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.

In 2001, there were nearly 87,000 Amish church members in the United States -- a number that doesn't include all the children in their typically large families, according to Mennonite Church USA. Hundreds of thousands more are Mennonites.

The Amish population increased dramatically in the last half of the 20th century and is about seven times what it was. But most of the old ways remain: The Amish discourage vanity. They dress in plain clothes and avoid posing for photographs. They discourage education beyond the early teenage years. They discourage electricity at home, as well as phones and cars.

As technology streaks forward and TV homogenizes American culture, the gulf keeps widening between the Amish and the world around them.

Lizzie said she hopes to keep living this way forever.

"We have the blacktop now," she said of a stretch of lane nearby where new houses are going up. "I'd rather have the dirt road. They cleared all the trees; it used to be shady."

Her husband was working in his welding shop, where the sparks glowed orange. Her oldest daughter pulled laundry off a line beside the house, while her youngest danced with their dog, Beetle. They have five children, 230 chickens, 22 laying hens, 30 pullets, 50 bantams, five geese, a couple of goats, horses, and easily 200 close relatives within a few miles.

Like her mother before her, Lizzie could play baseball or board games with her brothers or cousins growing up, but she couldn't spend time with other boys until she turned 16. Then she was allowed to meet boys, date and try new things. "I used to love to listen to the radio," she admitted.

There are about 75 young people in her Amish community, she said, from 16 to about 30 years old, who get together, especially on Sunday evenings. They might sing German songs, play volleyball, go for a walk in the woods or go to someone's house for a party, several people said.

Some drink, which is forbidden for adults in the church. "We try to discourage it as much as we can," Lizzie said. "But some of the young think they're big. . . . They want to see what they can get away with."

Most live at home with their parents until they marry, usually around 19 to 21. Every once in a while, someone will marry an outsider.

Mostly, they stay in their own world.

Lizzie has seen a handful of people leave the Amish over the years, a loss that upsets the whole community. One of her brothers left. "It was his choice," she said. "I'd do anything if I could get him to come back."

"It was very hard," said Henry Hostetler, her brother, who left the church when he was 19 for a while, then again when he was 29. He loved to write songs and play guitar and fiddle and keyboards. "Sometimes there's very hard decisions to make, but you have to move on because you will never know if you don't."

Now 37, he lives near his sister but isn't a part of the community. "I'll always be sorry," he said.

The television show's producers said they chose city life because it's such an extreme opposite for the Amish, said Jon Kroll, a producer and the senior vice president of New Line Television. "People in cities get much more caught up in material possessions, in the fast-paced lifestyle," he said. "It's difficult to take a deep breath and take stock of what's really important."

Lizzie said the Amish she knows have hardly ever been to a city, unless they had a child in the hospital. "I just don't think the Amish way of life would work," she said. She reached for the glass of water her 3-year-old redheaded son brought her and smiled at him. "It's just not our way of life."

The cast of UPN's "Amish in the City" includes Jonas, left, Miriam, Randy, Ruth and Mose.An Amish farmer, right, catches a cantaloupe brought to his stand at a farmers market in Mechanicsville.Amish teenagers prepare their vegetable stand at the Amish farmers market on Route 6 in Mechanicsville.