In many TV shows and films (think “American Beauty” and “Weeds”), suburbia is symbolized as a prison of surface homogeneity, over-fertilized green lawns, gas-guzzling SUVs and kids on swing sets.
CBS is about to shoot a reality show tentatively called “Block Party” in Kennesaw that literally turns suburbia… into a prison.
Earlier this month, the network built 2,000 feet of stark 20-foot tall walls around eight homes in a Kennesaw subdivision, walls that resemble the outside of a maximum-security penitentiary — minus the barbed wire. There are even off-duty Kennesaw police stationed on the road to keep traffic moving.
Starting June 15, eight families in those homes will be trapped in their own homes for about three weeks, blocked by said wall. If they leave, they relinquish the chance to win an unspecified large cash prize. And given that this is CBS, expect the prize to be well into the six figures (but less than one million dollars.)
During those three weeks, the families can only interact with each other while taking part in reward and elimination challenges, along the lines of sister CBS shows “Big Brother” or “Survivor.”
Jay Bienstock, a producer who has worked on “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” said the concept is that suburban families lead such rushed, disparate lives, they don’t spend enough time together. This show will force them to do so. Dad can’t go off and play golf. The kids can’t go to ballet class or karate lessons. Mom can’t hit the mall.
He wouldn’t reveal what the challenges might be but they’ll be themed to suburban life — with a twist. “This isn’t something we are going to do, but it could be like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey with 200 real donkeys,” he said. (PETA might not be cool with that idea.)
Bienstock said it took months to find eight families on continguous properties willing to say yes to such an incredibly intrusive reality show. (The network is not making any of the families available to talk, especially since it hasn’t even started taping.)
They checked several cities, going door to door in suburban areas until they found this little alcove. The city of Kennessaw, he said, cleared it because 220 workers (mostly local) will be in the area for several weeks pumping money into the local economy.
The subdivision worked well for two major reasons: it’s very generic suburbia, making it relatable to the mass public, and the families are surprisingly diverse. “It could be Anywhere, USA,” Bienstock said. And while many suburban areas experience high turnover and lack community cohesion, these eight neighbors knew each other fairly well. And since the homes were build just a decade ago, most are the original home owners and all have kids of various ages.
The homes are valued in the $200,000 to $250,000 range, according to Zillow.com. A home up the block is on sale for $244,900. They’re pretty typical two-story suburban homes in the 2,500 square foot range. Most have four bedrooms, three baths with faux brick fronts.
The families themselves are classic middle class with folks working in sales, repair work and video production. “It’s like we hit the lottery,” he said, though he admits he doesn’t yet know what sort of fireworks may come out of sequestering these families for so long.
He isn’t sure when CBS is going to air the show or how many episodes will air, though it will probably be about seven. The fall lineup looks solid so this may be either a mid-season replacement/fill in or a show targeted for summer of 2010. The host will be Matt Rogers, who finished 11th on “American Idol” season three but showed more hosting skills than vocal skills after he left the show. (He hosts “Really Big Things” on Discovery Channel.)
The foreboding walls are typical Hollywood. They may be made of reinforced steel and may look solid, like those rocks the Six Million Dollar Man used to pick up, but one worker said the exterior is like cellophane and could be easily damaged with one swift punch.