When we talk about a certain time period in the past, we also reveal who we are now. In ''The '70s House," a takeoff on PBS's time-travel reality series, MTV portrays the 1970s as an era grounded in home design (shags!), fashion (polyester!), products (Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific!), and lingo (groovy!). And that probably says more about the style-and-marketing obsessed TV channel than it does about the 1970s.
But then we each have our own image of the years that stretched out of the 1960s. Some of us picture it as the moment when American culture got healthy and took a jog; others see it as the slow, ugly death of idealism. ''The '70s House," which premieres tomorrow night at 10:30, would have been a lot more engaging if MTV had pitched it at a deeper level involving the social mores and taboos of the time. As its 12 young reality contestants try to live as the country did in the 1970s, the show gets too caught up in the silliness of surfaces, dealing with issues no bigger than wearing short shorts, riding in bulky station wagons, and employing phrases such as ''Shake your booty."
In other words, ''The '70s House" opts to be nothing more than a very old visual joke stretched out to series length. It's ''That '70s Show," with all the fondue and bell bottoms but without any of the characters. And it's PBS's ''The 1900 House" without any anthropological resonance. The idea of the show is that the contestant who can best adhere to the look and sound of the '70s will win gifts.
Or, as our host, Dawn, puts it, ''One far-out individual is going to go back to 2005 with some pretty heavy prizes." The players live together in a ''Brady Bunch"-like split-level house, where they are scrutinized by a Big Brother figure named Oscar to make sure they don't use contemporary words such as ''awesome" or ''Botox." Periodically, an alarm sounds and they all must immediately break into ''The Hustle."
Oddly, the show is poorly cast. There aren't any instantly memorable characters, something MTV is usually too good at. The people who show up on ''The Real World" these days are so in-your-face and eager to be distinct, you wish they could be less vivid. But this particular group is a generic collection of lookers who can slip in and out of '70s clothes without much ado. In the first episode, at least, none of the inhabitants of ''The '70s House" leaves a lasting impression. And if you can be bland and boring on MTV dressed in a pink leisure suit, then there may be no hope for you.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.