TLC's reality show "Sarah Palin's Alaska" premiers next Sunday, Nov. 14. But the first episode, entitled "Mama Grizzly" appeared briefly online Thursday. It was apparently posted by mistake (or by public relations people trying to generate buzz) and was soon removed. While it was up, I happened to click the link.
Aside from being a political junkie, I'm a big TLC fan. (In my DVR queue at the moment: "Sister Wives" and "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant." I am not ashamed. That's some good TV.) It didn't take much for me to get sucked into the catty domesticity of Palin's Alaska.
Fade in, with plucky music: The Palin kitchen. Sarah, with perfect hair and makeup, and a calculatedly casual running-shorts ensemble, banters with 9-year-old Piper and cousin McKinley. The girls are making cupcakes. Palin tells Piper not to eat the batter. Piper, by now very used to wooing the camera, eats it anyway.
Sarah says she wants to spend some quality time with Piper, McKinley and Todd. Naturally, they are flying into "bear country." They're headed to a remote fishing spot on Big River Lake. And soon a floatplane, "Alaska's taxi," pulls up to their private dock and whisks them into the wild.
This is where "Sarah Palin's Alaska" veers away from ours. The show dips into Sarah's life, with interesting snippets of her interior world and her politics, but it's built to be a National Geographic-style travelogue, with the Palins as Alaska tour guides. The idea is that they do these kinds of things all the time. We all do.
Surfing through press materials for the eight episodes filmed over the summer, I saw that Sarah fishes in Bristol Bay, four-wheels, kayaks outside of Homer, shoots, scales rock ledges, mushes a dog team, glacier-treks, rafts and climbs part of Denali. I can see a working mother of five doing one or two of those things in a summer up here, but all of them? Maybe if you are a millionaire. With lots of child care. And no regular job.
Oh, that's right.
Anyway, back to the first episode. The family flies to the lake and loads into a boat. It doesn't take long for some mama bears to lumber out of the woods, and for the Palins to become the on-camera Alaska animal experts.
"You're in the bears' environment," explains Todd as the boat drifts closer to the animals. "You have to give them space."
Soon a couple of bears -- unclear if they are mamas or papas -- get into a tussle, splashing around in the water and the show goes all Animal Planet with underwater cameras and roaring. Cut away to Sarah Palin talking about her "mama grizzly" political spirit animal/parenting philosophy. And then, after what seems like a long time admiring bears, we're finally back in the floatplane, listening to Piper say something cute.
In reality television, as in Palin politics, it's always handy to have a bad guy. The villain of episode one is Joe McGinniss. He's a writer living in the house next door, producing, as Todd says, a "hit piece" on Sarah. The Palins built a huge fence (Sarah can't resist a brief diversion into Mexican immigration policy here) to block his prying eyes, but Joe can still kind of see them. Having some judgmental stranger watching you on your patio is creepy, Sarah confides.
Never mind that she's about to invite me, you and hundreds of thousands of judgmental cable viewers directly into her house. In a way it's a perfect example of the double-edged sword of Sarah-style celebrity: you're exploiting yourself or you're being exploited by someone else. Sometimes it's hard to tell which is which.
And that gets me to Willow Palin. Piper's eating batter for the cameras. Track, who served in Iraq, is being invoked on Veteran's Day. Trig has become a symbol for the pro-life movement. Bristol is dancing with the stars, promoting abstinence and getting engaged (and unengaged) on the pages of supermarket glossies. But Willow, age 16, is just trying to be a teenager.
A boy comes over. Sarah and Willow are tense about housework. Willow goes upstairs, presumably to finish a chore. Sarah looks up from her Blackberry to tell the boy that no boys are allowed up there. (The camera lingers, as if to say, "a little late for that rule.") Eventually the boy goes anyway. Sarah calls Willow on her phone.
"Get down here, I'm going to count to three," she says in the same voice she used to keep Piper out of the batter bowl.
"Mom, seriously?" Willow whispers into the phone.
It's uncomfortable. That's good TV. But when I thought about what it would be like for a teenager whose friends are going to watch, it made me cringe.
Willow gets over it. Soon, after taping an interview for Fox News in her private studio, Sarah and Todd hop in their truck to go climb Denali. Willow baby-sits.
Like the fishing segment, Denali drags a little. This time the Palins are glacier experts. ("Those crevasses, they can just suck you in!") At the end, Sarah has a little freak-out while rock climbing -- she's afraid of heights -- but Todd stays calm and gets her through.
Then the credits roll.
I have to say Palin reality television works pretty well. Sarah looks comfortable on camera. Todd and the kids oblige. With her tabloid family drama and barbed Twitter feed, Palin has never been a perfect fit for the world of big-time politics, but she's right at home in the genre that brought us Snooki and The Real Housewives.
Palin quit being our governor, and it's unclear whether she wants to be president. But she's always wanted to be a star. In a way we've all been on her reality show for years. Now it's just official.