Sarah Palin is ready to head up the river in her husband Todd's boat. (Gilles Mingasson / Getty…)
Sarah Palin is the ultimate "American Idol" politician. Plucked from relative obscurity by the McCain campaign, quickly costumed, coached and handed a set list created to play to her strengths, she leapfrogged over the traditional trajectory of a political career directly onto center stage where some viewers/voters loved her and many others didn't.
So although it is unprecedented, it is not surprising that, in the aftermath of her unsuccessful vice presidential bid, Palin would quit her actual political job — governor of Alaska — to pursue a career in television, first as a commentator for Fox News and now as the star of TLC's new reality series "Sarah Palin's Alaska."
A show that is, in a phrase, breathtaking, though not so much in form as function. Certainly the Palins are a great-looking family and Alaska is a great-looking state, but it's not the image of a bear raising itself to full angry height or the grandeur of Mt. McKinley or Willow Palin's boyfriend sneaking up to her bedroom that causes the viewer's jaw to, and not occasionally, drop. It's the fabulous shamelessness, the awful and yet admirable brilliance of the thing. Whether Palin will ever run for office or not, "Sarah Palin's Alaska" sets a new standard for political ads.
For years now TLC, once known as the Learning Channel, has specialized in fringe families. There is no judgment on TLC, just a platform, for polygamists, Mormons and single moms alike, which makes it a perfect home for a woman who has accused the mainstream media of at least five of the seven deadly sins. Palin's message has always been simple: She is the stuff on which this country was founded, the clear-eyed, no-nonsense woman carving her way through the country's final frontier.
"Sarah Palin's Alaska" stays resolutely on that message. Following in a tradition that began with Abe Lincoln splitting logs and later included Kennedy football games and the Reagans on horseback, Palin and her family spend each episode engaging in various outdoor activities that showcase both the fierce and wild beauty of the land and their ability to appreciate and navigate it.
That she chooses to hike and fish in full hair and makeup is, of course, her own decision, but it certainly makes her look a bit more "Real Housewife," especially among her more naturally disheveled family members, than perhaps she intended.
The pilot includes a float plane-enhanced family fishing trip and a road trip in a very tricked-out RV to scale a small bit of Mt. McKinley. (Climbing Mt. McKinley, Palin says proudly, is a must-do for any true Alaskan, which does raise the question of why the former governor hadn't done it until the cameras were rolling.) Scenes from future episodes feature whitewater rafting and rifle work.
In between, we see Palin making cupcakes with daughter Piper, padding around her home office in shorts and a hoodie, doing a segment for Fox News from her home studio, and complaining about a neighbor (Joe McGinniss) who she says has rented the home next to hers for the sole purpose of writing an attack book about her. In response, husband Todd has built a very high fence of the sort, Palin says pointedly, she would like to see protecting America's borders. (The neighbor in question, meanwhile, is seen only placidly sitting on his porch reading a book.)
This is not the only overtly political message Palin sends out during the show's first hour. Cynical as it may seem, one has to wonder how many trips it took before the cameras found a female brown bear with her cubs, and certainly Palin milks her signature "mama grizzly" motif for all its worth, pointing out the fiercely protective brown bear is teaching her cubs to swim because "no one is going to do it for ya, you get out there and do it for yourself, guys." Likewise, her short but arduous climb up a bit of Mt. McKinley is narrated with a lot of conquering-your-fear, baby-steps-up-the-mountain rhetoric, though Palin does seem genuinely afraid of heights.
"Sarah Palin's Alaska" is clearly here not to bury Palin's political career but to raise it by hitting so many of the buttons near and dear to the American electorate's heart. Athleticism, frontier imagery and devotion to family have propelled more than one candidate to office.
Ironically, the show is weakest in depicting family — it's not called "The Palins' Alaska" after all. Palin's older son, Track, and daughter Bristol are not present in the pilot (Bristol is presumably engaged in her own budding TV career on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars"). Sixteen-year old Willow is seen mostly shooting bored glances at the camera and begging off a second trip to the glacier because "my back hurts," and Trig is too young to do more than toddle around and wave adorably through the window.
Piper, on the other hand, often steals the show, imperiously calling her mother "Sarah," pointedly ignoring requests and demands, sulking when she doesn't catch a fish and generally behaving like any normal 9-year-old girl. Reality television, much like the political life, is not generally kind to kids, but Piper seems just as stubborn and irrepressible as her mother. If "Sarah Palin's Alaska" were the sort of show that included a telephone vote, no doubt Piper would win in a landslide.