BOOKS AND ARTS NOVEMBER 15, 2010
If you were a food writer and were asked to rate the best cupcakes in your town, and the top bakery was owned and operated by a self-proclaimed puppy-kicker who happened to be a virtuoso in the kitchen, would you be able to evaluate his work without bias? Would you be able to take that first bite, close your eyes, and focus only on the tango of red velvet and buttercream, ignoring the visions in your head of yelping, innocent canines flying off of decks or into furniture?
That's the challenge facing any non-Sarah-Palin fan (and we are legion) who tunes into "Sarah Palin's Alaska" on TLC. Palin hasn’t abused any dogs, as far as we know (though she’d be in good company if any such stories came to light), but she does represent a proudly know-nothing brand of American politics that makes John Boehner look like Obi-Wan Kenobi. And yet TLC is paying her millions of dollars to host a show in which she is supposed to teach people about nature.
“The Learning Channel” has rebranded itself, KFC-style, and the network appears to be in the midst of a deficit-commission-like attempt to gradually cut its genuinely educational content in favor of low-concept gimmickry (Exhibits A and B being “Jon & Kate Plus 8” and “19 Kids & Counting”). Palin, whose level of contempt for learning suggests her entire family was killed in a library collapse, is a perfect fit.
On the show, she jaunts around Alaska, letting the viewer tag along as she and her family do various Real American things like fly in tiny seaplanes and shoot guns that would cause Fake Americans to scream effetely. Alaska is pretty cool, so along the way, there's some amazing footage. There are mountains and glaciers and icy crevasses. Also, bears. Not Sarah Palin, the “Mama Grizzly.” Actual, huge bears—raising their cubs, fishing, fighting. There are bears everywhere, especially early in the episode. It’s like Dwight Schrute produced it. Which is fine—bears, after all, are awesome. Not even Sarah Palin can ruin bears.
But, when Palin can’t lean on the charisma of hairy, oversized killing machines to keep the show relatable, things start to sputter. “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” is about the state’s grandeur, but, just as huge swaths of it are only accessible via aircraft, this vision of Alaska is only accessible via Palin. Now, many on Palin’s ideological wavelength rave about her singular appeal. For instance, back in September 2008, when Palin was a newfound political curiosity rather than a potential existential threat to the nation, Walter Block wrote, “Here is a rifle toting, moose killing, basketball playing, beauty contest winning, charismatic and eloquent long happily married conservative hockey mom who has made something of herself in a very competitive field, who has not gone to finishing school at Harvard, Yale or Princeton.”
People like Block, God bless 'em, are completely wrong. It’s not an ideological thing—Palin just isn’t eloquent or appealing when she speaks. Whenever she's narrating or talking to the public in her new show, her odd verbal peccadilloes dominate, from moments when her tone is overwhelmingly saccharine—which come and go with the unpredictability of, say, a bear—to the way she'll over-enunciate certain words in a manner almost scientifically calibrated to infuriate Northeasterners.
What’s more, to put it diplomatically, Palin is not exactly in a position to draw upon and effectively communicate a vast wealth of knowledge about Alaska. She may have been the governor of the state and lived there for most of her life, but, for someone who has capitalized on an image as a rugged outdoorswoman, she just doesn't come across as all that rugged, or all that informed about the outdoors. She observes, sure, but she isn’t the sort of authoritative guide you want on a televised expedition into the wild frontier fringes.
The rest of the crew doesn't provide much relief. Palin’s daughter Piper is cute (especially when gawking at all those bears), and the kids, in general, seem nice enough. But, at least in the first episode, they don’t come across as major presences. Nor does Todd, who radiates blandness like a room-temperature supernova. Palin explains, "He's very quiet. It's like still waters run deep. When he talks, he's talking to say something, you know, he's just not yappin' his jaw." When she’s stocking up on rhetorical ammo prior to a segment Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” Palin asks her husband whether uncertainty over taxes could impact the number of people he hires. He responds: "Business is about rollin' the dice." It is far and away his most profound contribution to the episode.
But the real challenge in watching "Sarah Palin's Alaska" isn’t trying to evaluate it objectively, to get past Palin’s grating voice and lack of Alaska knowledge, or to count the number of bears that appear (though that would make a great drinking game). It’s trying not to think about politics.
Sure, Palin mostly ignores the subject (except when she says she thinks the 14-foot fence Todd and his buddies built to keep out the prying eyes of journalist Joe McGinniss, who bought the house next door to write a book about the former governor, is a good example of what the nation can do to secure its own border). But cheap analogies abound for those —like me—too immature to divorce their dislike of Palin's politics from their views on the show.
To wit: Early on, as Piper, McKinley, and Palin make cupcakes, Piper keeps licking a batter-drenched whisk, for which Palin gently chides her. The batter is delicious, and Piper, of course, doesn't know any better, doesn't realize the long-term consequences of constantly eating batter at the expense of more nutritionally substantive foods. I get it! It's like Piper’s a low-information voter, the whisk is American politics, the batter is Sarah Palin, and Sarah Palin is blue America. Then, on the subject of (surprise!) bears, Palin says, "You're in their territory, and they're gonna let you know that. A lot of times, they want you out of their territory if they think that you're stealing their food." This one's too easy: She's the human interloper, the bears are the Republican establishment, and the food is voters.
Granted, I’m not sure what more to expect from the Palin critics who tune in to watch the show. The reaction to "Sarah Palin's Alaska" won't be any different from the reaction to her speeches. Everyone has a part to play: Her supporters will proudly watch and applaud, while her detractors will throw up their hands, wondering how anyone could ever fall for such a transparent charlatan. They’ll shudder thinking that she might really make that much-rumored run for president in 2012—and wonder how conservative politics (and educational television) came to this.
For these detractors, these fans of objective reality and constructive argument, there’s one part of the show’s first episode that just might resonate. At the end, Palin is hiking with Todd and a guide on Mount McKinley. After trekking across a glacier, stepping over countless crevasses along the way, they reach a giant rock, which Sarah proceeds to slowly, painfully climb. She isn’t enjoying the experience. When she gets to the top, the view is astounding but also terrifying. Right before the episode ends, Sarah wonders, “How are we gonna get down?”
We feel your pain, Sarah. You betcha.
Jesse Singal writes for The Boston Globe's opinion pages. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jessesingal.