Not to indulge in conspiracy theories or anything, but if there's one group in America that presents a threat to our vast, intoxicating entertainment culture, it's the Amish. If the values of the Amish went global, bye-bye Hollywood, bye-bye television, bye-bye California. The whole edifice of American civilization would come crashing down.
The Amish, as was explained last night on the new UPN reality series "Amish in the City," don't do electricity, and they don't do the internal combustion engine. But they do indulge in a rite of passage known as rumspringa, during which, in their late teens, they sample a bit more freedom than their fundamentalist religion allows.
And if they survive the all-but-irresistible attractions of booze, cigarettes and pop music, they return to their communities, get baptized in the faith and live out their lives in quiet, homespun simplicity on farms in the heartland.
So the premise of "Amish in the City" seems to be simple: Can this last pocket of resistance to American materialism be assimilated? Or at least, that was the worry among critics when plans for the show were announced. The words "Is nothing sacred?" came to mind, and America's TV hawks were prepared for more toxic bilge water making fun of basic American values.
The first, two-hour episode of "Amish in the City" is, in fact, harder on the six city kids with whom the five Amish youth are forced to live in a vast, postmodern nightmare house in the Hollywood Hills. Finding five Amish kids who would allow themselves to be filmed was hard enough (hold that thought). But finding six vapid city kids who fit the right cultural stereotypes, who were pretty enough and dull enough and vain enough to be foils for the Amish, that required some virtuosic casting.
But they found them. Reese is the simpering gay guy. Ariel is the vegan Nazi. Meagan is pretty and stupid and says "oh . . . my . . . God" a lot. Kevan has the pecs. Whitney is the black chick with 'tude. Is that six? Oh, and Nick, the Boston boy who is pretty much the straight male version of Meagan. They are all interchangeable with one another and with all the other buffed morons on other channels engaged in the same mindless banter.
Now what was that thought you were holding? After two hours of "Amish in the City," it's hard to hold a thought, isn't it? Oh yes. Casting the Amish kids.
The Amish are not big on making graven images, and they adhere to a strict and insular brand of Christianity that takes pacifism and Hell seriously. Which makes it ethically dicey to cast them for reality television. The first premise of reality television is that, like porn, the actors are in some way willing participants. If they weren't, watching them be humiliated, like that scene last night in which Mose, a charmingly decent Amish chap, got his chest shaved, would be exploitative and voyeuristic. But the premise of "Amish in the City" is that these kids don't know anything about the finer details of pop culture. And if that's true, how can they possibly give what lawyers call "informed consent" to this spectacle?
Perhaps they're not really Amish and, frankly, we have only the television producers' assurance to believe they are. Or perhaps they're already lapsed, or lapsing, Amish. Or perhaps they just got good and hoodwinked by a bunch of voracious television people. Impossible to say.
The strangest thing about reality television is that you can never be sure of the reality on display. Everything is so edited, so cut-and-pasted, so underscored with a heavy hand, so hammered to the form of basic tropes, that none of it seems like reality. Did Mose really come close to drowning while the city kids sat tanning themselves on their blanket, oblivious to his imminent demise? Could be. Who knows? Did Kevan really get up and knock Reese out of his chair because the gay boy had pushed the straight boy's gay-panic buttons? Could be real, but it sure seems like psychotic behavior after only a few hours together.
So if you can't be sure of the reality, on reality television, what do you have left? A long, tedious set of formulas. First the tedious introductions; then the tedious setup of faux conflicts; then the tedious crisis; then the reconciliation; then a challenge; then an exchange of roles; then, as you approach the end of two hours, the setup for more conflict, more sexual tension, more tedium. Will Kevan hook up with Meagan? Will Randy, the hunky, gaptoothed Amish dude, get back together with his Amish ex-sweetie?
Do you care? Reality television and porn have so much in common (the fetish for amateurs, the extreme situations, the playing with the line between scripted and spontaneous) but they differ in this: You can't fast-forward "Amish in the City" to the end. You're just going to have to watch -- or not.
The fear, among some groups that worry about the depiction of religion and the treatment of rural people on television, was that this show would mock and demean its Amish characters. It clearly strives not to do so, at least overtly. The producers use a basic reversal of values to insulate themselves from the charge of exploiting the Amish. Instead, they exploit every cliche of urban vanity and inanity. The city kids are dull, rude, intellectually closed-minded and hypocritical. Next to them, the Amish are delightful. They have a strange, hard-to-place but winning quality: It's called maturity.
It's possible, of course, that there are kids who live in cities who read books, who are curious about new things, who don't while away empty days shopping and going to the beach. But you won't find them on programs like "Amish in the City." If there is a conspiracy out there in TV land, it's a weird, self-loathing one. If city kids are as bad as the city folk who make television say they are, it's no wonder that "Hollywood" has become a byword for elitist decadence. It would be nice, just once, if the makers of American entertainment would defend the better values of their own urban culture.