In the first episode of Sarah Palin’s Alaska, the former governor goes salmon fishing in Big River Lake. The lake, shot from the heights of a seaplane, rests in a crown of glaciers. The scenery is majestic and Sarah Palin, dressed in Gore-tex fisherman’s overalls, looks fabulous. From the motorboat, Palin, who refers to conservative women in the political sphere as “mamma grizzlies,” watches two brown bears tussling along the shore and deduces a loose, political allegory. “It was amazing to watch this mama grizzly—a brown bear, really—protecting her cubs and saying ‘no one’s going to mess with the future of this species.’”
It is clear from the get-go that Palin the reality television star isn’t so different from Palin the candidate—even her catchphrases are the same. The show captures everything one loves, or loves to hate, about the former vice-presidential candidate: her enthusiasm, her high-pitched voice, her acerbic remarks and “aw shucks” sensibility. Even that odd coiffure—“prom hair,” as her oldest daughter Bristol taunts—is in full view.
As usual, Palin makes no effort to woo her detractors. Cloying for votes, she seems to believe, is a Democrat’s game. While President Obama may alter his tone or content depending on his audience, Palin prides herself on being consistent—even if this means consistently botching her grammar. The Sarah Palin persona is off-the-cuff and uncensored, even self-contradictory. When Bristol’s unwed pregnancy was revealed in September of 2008, Palin, a staunch advocate for abstinence education, was praised for being so “real” in her response. “Real means blemishes, real means warts, real means real,” a supporter said at the time. It is Palin’s imperfections that account for her unflinching, if perplexing, appeal. Alaska, which premiered on The Learning Channel (TLC) this fall, is then an obvious continuation of Palin’s public relations platform. What better way to express one’s “realness” than on reality TV?
Reality television is often an exercise in sustained embarrassment for its subjects. TLC, which seems to have confused learning with leering, has become the mass-producer of the genre, broadcasting gawk-all-you-want sensations like Say Yes to the Dress and Kate Plus 8 and other intrusive investigations into tense weddings and hyper-fertility. Sarah Palin’s Alaska, produced by the creator of Survivor and The Apprentice, is far less revealing than its predecessors (family skirmishes appear to have been cautiously edited), although Palin is clearly impervious to embarrassment anyway—otherwise she would have taken her leave long ago. On the show, she even proves willing to mock herself. In one episode, Palin, posing—as she is wont to do—in front of a mountain range, says, “You can see Russia from here,” then adds with an arch smile, “almost.”
In Alaska, as in campaign mode, Palin frequently bemoans the media, or as she phrases it, “idiots and bloggers who do not like our family.” And she’s right to feel besieged. She’s mocked mercilessly on cable networks and the internet. When she was first introduced as a vice-presidential candidate, critics restricted their mockery to her political knowledge (minimal) and her syntax (confounding), which seemed like perfectly fair play. But her debating chops quickly became irrelevant. She was likable in spite of—maybe even because of—her gaffes. Soon, Palin’s critics took a more piercing approach: searching for inconsistencies between her public persona and the “real” Sarah Palin. Could Sarah really shoot a moose from an airplane? Was Trig really Sarah’s son?
This line of inquiry has thrived in the wake of the TV show. “You’ve never done any of that shit before,” Jon Stewart remarked after showing a series of clips from the pilot episode, in which Palin expresses her fear of heights. “Come on! That’d be like me saying, ‘come see my New York … Oh my God, who honked their horn?’” Bloggers gleefully noted that she missed four consecutive shots while caribou hunting. “I’m in film and television, Cruella, and there was an insert close-up of your manicure while you were roughing it in God’s country. I know exactly how many feet off camera your hair and make-up trailer was,” wrote screenwriter Aaron Sorkin on The Huffington Post. Betsy Reed, writing in The Nation, broached the topic from higher, wonkier, ground, pointing out the discrepancies between Palin’s “I-am-nature routine” and her record on environmental issues.
I have no way of gauging Palin’s wilderness expertise. She certainly has a better shot than I do. Given all of her gun-touting, moose-killing bravado, I thought she played it rather mild on the show. When she does hunt, she does so for food. And while she makes plenty of awkward political interludes, disparaging Michelle Obama’s obesity initiative and commending the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, she keeps her thoughts on the environment to herself.
I was more interested in the show’s depiction of Palin’s interactions with her family members, especially given how often the theme of motherhood recurs in her political rhetoric. Being a “hockey mom” ranked high on her list of vice-presidential credentials. If Barack Obama promised a “post-racial” America, as cultural critics claimed, Palin offered just the opposite in terms of gender—as vice-president, she would be a mother, first and foremost, protecting the “future of this species” against liberals and… Russians. On the show, Palin has a tendency to draw comparisons between parenting and governing. “I love this state like I love my family,” she says in the opening credits. Palin frequently boasts of firing the in-house chef at the Alaskan governor’s mansion or returning to work three days after the birth of her fifth child Trig, afflicted with Down’s Syndrome. The point seems to be that parenthood and politics are so similar that balancing between the two is no trouble at all.
By this logic, it makes sense that Palin would treat her electorate with the same infantilizing benevolence as she does her children. In Alaska, her narration is full of encyclopedic tidbits (“McKinley is the largest mountain in North America”), hyperbolic claims about Alaskan citizens (“This is what we do in Alaska!”), and vague morals relating to perseverance and hard work. She seems to be catering her voiceover to an elementary school audience. In several episodes, Palin takes her children to meet “real Alaskans” with “real Alaskan jobs,” whom Palin applauds with the overwhelming enthusiasm of a mother at a little league game. At one point, she and Bristol spend an afternoon at a halibut processing plant, where they speak to a self-described “fish petter” whose job is to remove ice that has become wedged in the fish’s flesh.
“It’s lucky you guys have these physical jobs, you’re working all day long,” Palin exclaims.
“Yep, petting the fish,” the fish petter murmurs.
It is crucial to Palin’s political narrative that she appear a doting, loving mother—her campaign promise is to be just as protective and encouraging of those who vote for her. To this end Alaska provides an excellent political platform. In testimonials, Palin speaks of the importance of family. “At the end of the day, it’s family you can count on.” In one episode, she meets a distant cousin, a ten-year-old with Down’s Syndrome, and speaks tearfully of Trig. “He’s a welcomed and loved child, and I sure hope I can look forward to that in Trig’s life.”
All of this makes it troubling to see how, in practice, Palin actually treats her family. The halibut episode is framed by the idea that Bristol, who has been subject to much media scrutiny over the years, needs some time away from the spotlight. “I thought it’d be really good for Bristol to get away from it all. To clear her head and concentrate just on family.” It is a quaint notion entirely belied by the TV crew accompanying them on their outing. Palin’s youngest daughter Piper, nine, a defiant, freckle-faced sprite, repeatedly makes references to her mom’s absenteeism. “My mom is super busy. She is addicted to the BlackBerry.” Piper imitates her mother typing: “Hang on, I’ll be there in a minute.” Palin is needlessly cutting. She teases her shy and flirtatious sixteen-year-old, Willow, for “going through a kind of lazy stage right now.” For their part, the kids are bemused and intrigued by the rush of outdoor activities—weekend getaways do not seem to have been a regular part of their upbringing, and they are clearly uncomfortable out of cell-phone range.
There are also subtle references to Palin’s distanced relationship to her husband Todd, a stoic, mutton-chopped woodsman. “Todd and I have been together almost thirty years now, but physically we’ve been apart for long periods of time. We’ve spent more time together in the last few months then we have ever, in all of our years together,” she says in one breath, unaware of the implication. Her relationship to her parents is also in need of repair. In the episode where Palin goes caribou hunting with her father, a madcap naturalist with an impressive skeleton collection, they travel by plane into the Arctic circle and camp for two nights in the barren, soggy expanse. At the end of the trip, her father, a retired teacher with a gentle face, is emotional as he says goodbye. “Thanks for coming with me. It’s been nice to get to know you again.” You almost want to hug him, in spite of the two shotguns strapped to his back.
You might ask if Palin’s self-presentation will gain her any traction in a general election. Even if Palin never runs for office again, has she ushered in a new political era that privileges familiarity over professionalism, celebrity over poise? Has it become old-fashioned, priggish even, to fuss over the distinction between transparency and oversharing?
Many conservatives have critiqued Palin’s overexposure. “With all due candor, appearing on your own reality show … I am not certain how that fits in the American calculus of ‘That helps me see you in the Oval Office,”’ Karl Rove told the Daily Telegraph. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer called Alaska “unpresidential” and others have taken issue with its star’s incessant Facebook usage.
Yet Palin appears positively nonplussed by such remarks. She makes no effort to do “presidential” things while the camera’s running, like volunteering or reading. Instead—and in direct contradiction with her “mama grizzly” ideal—she plays outside and acts like a child. At times, she recalls a modern-day Candide, earnest and eerily open-minded. In one episode, Palin invites Kate Gosselin and her children, the cast of TLC’s hit Kate Plus 8, to join her family on a camping trip, eagerly noting everything the two women have in common. (For instance, both have been forced out of their own front yards by paparazzi.) Palin can also be stubborn, bullyish. She’s constantly inviting Todd or Piper to a contest or race and plays to win, even if it’s at a nine-year-old’s expense. And she seems to be instructing Piper in her mean-girl ways. “See, we one-upped him, Piper,” she says pointing toward Joe McGinniss, a journalist who has roguishly rented the house next door. “We had a good day. And he’s stuck in his house.” It’s clear that Palin’s aggressiveness, which has come under such scrutiny since the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Gifford, is not just a political gimmick.
Palin is in her element on Alaska. Reality television suits her. It is a venue where her sole obligation is to do what she does best—act like herself. I have spent hours watching Palin and her family engaged in ho-hum outdoor adventures, like hiking, camping and fishing, and, much to Palin’s credit as an entertainer, it was rarely boring. Her incredibly high embarrassment threshold, telegenic face, and exuberant naïveté provide for a high-spirited, if simplistic, narration.
In fact, I couldn’t help thinking the former governor had finally found her place in the world. Palin regularly complains of pesky “bloggers” and appreciates aloud that in Alaska, by which she seems to be referring to the show as well as the state, their population is under control. It is an odd thing to say while looking directly at a camera, but speaks volumes about Palin’s ideal form of celebrity: attention without criticism. “I’d rather be doing this than in some stuffy old political office,” Palin says after losing a kayak race to Todd. And later: “A poor day of fishin’ beats even a great day of work.”
TLC has announced that it’s unlikely Sarah Palin’s Alaska will renew for a second season. It will depend, largely, on whether she runs for President in 2012. I’m hoping that the show continues. If not for my sake, then for hers.