Reality TV follows Mama Grizzly in her natural habitat
Sarah Palin is climbing a glorious mountain in the premiere of TLC’s “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.’’ Terrified of heights, “freaking-out scared,’’ she yells to her guide and her husband, Todd, “This may flippin’ take me all day.’’ But she persists, bravely climbing upward, refusing to succumb to fear. “I didn’t want to quit,’’ she says later. “I didn’t want to quit in front of other people.’’
The long scene is about perseverance, a statement about climbing ev’ry mountain. But is the scene also an indirect response to accusations that Palin is a “quitter’’ for having left her Alaska governor’s post 18 months early? Is it a political reassertion clothed in folksy backwoods activity?
After watching “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,’’ I’m going to say yes, yes indeed. Her series, which premieres Sunday night at 9, is one of the most naked examples of image-crafting I’ve seen in a while. With the conventions of reality TV at her service, the former vice presidential candidate delivers a portrait of herself, her family, and her home state that’s relentless in its messages of wholesomeness and in its justifications of her past. Along with bigwig reality producer Mark Burnett, she has created a nonfiction-styled telling of her own frontier-woman myth, complete with ancient visual splendor and small metaphorical adventures.
The slow-moving show is structured partly as a glimpse into Palin’s lakefront home life in Wasilla, where she’s a BlackBerry-addicted working mom who makes cupcakes with her kids and then ducks into her studio with Todd to talk to Fox News via satellite. This domestic footage is in keeping with TLC’s “Kate Plus Eight’’ — and, indeed, Kate Gosselin and her brood will appear on “Sarah Palin’s Alaska’’ later in the season. The show is also part adventure travelogue — Burnett’s specialty, as the creator of “Survivor’’ — and filled with stunning nature photography as the Palins tour Alaska in planes and a giant RV.
But every scene, no matter where it’s filmed, inevitably seems to become some kind of Palin political dispatch. She takes full advantage of a bear sighting — staged, no doubt — to recall her Mama Grizzlies platform for “common-sense conservative women,’’ as she put it in a video last summer. Watching a brown bear, she talks about how the mama bear is “protecting her cubs and saying, you know, no one’s gonna mess with my cubs, no one’s gonna mess with the future of the species.’’ Of course, this is not an interview or press conference, and no one is there to ask her how mama bears feel about putting their cubs on reality TV.
At one point, we learn — as has been much publicized — that one of the Palins’ neighbors is an author “writing a hit piece on my wife,’’ as Todd explains. He isn’t named on the show, but the author is Joe McGinniss. It’s hard not to feel for the Palins, as they try to dodge McGinniss’s sight lines on their porch, even while the Palins are on a reality show and, in a sense, invading their own privacy. Explaining that Todd and his friends built a 14-foot fence to shield the family from McGinniss, Palin once again forces the moment into a political opportunity: “Others could look at [it] and say this is what we need to do to secure our nation’s border,’’ she says.
Another of the show’s many little set pieces allows Palin to remind us of a parent’s ultimate helplessness when it comes to controlling her daughter’s sex life. A male friend, Andy, is visiting teen daughter Willow. At the bottom of the stairs in the living room, a baby gate keeps toddler Trig from climbing and falling. “It’s not just for Trig,’’ Palin says, when Willow goes upstairs. “It’s for, ‘No boys go upstairs.’ ’’ Eventually, Andy jumps the gate and heads upstairs to join Willow anyway — and something out of “Modern Family’’ becomes a kind of explanation of how daughter Bristol might have evaded her mom’s gaze and gotten pregnant as an unwed teen.
We tend to think of noncompetition reality TV as a place where semi-famous people can make fools of themselves for money and fame. But it’s also a chance for someone like Palin to construct a sophisticated PR film using documentary effects — kind of like an infomercial. “Sarah Palin’s Alaska’’ promises the entertainment value of spying on the notorious Palin family in their natural habitat, but then it also forwards a series of policy stances and image reparations. Is Palin gearing up to run for president in 2012? It’s hard to imagine a reality TV personality having White House ambitions in her future, but that may be old-school thinking. At a time when social networking is all-powerful and fully embraced, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska’’ may just be her live-action Facebook page.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.