I wanted to watch Sarah Palin's Alaska
with a blank slate. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that this woman bugs the crap out of me and made me even more than "bugged" during the 2008 election. So I approached Sarah Palin's Alaska
trying to see it like any other TLC show. There's one problem with that approach, though: Sarah Palin's Alaska
won't let you forget who Sarah Palin is, or forgo the politics. As a result, the show comes off a little forced and disingenuous.
The message seems to be: "Sarah Palin is all about family and she's a normal kinda lady!" But there's nothing normal about it. I like Alaska, and I'd like to learn more about it, but instead I'm learning about that darned new neighbor writin' a book about Sarah! Also, I assume not every Alaskan gets a private seaplane to go wherever they want, climb Mount McKinley, or fish feet away from a family of brown bears.
Another thing I don't get is if this is supposed to be Sarah Palin's "normal" life or not. Because it kind of seems like Palin has never done any of this before but is trying to pretend she does it all the time. When they're fishing, she speaks of needing to catch their dinner, but somehow I doubt that's how they get fed. Also, Sarah was nervous around the bears because a bear "could leap into the boat. It could think that we are its lunch instead of those little tiny salmon underfoot." I guess, if you folksify nature enough.
She doesn't really know what she's doing, but she grasps at lessons for the viewers to learn along the way. "Mother Nature's tellin' us somethin'!" "Those bears can teach us a thing or two about parenting!" "You gotta finish what you start!"
To keep their neighbor from writing an unauthorized book about them, Todd stacked one fence on top of another. Sarah Palin uses it as an excuse to talk about what we should do to our nation's borders. But like boys finding a way into her daughters' bedrooms, when there's a will there's a way!
Palin also talks about lessons we can learn from the bears, but it's a muddled idea masked by overconfidence. Arriving home, she and Piper spy their gosh-darned neighbor, and Sarah takes it as a learning opportunity for Piper:
"He's stuck inside writin' an ugly book ... See, we one-upped him, Piper, we had a good day and he's stuck in his house!" Just like a mama bear (through the Palin lens).
I just don't get it. Is it about Alaska or Sarah Palin? The accurately titled Sarah Palin's Alaska creates a fantasy Alaska and fantasy life of Sarah Palin that we're supposed to buy into. At least that's my impression. Yet there's an undertone to the show that I just can't overlook. While Sarah Palin and her daughter Piper are more than happy to be on television (Todd seems ... acquiescent), Willow hides from the camera at every opportunity. Next week's episode features Bristol, who obviously doesn't mind the limelight.
Sarah Palin seems to enjoy hamming it up for the lens, acting like this is all normal. For example, when Palin struggles with a scary vertical rock climb, Brian the climbing expert says, "You've always wanted to be a rock climber, Sarah!," and Palin quips, "was it a rock climber or a rock star? Hmmm!" She's making commentary and jokes as if to say, "Even in the face of danger I'm charming and folksy!" But it seems like she's missing the point that vulnerability, not clever quips, make her the most relatable. TLC's Toddlers & Tiaras seems more genuine.
In an interview after the climb, Sarah admits that she "didn't want to quit in front of other people," which was perhaps one of the most telling things said in the entire episode. To her credit, I liked when Sarah Palin admitted that she can handle being mocked: "I can handle it, you know, I kind of have asked for it, right? If I'm tempted to kinda say, 'Oh, here comes another shot, why us?' Todd reminds me all the time, 'Why not us? We can handle it.'"
Palin is extremely aware of the "show" part but forgets about "reality." But maybe that's what the series is all about. If we zoom out a bit more, maybe we're watching a docu-series about Sarah Palin's political preparation and ploys to stay relevant as the show places her in different situations within the Alaskan outdoors. It's not what the Palin family is like in Alaska, it's what the Palins are like when they're on a TV show (and the Blackberry is put away).
The show seems largely centered around Sarah Palin "dirtying up" (and familying up) like she's got something to prove; as if to say, "I'm not an embarrassment!" But this show isn't for me. It's for people who like country music (featured in the opening sequence), for people who don't shudder at the sound of Palin's voice. Basically, this series isn't going to turn anyone on to Sarah Palin, but it will be something for her existing fan-base to enjoy.
(image courtesy of TLC)