had been pushed beyond belief to make that comment. I’d work for the man. I would NOT work for Mr. Cooke.

  5. Karen says:

    I just finished watching Texas Ranch house. I have watched most of the shows (Frontier house, colonial house, manour house, 1940s house, vicorian house, etc.)

    I was surprised at how clueless the Cooke family was, they were evil and manipulative, and not smart enough to realize they were in the wrong. And boy were they judgemental.

    I think Mrs. Cooke was the worst, she set the tone by not understanding people or how to deal with them, or even why they were there. She wanted everyone to respect her, yet she did nothing to deserve respect. And they way she belittled her husband was awful. You could see from the beginning that she was a troublemaker. She underminded everything, making Mr. Cooke do some very silly things. Mr. Cooke came off like a wimp.

    The whole family was rather pathetic, and at the end when the cowboys were doing the right thing and saying goodbye, the youngest daughter was pouting like a spoiled child and saying ‘we don’t need you’. Yes dear, you do. You’re just not smart enought to have figured that out.

    It was also sad how the Cooke family pretended to be Christian, yet didn’t have many Christian tendencies at all. Talk about hypocritical. More people making Christianity look bad.

  6. c. walton says:

    Can you tell me what the next “House” series will be after
    Texas Ranch House?

  7. SLM says:

    We are trying to find out the actual size of the house, on Texas Ranch House. Our granddaughter has to make a model of it as a school assignment.

  8. vinman in AZ says:

    My wife and I just finished watching the series. Wow, whatta load of B.S. in the ranch house.

    The show fired us up, but much was revealed in the “diaries” shown in the ‘Special Features’ part of the DVD — watch them. Mr. Cooke said his wife felt “slighted” because not enough of the show was focusing on ‘the family.’ Guess what? It’s called “Texas Ranch House,” NOT “Texas Ranch House FAMILY.” That gives me insight as to why she was so wickedly happy when she goaded her husband into harsh treatment of the cowboys.

    Look. In 1867, you ALL pulled together as a team or you DIED. Period. If Mrs. Cooke understood that dynamic she’d have behaved much differently. But she didn’t, and she didn’t learn, either. Her first instinct when she read “the evaluation” from the experts was to stop in defiant denial (“What’s the point in even reading this further…” She said that when the critique got around to talking about HER. She was FINE until it got to her lousy performance).

    When the Commanche took Jared and the horses, the Chief was *blown away* that Mr. Cooke refused to negotiate for Jared. Yet another clue that Mr. Cooke has NO clue into the realities of 1867 life: When the indians come and tell you what the bargain is, you TAKE the bargain and be thankful that you’re still alive. The chief even alluded to “Look, here’s the deal, we trade your man and 4 horses and you give us what we want, OR WE’LL KILL YOU AND TAKE YOUR WOMEN.” That’s how the trade REALLY would have gone. And the Ranch Owner would be happy to take it. My take is that, in the end, the Chief realized that Mr. Cooke was clueless and got tired of the unreality of it and just put an end to the negotiations, knowing that in real life, Mr. Cooke and ALL the cowboys would now be dead, and his wife and daughters would be indian slaves. Those are the facts.

    Moara? A joke. Imho, she went on the show to gather information for her college thesis on gender roles. She talked about “bringing feminism” to the ranch. Uh, no. Bye honey. Hope you like the name the indians give you.

    The flies… PUKE! Clean the dishes and move the cow poo. What, are you retarded? Dee-de-dee!

    And when they come back from the cattle drive, you could even hear the disdain in the narrator’s (Dennis Quaid) voice. “Mrs. Cooke runs out to meet Mr. Cooke……… in her UNDERWEAR.” Not likely to happen folks, sorry.

    Our summary: 3 cheers to the cowboys. Mr. Cooke was an idiot for firing the Colonel, harbinger of bad things to come. Nacho’s diary said he was bored — ok, well, clean up the damn place, yer makin’ yer boys sick with yer crappy food. Bye, nacho. Girls? Shut up and get to work. Tend the garden and harvest the food — the men you’re staking your lives and fortune on (the cowboys) are malnurished (even the helper woman was appalled at the state of the garden when she said “Look, I’m trying to be nice here, but…”). Mrs. Cooke (liberal from Northern California), shut up, get out of yer husband’s face, it’s not your place and it wasn’t back in 1867, either. Totally unrealistic. My hat is off to the experts who gave the critique, well done (did you see the dumbfounded look on their faces when Mrs. Cooke tried to explain away the fly infestation? Priceless).

    My wife and I conclude that WE would’ve done a MUCH better job (we live in Arizona, btw). And so would most of the people we know.

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