"SARAH PALIN'S ALASKA" Recap/Week #1 Bear-ly Believable
The Palins: Track, Piper, Willow, Bristol, Sarah, Trig, Tripp, Todd
Adam Olszewski / Bravo
The takeaway: teenaged Willow has boys upstairs. Mom is addicted to her CrackBerry. Alaska is big. Sarah doesn’t get out much, like Manhattanites and the Statue of Liberty. The ex-governor can't fish. Bears are dangerous, and the Palins are clueless. The feisty Willow likes red licorice. The kids call their parents their first names. So ‘Sixties. “Family comes first." It’s like saying it makes it real. “This is some fun.” “This is so perfect.” Mrs. Palin looks country-cool in layered green, gray, red hoodies. It’s annoying watching a first-time rock-climber who whines. Sarah is acrophobic. The Last Frontier gets second billing to the star.
It’s no surprise this sum-up is disjointed. After an engaging visual intro, the Mamma Grizzly episode—first of eight—is a mishmash. On one hand it’s puffery, plumping up the candidate, the involved mom, Fox consultant. On the other, it means to carry out Governor Palin’s promise to beat the drum for her state. Driving it all is the tempo of the reality show-genre that producer Mark Burnett perfected in The Apprentice and Survivor.
It takes a Juneau minute to see that Kim, Kris, Kloé, Kourtney Kardashian have more going on—not automatically a good thing—than Todd, Track, Tripp, Trig. Following Sarah around is like following Harry Reid around. Palin’s troops point out she’s like any other mom out there from Bemidji, Sioux Falls, Boise. She started out naive and has grown; still her comments are low-information and predictable. What you see is all she’s got.
The proof begins in her kitchen where Aunt Sarah asks her niece McKinley if she wants to whip or electric mix the cupcake dough she’s preparing with her nine-year-old cousin Piper. This blah opener probably initiated channel-grazing.
Sarah, with no transition, next is outdoors on “the cement slab,” the patio overlooking Lake Lucille. This scene includes no sugary cupcakes, only rancid paranoia toward bestselling author Joseph McGinniss who, Todd and Sarah contend, is writing a hit piece, invading their turf, and ruining their summer. McGinniss rented the house next door. The camera focuses on this distant person behind a railing, reading a book. The face is pixelated; McGinniss’ lawyer requested the image be removed. “Is he,” Sarah suggests, “taking pictures?” No, he’s reading a book. No again; he isn’t trying to see what the papers are on the patio table. Is she still touchy about the Katie Couric interview?
Time to put that pesky intruder out of mind for an afternoon of sport fishing and bear-ogling. The family unit is composed of the parents, niece McKinley, and the omnipresent Piper. Palin’s youngest, little Trig, stays home and so does teenaged Willow.
Sarah, the show’s talking head, says her brood, like other Alaskan families, enjoys the state’s sunlit summer before the dark months of winter. She’d rather be outside than “in some stuffy political office…out there, being free." How soon the nouveau riche lose track. Who wouldn’t rather play than work, have to earn a living? Expensive fly-out guided fishing doesn’t factor into hardworking Alaskan budgets.
Next we are in the red float plane and Piper is tickled to be there. As they fly from the dock behind their house to Big River Lake, she asks how fast they’re moving. Their guide Carl Dixon, owner of Redoubt Bay Lodge, magically awaits with his outfitted fishing skiff. His resort—one day/one night $1200, including transportation—isn’t visible.
Neither are the prey. “I’m never gonna catch a fish in my life,” Piper’s prediction holds for this trip.
“I’ll catch you one.” It’s not the same, Dad, when you do it. Good old masculine Todd, Sarah praises her husband, “bringing home the bacon.” Didn’t she take in $2 mil for this series?
The catch of the one foot-long salmon is co-opted by brown bears. The beasts, including a mother with two cubs, appear on cue. Hm. Sarah tells us they’re models for humankind who should raise their kids with the same care. Wait a minute. Male bears kill their young. Maybe they’re examples for abusive fathers.
Sarah tells us viewers how wonderful it is that mamma is protecting her young. If what we see is what transpired and not a matched cut, her babies are too near the boat—as anyone who’s spent time in Alaska’s bear country could tell you. Sarah admonishes Piper to watch out when casting or she’ll hook a bear. No joke. BTW, it’s illegal on Federal lands and nonsensical anywhere to approach Ursa within a quarter mile…more than a football field. Bear swim faster than you can say Sarah Palin’s Alaska. The Palin progeny, Alaska Natives through Todd’s Yup’ik lineage, are unmindful. The parents’ behavior, even if staged, trivializes what is an untamed land. The joy of Alaska isn’t that Palins can get personal with bears, but its opposite, its wildness, what author Walter Borneman took 600 pages to dispel in his stunning narrative, Alaska: Saga of a Bold Land.
Nevermind. The Palins fly back to their dock, in time to re-worry about the balconied writer of Random House’s Sarah Palin’s Year of Living Dangerously. “He’s watching us,” Sarah tells us Piper said to her. “He’s watching us.” There he is, out there all this time, same position, blurred, book in hand. Does he ever move?
No one carried the salmon or an ice chest off the plane.
The next random scene has Sarah the public figure tucked in her desk under the boxy staircase. It’s the next day and Palin must finish her work, she tells us, so the family can go rock climbing. She fake-toils as Willow’s boyfriend Andy blows off Sarah’s “No boys go upstairs!” and watches for his opening. A call to Willow on Mom’s cell and the Andy is back where boys belong: in the great room.
This might be the only authentic scene in the show.
Sarah has one more chore. She heads for her studio in her power suit for an appearance on The O’Reilly Factor. That done, the action escalates as she and her folks, the Heaths, trailed by Piper and Willow, climb into an RV the size of a Greyhound. Here’s the one personal connect—grandpa Chuck with his teenaged granddaughter on the bus’s sofa—as Todd motors the 115 miles to Talkeetna’s Alaska Mountaineering School.
A crash course in self-rescue and it’s on to Ruth Glacier in a waiting bush plane. We share as their flight aborts due to weather. What’s with this lame footage of a plane turning back? The action music score for this cabin-segment aside, the fearless family survives to go home.
The rock climb redo the next day will be just Sarah and her husband; Willow has a back ache and opts out, stays home. Where’s Andy?
The parents drive up in Todd’s pickup, then fly in to Ruth Glacier. Sarah loves to be on just a “tiny, tiny sliver” of the iconic Mt. McKinley, back-named Denali. The overqualified Brian McCullough, with Denali expeditions under his harness, snowshoes the Palins toward their rock climb site. On belay—hooked up and tied in—Sarah gets up the nerve to step over a foot-wide crevasse. “It started occurring to me,” Sarah tells the lens in a cutaway, “how potentially dangerous this was.” This is a snow field with access for a production crew. She’s as safe as an American flag at a Tea Party rally. “You don’t,” she explains about the crevasses, “see them coming.” Sure you do, if someone’s staked them out for you pre-filming.
The athleticism of this backcountry novice is obvious. To infer, though, that this jaunt falls into the lexicon of mountain climbing is an insult to those who do test themselves to defy gravity and seek the summits.
The three arrive at Michio’s Rock, billed by TLC as a serious undertaking as in “Sarah and Todd climb one of Denali’s most challenging peaks.” There are conservatives who applaud Sarah’s bravery, facing up to the liberal lion in its den. This mini-expedition is not an example of that valor. The danger-music might prompt sitting on the edge of one’s sectional: the camera doesn’t pan, tends to avoid showing Michio in perspective—one giant lump in the midst of the glacier, not a piece of any mountain-ascent.
The Michio scramble begins. Todd claims he’s never climbed before—don’t you hate people who do that? Brian calls him out. This is new to Sarah; she’s tentative and frightened. It’s easy to nap as we wait for her to have the gumption to learn the ropes. It can be scary for the newbie but that doesn’t make it gripping. We’re talking a baby rock outcrop here, a s-l-o-w effort that consumes over 10 minutes, a quarter of Episode #1.
These ginned up adventures are meant to be Sarah-moments, the pioneer woman in her element. Yet Palin herself seems conflicted about her role in the series billed by TLC/Discovery as both a reality show and a documentary, not a political platform at all. “Now look.” Governor Palin waggles her index finger at Fox’s Chris Wallace a couple of weeks earlier. “I’m not in a reality show….” Her fingernails-on-blackboard voice softens. “I have eight episodes documenting Alaska's resources, what it is that we can contribute to the rest of the U.S….”
Brian Reich, the show’s social media’s strategist, agrees. “It’s not political.” It’s a travelogue, the uniqueness of the 49th state. “You’re going to love it.”
It’s tough to wrap your arms around Alaska’s 390 million acres of various beauty, a place of new land and new riches. This show didn’t do that for us. Governor Palin’s platitudes add nothing: “This is amazing and it’s in our backyard.” “It takes your breath away.” “Oh gosh.” “This is so perfect.” “It gives me goose bumps.” All we get are picture postcards—glacier, bear, salmon—that are the backdrop for a couple of excursions.
There’s no reference to history, to people. Ruth Glacier was named by Arctic explorer Frederick Cook whose claim to be first to reach the North Pole still is disputed by Robert Peary acolytes. Michio Hoshino of Michio’s Rock fame? The Japanese bear lover and photographer brought children to the Alaskan rock every summer. This ended when he was dragged from his tent in Siberia by a bear who ate him.
Alaskans like guides Brian and Carl know this stuff, share with visitors. Does Sarah? The picturesque forty-six year old perches before a mountain range to quip a la Tina Fey: “You can see Russia from here almost.” That’s her historical perspective.
What was Russian America like before Congress approved the purchase of what detractors belittled as Seward’s Ice Box? This episode misses these connections; it’s Alaska’s Sarah Palin and not Sarah Palin’s Alaska. Nonetheless Progressives might do well to keep an eye on the Alaskan natural beauty—that’s Sarah now—along with those disciples who would watch her watching cupcakes bake. This spirited woman garnered as a VP nominee 46% of the national vote to sit a heartbeat away from the presidency. Time to stop taking cheap shots and, whether you like or hate this pol, check in on the Palin phenomenon. Denials from Sarah and TLC aside, this show offers a window into her aspirations, knowledge, and personality.
Wrap: high energy woman/low-energy show