Tuned In: 'Palin's Alaska': nice scenery

TV review

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It's a no-brainer that how a viewer feels about Sarah Palin, the political figure, will influence one's desire to tune in for or flee screaming from Sarah Palin, the reality star, in TLC's "Sarah Palin's Alaska" (9 tonight).

But this much can be said without any partisanship: If not for the polarizing nature of its star -- people who love her and hate her will tune in to revel in her Palin-ness or mock her for it -- no one would be talking about this dull, derivative TV show.

The premiere episode, titled "Mama Grizzlies" (of course!), begins with a scene straight out of "Little People, Big World" or "19 Kids and Counting" or even the polygamist family on "Sister Wives": Ms. Palin moves around her kitchen while daughter Piper and niece McKinley make cupcakes. It's a scene of domesticity that's played out dozens of times in the family-centered reality series that "Sarah Palin's Alaska" uses as its model.

But where many of these shows have a beginning, middle and an end with a dramatic plot to hold the episode together, "Sarah Palin's Alaska" goes rogue: It has no real plot. The eight-part series, executive produced by Mark Burnett ("Survivor"), really is mostly about Ms. Palin and her family showing off the beautiful landscapes of her state.

"I love this state like I love my family," Ms. Palin declares in an introduction in which she also lauds the state for its tranquility and serenity just before a scene of her shooting a gun. (Kudos to the show's producers/editors for that juxtaposition.)

She's also unafraid to poke fun at her own misstatements from the 2008 campaign: "You can see Russia from here -- almost!"

"Sarah Palin's Alaska" is pretty much the sightseeing show TLC promised with an occasional bit of political sniping, the only thing that keeps the show, judging by the premiere episode, from being a snorefest.

In tonight's premiere, Sarah, husband Todd and a couple of children take a floatplane into the wilds to go salmon fishing and they hope to encounter bears. Lo and behold, they do. Ms. Palin and family float in a boat while the bears frolic and then fight near the shore. It's difficult to tell how close to the bears the Palins are and whether they are in danger. There's only one brief shot that shows a swimming bear and the Palin boat in the same frame but the program tries to play on the drama of supposed danger.

Ms. Palin tells her children the mama brown bear "is trying to show her cubs nobody's gonna do it for you, 'You get out there and do it for yourself, guys,' " which some viewers will take as a veiled anti-welfare talking point.

Upon returning from the fishing trip, Ms. Palin's children notice their nosy neighbor is out on his deck. It's author Joe McGinniss, who is in Wasilla living next door to the Palins to research a book on Ms. Palin.

"Is he taking pictures? Don't give him the pleasure of taking pictures," Ms. Palin says as she and the children rush toward their house. Producers cut to a shot of what is evidently Mr. McGinnis (his face is blurred) reading a book, no camera in sight.

"He was stuck inside with an ugly book," Ms. Palin says. "We one-upped him, Piper, we had a good day and he's stuck in his house."

Earlier Ms. Palin notes that Todd and his friends built a tall fence between the properties, which prompts Ms. Palin to opine, "This is what we need to do to secure our nation's borders!"

Although most of the premiere episode is spent out in the wilderness -- Ms. Palin also goes rock climbing -- there is a chunk of the hour devoted to her home life, including scenes of her checking e-mail on the computer while daughter Willow's friend Andy sneaks up the stairs to the second floor (Ms. Palin catches him).

Viewers also are shown Ms. Palin walking out to her own TV studio (with a lake view!) where Todd operates the camera for her appearances on Fox News Channel. Ms. Palin says the studio folks at FNC in New York wish her good luck before her interview with Bill O'Reilly, but she's having none of it.

"Why do I need luck before I talk to Bill O'Reilly?" she says, incredulous at the thought.

Clearly, luck is for the faint of heart, not for Mama Grizzlies, at least when it comes to political combat. She has a tougher time climbing Mount McKinley ("This may flippin' take me all day," she says between grunts and groans of exertion).

"I was so cocky," she says midway through her climb. "I'm being punished for it."

This moment of hubristic self-realization may be the closest there is to a real, unstaged moment in "Sarah Palin's Alaska," an otherwise unremarkable addition to the TLC collection of quasi-docu-series about large families.

TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582.


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