TV Preview: In 'Sarah Palin's Alaska,' there are many reasons to watch but too few insights

The series follows former Alaska governer and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin as she takes viewers on a tour of her home turf. Each week she'll be joined by various family members to share some of the country's popular activities -- from salmon fishing in Bristol Bay to hiking along the glacial trails. "Sarah Palin's Alaska" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on TLC.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Who is this woman, this fruit bat in fleece and Gore-Tex, clenching the side of the rock face above a glacier, screaming "Tahhd! Tahhd!" at her husband, piercing the tranquillity of the Alaskan paradise?

Isn't this the kind of person whom forest rangers usually despise? The one whose loud command to heed the bears actually startles the bears? The hapless camper whom taxpayers have to rescue at great expense after she loses her Verizon signal and gets hopelessly disoriented?

If it helps (and it may help a whole bunch), imagine that you have no earthly idea who Sarah Palin even is. Cleanse your mind. You know nothing.

You're flipping channels and you randomly land on "Sarah Palin's Alaska," TLC's new reality show that debuts Sunday night, and you begin to piece it together. It's a show about . . . hmmm.

About a busy mom with a sporty husband. Their many offspring run from a soldier son in his 20s down to a mentally disabled adorable toddler and an unexpected grandson with curly blond hair. But quick enough it seems to be a show about a woman who fancies herself as something of a nature enthusiast who wants to take advantage of the short-but-sweet Alaskan summer. So is it about the li'l town where she lives? Is it about flowers and birdies and double rainbows? Is it like "Northern Exposure" meets "An American Family?"

You still don't know. Suddenly we learn that she has her own television studio set up in an outbuilding across the driveway. Why? So she can more easily make her frequent appearances on Fox News's "The O'Reilly Factor," with Lake Lucille shimmering out the window behind her. And what's this -- her neighbor is writing a nasty, mean book about her?

So . . . she's in politics? She writes? She makes cupcakes? Is it another cupcake show? If so, beware, because 9-year-old Piper Palin -- cast here as the family sassafras, speaking truth to power -- has been licking batter off of every utensil in the kitchen. Maybe it is a show about Piper's hopeless cause to get her mother to stop looking at her BlackBerry. ("Sarah!" Piper yells, after several attempts at "Mom!" It's the only way to get her to look up.)

No, wait, apparently this is indeed a show that is first and foremost about glaciers and wildlife and riding around in and on things with loud motors. The family is now boarding a floatplane, off to fish for salmon and look for grizzly bears. Next, they pile into a monstrous RV fit for a country music star to see more glaciers. So it's an adventure show, right?

Well, context is all. Restore everything you do know -- or think you know -- about Sarah Palin, and the show becomes even more confusing.

Strangely enough, the Sarah Palin who stars in "Sarah Palin's Alaska" seems to want a fresh start here, too. In this well-staged reboot, the less you know about her -- or the less you've read or seen about her or, in some cases, shuddered to think about her -- then the better the show gets.

It's still pretty blah and rarely rises above a relative's chatty slide show of vacation pictures. After huffing and puffing her way up trails, Palin tends to brag an awful lot about the view. One would imagine that the presence of a TV crew can zap the Thoreau out of any sojourn, but one can also watch Palin and imagine her counting the seconds until she's back at the truck and has enough signal bars to tweet about how pretty the sky is.

"I love this state like I love my family," Palin tells viewers from the get-go. Summer is here, and "I'm setting aside time to spend with family and friends . . . [and] to meet the hardworking Alaskans who call [the state] home." Like all reality shows, it just so happens that a lot of camera-ready activities are in the works. Just enough of life at the Palin home has been interspersed to keep the project from feeling like a state tourism commission video.

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