UPN suits on Tuesday thumbed their noses at critics over the network's controversial reality series "Amish in the City," then whined when the critics got peevish.
UPN rep Joanna Lowry started rubbing critics' noses in it right off the bat, kicking off the Viacom-owned network's day at Summer TV Press Tour 2004 here by thanking her boss, Chris Ender, for his "insight," his "guidance" and "particularly his knowledge when it comes to dealing with reality shows." In other words, for pulling a fast one on The Reporters Who Cover Television, most of whom had thought "Amish in the City" was dead because, until UPN announced a couple of weeks ago that the show would debut soon, they hadn't heard anything about it for several months.
"Amish in the City" follows five Amish youths and six "city kids," ages 18 to 25, who shack up in a house in the Hollywood Hills. The Amish kids are participating in rumspringa, a process in the Amish community in which young people are allowed to live in the outside world for an undetermined period before deciding if they wish to return to the fold and be baptized in the Amish faith.
During Tuesday morning's first session, a Q&A with Leslie Moonves, co-COO of UPN parent Viacom, and Dawn Ostroff, UPN entertainment division president, one critic asked rhetorically if the "stealth" campaign on "Amish in the City" had been done on purpose.
UPN announced in January that the project was in development. Critics took the news badly, various special interest groups and politicians took up the cause against the program and UPN took the project deep underground -- until it suddenly reemerged, in the can, with a start date of July 28.
"Calling it a 'stealth attack' is a little extreme," Moonves complained.
He and Ostroff said they are very proud of the project. A critic wondered why, if that was the case, they wouldn't give screening copies of the episodes to a Pennsylvania affiliate and to Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.), who had asked to see the show before its debut.
"I don't want to be judged by a member of Congress before the show goes on the air," Moonves said. "And it's not our practice to screen things and get affiliates to approve or disapprove what we're putting on the air."
Another critic wondered whether, now that the network had pulled off "Amish in the City," Moonves, who also heads CBS, plans to revive a similar reality series, "The Real Beverly Hillbillies," in which a family from Appalachia would be plunked down in Beverly Hills for a spell to live the high life.
"Were you not here on the CBS press tour day? That was addressed then," Moonves said, just like my second-grade teacher.
(FYI, when Moonves was asked about "The Real Beverly Hillbillies" during the CBS suit Q&A earlier in the tour, he said he would not answer the question.)
The suits also seemed unhappy when one of the critics at UPN's session noted that "Amish in the City" was inspired by the "melancholy" documentary "Devil's Playground," in which Amish kids going through rumspringa engage in some pretty self-destructive behavior, including drug abuse and drug dealing. "So what did you see in that that screamed 'fun summer entertainment'? And is just adding a few pop songs to the soundtrack going to alleviate what some of these people are struggling with?" said the critic.
Another asked why the network wasn't screening episodes of "Amish in the City" until hours after its executive Q&A session. Moonves and Ostroff explained that they didn't want critics to see the program before the executive session because, quite simply, they didn't want to be asked questions about it. Just like that, without so much as a howdy-do.
"Look, right now over half the questions are about 'Amish in the City,' " Moonves complained. "If we would have screened this [before the exec session] the 50 percent would have gone to 95 percent."
I know -- boo-hoo.
And actually, they were wrong. They would have done themselves a huge favor had they screened it before their Q&A session. Critics seemed far less knicker-knotted about the series after watching the first two episodes, though they didn't go so far as to actually praise the show, which looks like a PBS-esque "Real World." You know, "Real World," only without all the alcohol and sex -- at least in the first two episodes. (But, as one sharp critic reminded, early "Real World" was not soaked in vodka, either.) It's apparently all right to rip off the MTV show if you are also in the Viacom family.
Also calming some of the critics' concerns, the five Amish participants in this reality series seem to be pretty rumspringaed from the get-go. Construction worker Randy has a pierced ear. Factory worker Ruth has dyed hair and was seen smoking a cigarette; she told critics during the Q&A session late in the day that her family looks on her "as very bad" and that she goes to visit them "maybe two times a year." Construction worker Jonas is a self-described "bad boy," and former teacher turned construction worker Mose is actually re-rumspringaing, having left the flock in his teens, returned, been baptized and now left again. Mose told critics that he was considered "very rebellious" and a "bad influence" as a teenager. Also, the Amish participants already are talking mall-speak in the first episode: Mose says his first ride on an escalator is "really freaking me out" and Ruth describes her first experiences -- visiting the beach, seeing a parking meter, seeing art in a gallery, you name it -- as "awesome."
Because this is a reality series, someone has to look stupid. It couldn't be the Amish because the show is controversial, so the producers cast some of the dumbest, most entertaining "city folk" ever seen on a reality series, which is saying a lot. Most endearing is waitress Ariel, a strict vegan who explains to her bemused Amish housemates, all of whom grew up on farms in the Midwest, that eggs are "chicken abortions," dairy products are "cow pus" and that cows come from outer space. No, she was not kidding. During the Q&A with critics, Ariel was asked about the whole cow thing; she said cautiously that she thought cows were able to endure "extraordinary pain," that they have "a lot of toxicity" in their systems and that "their DNA is extraordinary."