Sarah Palin's Alaska debuts tonight on TLC at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Making fun of Sarah Palin should feel like shooting fish in a barrel. And yet her popularity and influence, as evinced by the way the Tea Party she closely aligned herself with famously impacted the recent midterm election, makes any reservations I have about making fun of her preposterously loaded rhetoric dissipate almost instantly. Even the most apolitical moderate will likely see lipstick red while watching the image Palin projects of herself and her homespun conservative values in the first episode of Sarah Palin’s Alaska.
Palin begins the show by impressing the viewer with how oblivious she can be while trying to look unself-conscious. She jokes about how she “can see Russia from here—almost,” shaking from side to side with mock laughter, as if the media took that quotation out of context in spite of the fact that the catchphrase in question is inherently contextless. That failed soundbite spoof is, in a nutshell, what’s wrong with the pilot of Sarah Palin’s America: There is no way to read it as anything but a context-free bit of propaganda that hits all the buttons Palin’s base supposedly enjoys and pretty much everyone else hates. Palin, her husband Todd and their brood (niece McKinley and daughters Willow and Piper; Bristol and Trig are hidden from view) enact a Disneyland vision of Americana as kitsch. They cut down trees, fire assorted shotguns, display assorted fish, watch grizzlies fight each other, and climb mountains—as a family. There’s no politics here, just a lot of soft images of Palin practicing what she preaches: family values for the pro-life, anti-gun control nuclear family of the 21st century.
The first problem with Palin’s rhetoric is that it lacks any kind of sincerity. Her speech is like a cajoling form of pantomime: During the show’s confessional, talking head interview segments, she looks like she’s treating her off-screen and always mute interviewers as if they were liberal adversaries, trying to undermine her ersatz values rather than elevate them to nigh-Olympian heights.
Next, there’s the way she exploits her family in order to make herself look like a beleaguered homemaker instead of a career politico. Piper, for example, is positioned as an adorable menace of the Dennis variety: To get her mother’s attention, she calls her Sarah, and she even licks raw cupcake batter right off of a whisk. One of the many rig-free cameras that float around the Palins like Orwellian satellites pays special attention to Piper’s devilish smirk after she takes a tentative lick, zooming in on her face in close-up twice, as if to prove the subversive nature of her miniature act of benign domestic rebellion. With a little luck, The Soup is already planning on using the clip to show that even Palin’s kids want to piss her off, albeit in a totally innocuous Sunday cartoon strip kind of way. Fight the power, Piper.
To maintain this self-image of herself as lady of the house, Palin goes so far as to reimagine her home as a miniature commonwealth. She defends its boundaries from a wily, unnamed writer (The Today Show’s Joe Mcginnis, most likely) that’s holed up across the street, now writing a “hit piece,” as Todd puts it, on Sarah’s activities. At the same time, the fact that Sarah enjoys writing and “researching” for her next book outside in her backyard, which some creative montage editing suggests is in full-view of this scruple-less media vulture, proves once again how canned the show’s drama is. Palin is putting herself in full view of this dangerous predator, so that she can crack a joke about how her husband is protecting her home’s borders from intruders (he built a 14 foot addition to their fence to block this guy’s view, after all) and then storm back indoors in a huff, so she can pretend she suddenly remembered that she’s also under a less friendly form of surveillance, too.
This introduction is the lens through which we have to look at Palin’s state, which is positioned as “the last American frontier.” This isn’t Alaska, after all, but Sarah Palin’s Alaska: Reaction shots of her gasping at two bears tussling take precedence over the actual bear footage. Apparently, Palin identifies a great deal with these furry brutes. She implicitly compares herself to them, relating to the way that “mama grizzlies” insist on teaching their children first-hand: “No one else can do it for you,” she pontificates with a big ol’ grin on her face. Admittedly, there is one longish, uninterrupted take where Palin’s voice is the only sound wafting into a shot of two bears having at it, but still, as with any reality TV show, Palin has to tell us what we’re looking at in that footage.
That being said, the key difference between the way talking head footage is employed by regular reality TV show subjects and the way Palin uses it is that she isn’t talking about what she’s feeling when she’s looking at these bears but rather how they’re symbols for her America. This “mama grizzly” is just “protecting her cubs” as she’s sure that they’re also broadcasting that “nobody’s gonna mess with my cubs; nobody’s gonna mess with the future of the species.” That line about respect for the animal’s territorial nature is especially absurd considering her approval of the hunting of wolves from helicopters. Respect the wilderness from up-close, gun it down from afar, I guess?
Once the episode veers away from the Palins’ day trip into a land populated by grizzlies and bad metaphors, the show takes a break for a weirdly comedic interlude. We’re supposed to laugh at the goofy quirks of Sarah’s home life again, now because of her wacky interactions with teen daughter, Willow. Willow has to be practically physically separated from Andy, who is described as “Willow’s friend.” The inadvertent comedy in this scene comes from the fact that Sarah is digging her own grave by poking fun at herself. The fact that she felt she needed to erect a child-proof fence at the foot of the stairs leading to her teen daughter’s bedroom, both to keep toddlers in and amorous suitors out, is funny but mostly because of the implication that a) this isn’t the first time Willow has brought a boy upstairs and b) more importantly, Sarah’s lived to regret being otherwise inattentive in her cock-blocking skills and now is convinced that a small plastic gate can save her daughter’s chastity.
Sex in general is a great source of inappropriate humor in this homefront aside, thanks to Palin’s winningly desperate casual attire. Sitting at her desk in hilariously short short-shorts, you have to wonder on what planet Palin was on two years ago when she and her gang balked at the idea that liberals and the media at large (undoubtedly there’s no difference to Palin) had turned her into a sex object. If the shorts barely fit, wear ‘em.
Much of the rest of the episode would be innocuous enough if Palin weren’t the star of the show. But ultimately, Palin’s show stinks because of the way she’s constantly struggling hard to make everything, even the beauty of her state’s scenery, about her. Palin is determined to scale Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in America, in order to prove that she can do it and to show Willow the ropes, so to speak. The way she desperately scrambles to position harsh weather as proof that “Mother Nature” has the final say when it comes to whether or not anyone can approach McKinley is such an implacably stupid, oblique statement of politically motivated girl power. It’s especially funny in the way that she seriously purses her lips at the camera as she warns the viewer in a voiceover that you don’t want to challenge Mother Nature as she will surely make you crash in light of Palin’s own agnostic-leaning-towards-atheistic stance on global warming. We may or may not be damaging the planet according to Palin’s politics but according to this show, we gotta respect our Mother or else. The scariest part about that putrid image is that she may be right.
- Palin’s joke about being impatient: Now that’s funny.
- “He’s bringin’ home the back; that’s the way it should be.” I’m sorry, what?
- Is “keeps ya on your hills” an actual saying or another signature neologism from Shakespalin?
- Baudrillard would have plotzed if he saw the show’s captions’ Disney-like script font.
- “You always wanted to be a rock climber, Sarah.” “Rock climber or rock star?” I’m pretty sure he said rock climber, Sarah.
- “That’s a deep, dark crack down there. It’s pretty wide, Todd.” Urge to snicker—rising!
- “I was being so cocky! I’m being punished for it.” Risin’, risin’!
- It felt like there were a ridiculous number of commercial breaks after the show’s initial long cold opening. Combined with the fact that Palin talks about the creepy author across the street from her house twice, this makes me think that the show’s producers estimate their audience is not only routinely distracted but also apparently has the attention span of a hyper 2-year-old.