Last night, the folks from TLC hosted an event aimed at showing media types how totally not political their upcoming reality show Sarah Palin's Alaska will be. We're not buying it.
I arrived at Time Warner Center's Samsung Experience for "A Tour of Sarah Palin's Alaska" and immediately scarfed one of the delicious brownie bites piled on the snack table. Also available were cookies in the shape of red (and blue! And blue!) stars. I took my seat just in time for a special video message from Palin on the unique uniqueness of Alaska. Which was quickly followed by clips of producer Mark Burnett emphasizing the "adventure" aspect of the show. The message was clear: this was a travel show about traveling in Alaska, which just happened to star one of the most polarizing figures to enter American politics in the last twenty years.
Next we watched a clip of the Palins fishing right in front of some grizzly bears. Careful viewers might have caught some Traditional American Values here: when Todd catches a fish, Sarah says he's happy to be "bringin' home the bacon, that's how it should be," and when a lady-bear starts roaring her head off, the ex-governor says "this Mama Grizzly" is "really protecting her cubs" and "saying, 'nobody's gonna mess with the future of the species.'" But it was all pretty tame, and kind of boring — after all, we were watching people fishing.
Then we saw Palin and her daughter Piper make some cupcake batter. At one point Piper got exasperated and called her mom "Sarah" — which Palin explained was her way of getting heard when so many other kids in the house were yelling "Mom!" all the time. This part was actually pretty cute. But then things took a darker turn. We saw the Palin house, and next to it, the house currently occupied by journalist Joe McGinniss, who's writing a book on Palin. Sarah and Todd speculated on his activities, and discussed ways to spy on him in return. Then social-media strategist Brian Reich abruptly stopped the clip. It wasn't cleared by TLC yet, he explained, and we were supposed to be watching more cupcake-baking. Oops, too much politics!
Not to be dissuaded, I asked Reich afterwards about the political makeup of the show's staff. He said it was mixed, and volunteered that he was a Democrat, and that left-wing friends of his have been receptive to the show. Clearly he and everyone else involved are trying really hard to reach across the aisle. Even the show's accompanying political blog (edited by Matt Gagnon, who hadn't officially joined the show as of last night because he was still working for the National Republican Senatorial Committee) is what Reich describes as a "nonpolitical political blog." The press materials say "we aren't promoting a political agenda [...] nor do we have a position to take on any of the big issues of today" — and the blog is called Not Taking Sides, which sounds like the product of an especially tortured naming session.
If I believed that Palin's plan was to leave political life forever and star in fun travelogues with her kids, I'd applaud her show's strenuous bipartisanship. Unfortunately, I fear Sarah Palin's Alaska is geared toward presenting a friendly, nonthreatening version of Palin to Democrats and independents, so they'll be more likely to vote for her in 2012. Says James Poniewozik of Time, "If Palin's red-meat Fox News commentary is the sort of media you do to position yourself for a primary, then Sarah Palin's Alaska, full of folksy moments and free-range metaphors, is a general-election play." Depending on how viewers take to the show, this could actually be effective, which is a disturbing thought. I, for my part, was invited to respond to the clips video as I left the Samsung Experience, for potential posting on the show's website. I politely declined, though — I didn't want to be too political.