Many urban dwellers fantasize about living a simpler life in a secluded place, severing ties with the power grid and the trappings of ever-connected 21st century life. A few of them will actually get the chance in the FYI series "Unplugged Nation," which allows participants to view three off-the-grid properties, choose one to live in for four days to see if they're cut out for the lifestyle, and then decide whether to buy it or hightail it back to the city.
In the first of nine episodes, premiering July 29, the Bastelli family flies from New Jersey to Hawaii's Big Island in search of a solar-powered home with plenty of land to grow fruits and vegetables and raise livestock. Outdoorsman and self-sufficiency expert Jay Gruen provides assistance on everything from cooking and conserving water to making a portable chicken coop from an old trampoline, offering tips viewers can apply to their lives at home.
"I think many of us daydream about a simpler, downsized lifestyle. Lots of people have weekend getaways, but we were curious about filming families who wanted to make a permanent life change. Many families have young children, and they really want what they feel could be a better lifestyle for their kids," says Gena McCarthy, senior vice president of programming and development for the FYI channel and executive producer of the series, who originally conceived of the premise as a show called "Grizzly Family Adams."
"The idea was to find families organically living unplugged lives and create an upscale docu-follow series about them," she says. When she told British production company Blast! Films about it, "They mentioned they were shooting a show in the Northwest, and I asked if they would develop the show with me."
Step one was putting out a casting call for serious, committed families. "Many of them had a clear idea of what part of the country they wanted, but the criteria included a genuine desire to find or at least sample an unplugged property before making the final purchase."
Besides Hawaii, the production traveled to northeast Tennessee, to parts of Washington state and to Oregon to shoot episodes. "We wanted to share a variety of locations, properties and lifestyle choices. The episodes that feature young children are among my favorites as their reactions are unique," says McCarthy, noting the challenges the families face.
"Unless you have done it before, it is always startling when people realize how much hard work goes into the lifestyle. Livestock wrangling is often a shocker. Distance from hospitals and schools can be a deterrent for some as well," she says, adding that it takes knowledge, self-sufficiency and a lot of hard work. "People should understand this isn't a fantasy, but a real lifestyle that requires intelligence, a huge amount of work, and talent for building, providing sustenance and other life skills that many of us have never had to tackle."
Reality quickly set in for several of the participants. "For those who decided not to buy or decided to wait, sometimes the test drive experience made one person — or the whole family — realize they simply weren't ready to make a permanent change like this," says McCarthy, noting that in any case, viewers can not only live vicariously but learn a thing or two. "Viewers can enjoy the wide variety of properties you can purchase, and tons of practical lifestyle tips and tactics."
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