Conflicting Images Of Amish Life
Community in Md. Doubts Validity of New TV Show
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2004; Page B01
On buggy trails that link the Amish farms at the edges of St. Mary's County, nothing moves much faster than a horse clomping along. Every now and then, a hand-lettered sign with an arrow nailed to a tree or a weathered post gives directions: Hogs that way. Butter this way. Firewood up ahead.
A man with a long, curly beard, wearing suspenders and a straw hat, stepped out of the tall grass with three of his children one afternoon last week, walking toward home. There, his wife rocked slowly on their porch swing -- without air conditioning, it was too hot to get much housework done.
Tonight, the UPN network will launch the reality-TV series "Amish in the City" with a two-hour premiere that portrays a very different world: Five young people from Amish backgrounds are plucked from their communities in Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana to share a house in the Hollywood Hills with six urban twentysomethings.
"They say these people are Amish?" asked Lizzie, a St. Mary's County Amish woman, shaking her head, when told the premise of the series.
Lizzie agreed to be interviewed on the condition that her full name not be printed; she was raised to shy away from attention. She won't be watching the show tonight, and it's not just that she doesn't own a television. Her reality is a world of raising her children and her chickens, helping her husband run their small farm and welding shop in Southern Maryland.
"I guess you know as well as I do," she said, "they say a lot of bad stuff on television."
Daniel Laikind, one of three executive producers of the show, predicted yesterday that critics will be surprised by "Amish in the City." The series may resemble MTV's "The Real World" in format, but it aims to be about more than throwing attractive young people together and following them with cameras as they try sushi, argue, marvel at escalators and, of course, run around beaches in bikinis.
"It's a real journey of discovery for 11 people who are at a crossroads in their life," said Laikind, who, with Steven Cantor, another of the producers, won praise for a documentary film they made about Amish youth.
In February, 51 members of Congress signed a letter asking UPN not to produce a show that would insult the dignity of a devout religious community. The network, a unit of Viacom, kept the show quiet for the months that followed, finally showing early episodes to TV critics in Los Angeles last week.
According to critics who saw the episodes, the show was surprisingly benign for anyone expecting tipsy exhibitionism. Still, there are skeptics.
"This is but the latest in a series of insensitivities visited upon the Amish by a popular culture that considers them only a curiosity," said Everett J. Thomas, editor and publisher of the Mennonite, the magazine of the church that is closely related but less conservative than the Amish. "It's regrettable that UPN would titillate its viewers by exploiting a very sober and pious people."
The Mennonite and Amish churches trace their roots back several centuries to a group of Christians martyred for their belief that infant baptisms were wrong; they held that only an adult could freely choose to join the church.
In overwhelming numbers, the Amish are making that choice.
Most Amish young people get baptized, many after they turn 16, and they may go through rumspringa, a Pennsylvania Dutch word that loosely means "running around." At that time, they can date and try the faster pace of the outside world, if they want.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company