PRAGUE » We have seen toddlers in tiaras, been left "Naked and Afraid," and met more real housewives than a postman.
But if you thought reality television had reached the boundaries of imagination and good taste, a show that went on the air in the Czech Republic last week has opened up a whole new frontier.
In "Holiday in the Protectorate," an eight-part series from Czech public television, three generations of a real-life family are sent "back in time" to a remote mountain farm in 1939, when German invaders transformed the country into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.
There, they must not only survive the rigors of rustic life with dated appliances and outdoor plumbing, but navigate the moral and physical dangers of life under Nazi rule.
German troops (played by actors) kick down their doors in the middle of the night. Local villagers betray them to the Gestapo. Food is scarce. Conditions are crude.
If they survive through eight episodes and two months of filming they stand to win as much as $40,000, depending on how well they perform the weekly tasks assigned to them, like learning to milk a cow.
While the concept has helped draw a substantial audience by Czech public television standards – about 500,000 viewers for the first episode – it has, not surprisingly, also stirred intense reactions about mixing such a dark period in European history into an entertainment format more often associated with the Kardashians.
"I expected some attention," said Zora Cejnkova, the series’ director. "After all, that’s why we do a program. But this has been rather extraordinary."
The show has been denounced by historians and critics in the Czech Republic and across the globe.
A typical reaction came from a columnist for The Times of Israel who wrote: "Fortunately, for the family, they will not be treated like the 82,309 Jews who lived in the protectorate" and were deported to concentration and death camps.
This criticism is all wildly unjustified, the show’s creators say, based on an emotional reaction to the idea rather than a viewing of the actual result.
"This is a topic that is kind of controversial, a little bit," said Petr Dvorak, the chief executive of the broadcaster, Czech Television. "But even such a serious subject can be perceived in a new way. We can educate people about life in that period in a way they will actually want to watch."
Even the title of the series has drawn criticism. The protectorate years were a brutal and dehumanizing period. It was no holiday.
But that, Cejnkova said, is the point. It is meant ironically, to convey the idea that the show will blend fish-out-of-water entertainment with the serious atmosphere of the time.
"It catches attention, and this is why we did it," she said.
While criticism of the program has muted somewhat since the episodes began to be broadcast, many historians and others in the Czech Republic remain skeptical of the whole idea.
"It has nothing to do with history or telling the stories of that time," said Mikulas Kroupa, director of Post Bellum, a Prague-based nonprofit organization that records the memories of those who lived through the war. "It is just a game."
Jan Boris Uhlir, a historian who was a paid adviser on the show, defends it.
"I strongly disagree with critics who say that any part of the show was trivialized," he said. "Of course, we did not go to extremes."
Cejnkova said the problem may have been referring to the program as reality television in the first place. It implies a more frivolous approach, she said. A better term might be "docu-reality" or, as her husband suggested, "situation drama."
True, she said, there are real people who perform tasks to win prizes. And the show is certainly meant to be entertaining and often funny. But it is also intended to educate Czech viewers about life during those harsh times.
"We want viewers to ask themselves, ‘What would I do in that situation?’" she said.
The idea for the program began, Cejnkova said, when she was thinking about her grandmother’s memories of Nazi occupation. "Everything was watched, monitored, supervised," she said.
At the same time, Dvorak had been thinking of introducing a format known as "living history" – pioneered on British television, but since copied in other countries – in which people are transplanted into simulations of historical periods. And the network was looking for a way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
So "Holiday in the Protectorate" was born.
More than 600 families applied to be contestants on the show. They were not told in exactly which time period the show would take place.
The series was shot over two months last summer at a remote farmstead in the Beskydy Mountains of eastern Moravia. The first episode’s audience of 500,000 viewers, while a large number for public television here, was about half of what a hit show on commercial television might draw, said Alzbeta Plivova, a spokeswoman for Czech Television.
Stanislav Kokoska, a historian and expert on the protectorate, said that the producers might have been wise to choose a different time period.
"The problem is they chose a period that comes with very strong meaning," he said. "The memories of people who perished during this period are considered sacred."
And the idea that it showed how contemporary people would actually react to such a situation was preposterous, he said.
"They know what the result of the war was," he said. "They know they will not be killed. So they can play a part and cast themselves as the hero."
Indeed, there are moments in the show when the family talks back to the Gestapo officers, something, the historians say, that would rarely have actually happened. The real consequences of such insolence were immediate and severe.
"It’s true, you can’t recreate the fear for your life," Cejnkova said. "And, of course, we didn’t want to. It would have been beyond the edge of ethics."
The family is contractually forbidden from speaking to the news media until the series has finished its run.
But Petr Klimes, a Czech stage and television actor who plays the Gestapo chief, was happy to speak in support of the show.
"I was concerned that it be a good show, otherwise I would not have taken part in it," he said. "And I think I can verify, from the reactions of my own children, that it really works. They are learning from it."
He shouted to his children, Kristian, 10, and Rosalie, 12, to come into the television room in their suburban house to see the show.
The family is used to their father playing villains – his skeletal cheeks and shaved head bring many such roles his way.
The family applauded when it began. When Klimes appeared in full Gestapo regalia and began snarling at the TV family, they laughed and pointed at the screen.
The one aspect of the production that he did find jarring was the presence of a boy in the family who is the same age as his own son.
"I kept wondering how he was processing this," Klimes said. "We broke into the house at one point and ordered everyone out and the little boy did not know how to behave. I had to take a few steps back and collect my breath."
At the end of production, there was a wrap party. Klimes had not been planning to go, but finally decided he must.
"I had to because of the little boy," he said. "I had to sort out my own feelings about how my performance might have affected him. I had to show him that I was not really that person."