My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
Throughout his utterly singular, awful campaign, pundits speculated as to what Donald Trump’s endgame in running for presidency might be. It never occurred to the vast majority of the media that Trump’s endgame in running for president involved actually serving as president. That was just too too far-fetched. Donald Trump as president of the United States? What’s next, the Cubs winning the World Series?
A popular and plausible theory was that Trump was laying the groundwork for an all-news channel to the right of Fox News. Trump spent the campaign loudly decrying the dishonesty and bias of the media everywhere he went. At the same time, he was cozying up to Breitbart, the house organ of the alt-right movement and a sinister, Hydra-like organization whose malevolent leader, Steve Bannon, helped run Trump’s campaign en route to being named his chief strategist.
The thinking held that when Trump was defeated, he could throw a tantrum about how the election was rigged, and how the media had it in for him, particularly Fox. So, in an effort to create a more balanced media, Trump would launch Trump TV under the direction of Bannon. This network would be to all-news channels what Breitbart is to the internet. Trump’s name and image would be all over it. That all went up in smoke when Trump shocked the world by getting elected president.
Besides, Sarah Palin had already illustrated how perilous the transition from presidential politics to TV entertainment could be when she starred in TLC’s Sarah Palin’s Alaska. It was a hugely hyped step in Palin’s road to building her own media empire that died after a single season. It did nothing to help her political or entertainment career. Sarah Palin’s Alaska was even executive-produced by Mark Burnett, who will have to answer to God for making Donald Trump a television star by creating The Apprentice.
Sarah Palin’s Alaska was a very expensive infomercial for Palin as a politician and for Alaska tourism. Like Trump, Palin is a raging narcissist. By making Alaska the focus of the show, she can pretend that she’s doing it for a home state she identifies with so strongly that she clearly believes she is Alaska, just as Trump labors under the delusion that he is America.
Palin’s ascendancy from obscure, first-term governor to national figure felt less like a conventional political coronation than a product launch. Palin was no mere politician. She was a brand whose elements were clear from the beginning. She was introduced as a cheerful, gun-toting, flag-waving, slang-speaking, establishment-ruffling, lefty-baiting hellcat. Palin was a self-styled “mama grizzly” whose Alaska family lived the rugged, all-American values she heralded in every folksy, incomprehensible utterance.
Palin sold herself as the voice of the “real America,” where people hunt and fish and grow manly beards and believe in stoic self-reliance instead of looking to the government for help or engaging in the sin of identity politics. Palin wasn’t a character; she was a caricature. Tina Fey’s much-heralded version of Palin might actually have been more restrained than the real thing.
Alaska has always been a key component of Palin’s brand. She sold her home state as a place where Americans had big, healthy broods who build cabins with their bare hands for fun. Sarah Palin’s Alaska depicts its titular state as a wild realm where anyone who cannot produce photographic evidence that they have killed at least 14 previously living things (but only for food or trophies, because Alaskans are noble) is run out of the state for being too much of a hippie. Palin’s father, Chuck Sr., has a number of skulls in his home not generally seen outside the domiciles of prolific serial killers: animal skulls, but they’re still really creepy.
Chuck Sr. used to be a teacher who’d take his class on field trips to explore the wonder of Alaskan nature, and young Sarah would tag along. Sarah Palin’s Alaska one-ups her dad by taking her children (and him) on epic field trips all over the state with TLC footing the bill and a vast army of adoring fans gushing over the plucky resilience of the Palins. Best of all, she was paid millions to present herself as the ultimate Alaskan.
The problems began with the Palin family; the best thing that can be said about them is that they are not Sarah Palin. Though Palin describes her husband Todd more than once as her “helpmate” and daughter Piper as her “sidekick,” they’re also people who really, really don’t seem to want to be on television. That doesn’t keep Palin from dragging her monosyllabic, slouchy family from one wildly photogenic yet boring wilderness adventure to another, always stressing her core values of self-reliance, hard work, patriotism, and having guns on hand for the many instances when you need to kill large animals. In Sarah Palin’s Alaska, life is a brutal struggle for survival against a beautiful but fierce natural world, delivered with a wink and a smile.
By the time Sarah Palin’s Alaska debuted, Palin had already cycled through a few personas. She was the feisty rising star of the Republican party, then an enduring embarrassment of John McCain, a complicated sex symbol, a Tea Party loose cannon, and frothing-at-the-mouth gun nut. Sarah Palin’s Alaska introduces a side of Palin we hadn’t seen before: She’s less a controversial politician than just someone’s dorky mom. What’s worse, Palin seems interested in her children only to the extent that they reflect her painfully romanticized self-image and embody the values she spends Sarah Palin’s Alaska preaching.
At one point, Sarah takes time to have a mother-daughter bonding afternoon with daughter Piper, the aforementioned “sidekick.” Rather than use this time for Palin to have a heart-to-heart with her daughter, where they might discuss her daughter’s interests and friends and schoolwork and relate to each other as human beings, Palin instead decides that it’s time for Piper to slap on a name tag and volunteer to be a waitress to press the flesh with Palin’s voters—I mean, beloved fellow Alaskans. What follows is an extended photo opportunity that had nothing to do with Piper and everything to do with Palin’s need for attention.
While Palin needs the oxygen of the spotlight to breathe, her family has an admirable wish for their lives to remain offscreen. Her children, to their credit, seem to want to have as little to do with their mother as possible. They’re rich kids who should be smoking pot and taking regrettable Instagram photos, not being forced to live the life of a commercial fisherman or go logging or rafting as character-building ordeals.
Palin and her terse, uncommunicative husband Todd stress the importance of hard work, and continually forcing yourself to do dangerous, arduous, back-breaking labor for the sake of proving to yourself that you are capable of doing so. They approach everything with such unrelenting joylessness and grim obligation that “hard work” becomes one of many values the show makes look bad. Palin insists that despite the way her kids slouch and meander and look bored, they’re just having a super time bonding with beloved old mom and dad, dontcha know. Her unrelenting peppiness and pathological wholesomeness reminds me of Ned Flanders, only more annoying and cartoonish.
Watching all nine episodes of Sarah Palin’s Alaska caused me to hate her. Part of that can be attributed to Palin’s insane narcissism and complete disinterest in the world as anything but a magical mirror continually telling her she’s the most beautiful, American, pistol-packing grizzly mama of them all. But some of that is also attributable to watching her stalk a caribou, and then kill it with a gun, and then have her fellow hunters cackle with glee before they disembowel the beast, big, shit-eating grins on their pasty faces. I understand and respect the necessity of hunting in some contexts but I felt revulsion watching this sequence. It is literally stomach-churning.
I’m not saying I had a powerful negative reaction to Sarah Palin’s Alaska, but watching it I could physically feel myself turning into Bernie Sanders. Furthermore, I vowed, for the 17th or so time, to become a vegetarian, if only to offset all the happy carnage of the Palin family of animal-murdering psychos.
For eight other episodes we’re trapped inside the mind of Sarah Palin as she tells us exactly what everyone’s thinking, how everyone’s doing, and how super everything is in her constant monologues to the camera. For a single episode, however, we see this crude burlesque of Alaskan ruggedness through the eyes of another ridiculous reality show star: Kate Gosselin. The Kate Plus Eight star visits Alaska with her children and very cathartically complains at length about how awful it is to spend her time in the freezing cold and rain with Palin and her younglings.
Gosselin throwing a tantrum because she’s cold and shivering and forced to go camping against her will is the realest, most compelling, and petty moment in the show. It’s also one of the only moments that is emotionally authentic. It’s a wonderful, much-needed antidote to Palin’s indefatigable, “Golly jeepers! Isn’t family wilderness bonding fun just the swellest?” faux-effervescence. Gosselin does not to pretend to be a steel-willed champion of the outdoors. She’s cold, wet, homesick, and ready to go home. Everyone watching Sarah Palin’s Alaska knows exactly how she feels. Only Palin could make Kate Gosselin seem like a lovable, relatable everywoman by comparison. At the end of the episode, during a weirdly smug, condescending post-mortem over a woman being so put off by Palin that she quickly gave up on their excruciating televised playdate and jetted, Palin hypothesizes that she’d be just as lost attending some red-carpet event in New York. It’s a strangely provincial thing for someone to say who has done things like, I dunno, run for vice president. I’d imagine that at some point in her eight years as a hugely famous, rich national politician, reality television star, Fox news personality, and best-selling author, she’d be forced to interact with some fancy pants big city folks.
There’s a fascinating reality show hidden within this picturesque nonsense. That show would chronicle the Palins as they actually are: a dysfunctional, crazy, heavy-drinking, bar-fighting brood of Alaskans with money. Shows like 19 Kids And Counting and Jon & Kate Plus Eight featured incredibly melodramatic things happening behind the scenes that were seldom allowed to penetrate superficial facades. Those shows understandably were reluctant to let audiences in on the sordid dysfunction behind the family-friendly wholesomeness. An honest, authentic depiction of the Palin family as it actually is would be fascinating, and likely a roaring success. Instead, Palin chose a television show that was so dull it not only killed Palin’s dreams of being the Tea Party Oprah, it also went a long way toward satiating the public’s appetite for her, an appetite she imagined was bottomless.
Sarah Palin’s Alaska promised to introduce us to the private Sarah Palin, but it turns out that’s identical to the public Sarah Palin. Neither one feels even a tiny bit sincere or authentic. It’s no crime to be fake in the world of reality television. In fact, being fake is often a virtue. The problem is that Sarah Palin’s Alaska is boring, and in reality television, that’s the only truly unforgivable sin. Trump knows that better than anyone else: He pretty much ran for president as the “at least I’m not boring” candidate. Let’s see if the public forgives him if he comes up short. As Palin can vouch, they can be a terribly fickle bunch.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure