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

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; C01

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.

"Sarah Palin's Alaska" makes Palin about a thousand times more relatable and likable than any previous effort, which is, after all, the goal. It's a huge improvement over "Real American Stories," that bit of journalistic jingoism that Palin hosted on Fox last spring -- a concept that seemed to vanish the instant it aired.

If Palin is going to attempt a 2012 presidential campaign, a warm and fuzzy show about life in Alaska is just another step in brand advancement, in which finishing her term as governor of Alaska (which is barely mentioned, if at all, in the opening episode) didn't fit. The social-network-era goal now is to have it all ways: sell a gazillion books, make TV shows, and cross freely the former borders that in ancient times separated punditry and public service and political operations.

Let's say you love Sarah Palin: Then you'll of course watch the show.

Let's say you don't love Sarah Palin: It holds something for you, too, besides the opportunity to mock. From warily repeating Alaska's frightful plane-crash statistics as she boards yet another puddle-jumper to putting her in the relative proximity of hungry bears, to showing her as she tentatively snowshoes across ice that may or not give way to a bottomless crevasse, "Sarah Palin's Alaska" can be a delightful foray into the macabre. What if the ice gives way? What if the plane crashes? Don't even think about it! (Okay . . . think about it just a tiny bit. TLC seems to be daring us to. Danger is a constant theme, whether political or natural, and Palin apparently loves it.)

* * *

Subtextually, "Sarah Palin's Alaska" underscores her most essential persona: brave frontier woman. I don't know if she wants to be president so much as she wants to be this century's answer to Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose little house in the woods has WiFi and open floor plans. "No boys upstairs!" Mama Grizzly barks at her teenage daughter, Willow, who is entertaining a young lad named Andy.

Minutes later, while Palin surfs the Web, Andy jumps the Trigg- and Tripp-proof toddler gate and follows Willow upstairs. Cheese-n-crackers, it's like trying to keep a tomcat off the porch! For the benefit of her television visitors, and cognizant of the failures of abstinence-only mandates, Palin is instantly on the case: "Get down here!" she shouts at the teens. "Mom," Willow whines, now recognizing that there will never in her life be such a thing as true privacy.

On the subject of privacy, much has been made of the first episode's scene in which Sarah and Todd bemoan the arrival of Joe McGinniss, a journalist who has rented the house next door to work on a book about Palin.

"Our summer fun has been sort of taken away from us," Todd explains, in his sexy rasp. Sarah admires the emergency, 14 feet of extra fence Todd and his friends hammered together to prevent McGinniss from seeing them. It has heightened her notions of national security: "Others can look at it and say, 'This is what we need on our nation's border,' " she says, and note the singular use of "border," which can only mean the Mexican one, even way up there in what the rest of us think of as de-facto Canada. And yes, in a teaser for a future episode, Palin winds up atop a peak and jokes about seeing Russia, a nod to "Saturday Night Live's" parodies of her.

The show is less about mountaintops and more about a frontier mythology. The frontier is no longer an earthly one, however; our pioneering and her electioneering are now taking us to new and unbelievable stretches of image-making and public relations.

Palin wants us to know that she is uniquely, fiercely of the backcountry, a Lenscrafted denizen of the farthest and most genuine sort of America you can find, but one that can only be accessed by the rogue use of motorized vehicles. Along with the huskies and grizzlies, here come the dirt bikes, the ATVs, the choppers, the snow machines. This is a show about grabbing what's yours, or getting the heck out of the way while someone else blows through.

Sarah Palin's Alaska

(one hour) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on TLC.

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