It should go without saying that reality television is Sarah Palin’s true calling. Liberated from the constraints of substance, possessed of a killer smile, instinctive in her camera hogging, she’s a natural. On Sarah Palin’s Alaska (TLC, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET), Palin continues her innovations in making the personal political and the political into postmodern theater. “People know me from the political stage,” she says at the start of series, “but I’m a mother of five, and it’s important to me that our kids see everything that Alaska has to offer.” Also, it’s important that people see her seeing that they see everything. Focusing on the clan’s outdoor activities and kitchen-island mini-dramas, the show approximates a hybrid of TLC’s Jon & Kate Plus 8 and Teddy Roosevelt’s African Game Trails. Spicing its nature jaunts and domestic scenes with empty sloganeering, it also constitutes the local travelogue of a national demagogue.
No one but Palin could do this kind of show. Can you imagine a reality show titled Joe Biden’s Delaware? It is tempting to take a page from the Onion and envisage the vice-president, sunburned on the boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach, brown-bagging a 40 and checking out the asses of anything that moves, but more likely, the show would mostly find him playing disc golf in Iron Hill Park. And spare me the comments that Dick Cheney’s Wyoming would be an elimination competition set at a quail hunt.
By virtue of its mere existence, Sarah Palin’s Alaska offers something for everyone with any interest in politics. For the suckers and cynics in the populace who constitute her base, a chance to chill on her back deck is cause for celebration. Meanwhile, the protagonist effortlessly provides fodder for the cheap to mid-priced jokes of detractors on either side of the aisle. A choice opportunity for such arrives when Sarah explains how she and Todd complement each other: “It’s some good ying [sic] and yang. We have different personalities. When he talks, he’s talkin’ to say something. Y’know, he’s not just yappin’ his jaw.”
But is Sarah Palin’s Alaska any good? Judged by the standards of the form, it is totally OK. There is a soothing mundanity to it, and voyeurs will come away gratified. Though this is hardly an intimate portrait, there is pleasure to be had in watching Palin walk around the house in jogging shorts and in watching daughter Willow, true to her mom’s assessment, behaving like a “typical teenager.” In a bonus clip to be posted on the show’s Web site, Willow demonstrates her skill for multitasking—texting steadily as she gnaws through a mess of Twizzlers and exhibits epically sloppy posture. Sarah looks consistently genuine, except in the matter of grooming: Whether she’s riding above majestic landscapes in a float plane or admiring brown bears from a fishing boat, her hair is perfect. (I use the term in a relative sense.)
The great delight of the series is Palin’s 9-year-old daughter, Piper, who steals all of her scenes and who sure casts a fishing line more smoothly than I ever have. Piper is the best of the Palin kids in the way that Cindy is the best Brady and Kourtney the best Kardashian. What a cutie-pie! Tasked to mix cupcake batter, she licks the whisk, the spoon, the inside of the bowl. Shooting hoops alone in the driveway, she adorably double-dribbles. She addresses her mother as “Sarah,” a deliberate form of needling; squatting on a soccer ball, she addresses the camera with the complaint that Sarah is too often absorbed in her BlackBerry, pantomiming her button-thumbing for emphasis. It’s enough to get the viewer thinking that Mama Grizzly is too cold and too soft.
Still, Sarah seems to favor Piper as her “sidekick,” and the two share a crucial bonding moment in the pilot. Upon returning from a fishing trip, mother and daughter espy Joe McGinniss, the muckraker-turned-neighbor, reading a book on the porch. For the second time in the episode, Sarah vents her frustration with him: “See? We one-upped him, Piper. We had a good day, and he’s stuck in the house.” Cast as the cranky neighbor, McGinniss is a bit like Mr. Wilson, antagonist of Dennis the Menace, not to be confused with Wilson, the next door neighbor on Home Improvement, whom McGinniss resembles—or, rather, doesn’t—the writer’s face being obscured by a digital blur.
All that said, the show is not without its disappointments and miscalculations. The producers might have played up its MTV Cribs element a bit more. It is nice to see the rolling chairs in Palin’s kitchen and the TV studio from which she beams her nonsense to Fox News, but what you really want is to count the Nancy Reagan-red blazers hanging in her closet. Further, the final 20 minutes of the pilot, wherein Palin and husband Todd go hiking in Denali, go on for 12 minutes too long. Really, there is only so much suspense to be generated from their trek across dangerous terrain. If Sarah Palin had sustained a serious fall, it would have been reported long ago, as would George Soros’ role in the formation of the crevasse that was responsible.
And yet there’s a special type of terror to that sequence: The couple and their guide do a bit of climbing at Mount McKinley, relatively low on the slope. Sarah displays real toughness in a rock-climbing scene, willing herself up a steep face despite a fear of heights and a paucity of toeholds. It would be churlish not to admire her tenacity. It is unsettling to witness her drive. She’s coming, and she’s coming, and she’s not gonna stop. She may not make it to the mountaintop, but she’ll be here with us for a while.