Attack of the Mama Grizzly
An early review of Sarah Palin’s Alaska —Abe Streep
Toward the end of a long montage introducing Sarah Palin’s Alaska, the Mark Burnett-produced, eight-episode series that premieres on TLC Sunday at 9 P.M. Eastern (7 P.M. here in Mountain Standard Time), the show’s narrator and star asks, “How come we can’t ever be satisfied with tranquility and serenity?” Then she shoulders a rifle and fires off a round. In the background, triumphant orchestral music gives way to a blaring new country, electric-guitar-driven flag waving. And we're off!
The premiere episode—which features the Palin clan fishing for salmon; witnessing a grizzly bear battle; and going climbing on Mount McKinley—has all the nuance of a Sarah Palin political campaign. That’s not too surprising. Many have pointed out that the show, for which Discovery paid a reported $1.2 million per episode, may be nothing more than an early presidential campaign conducted over the modern medium with the longest tentacles: reality TV. (Palin hasn’t dissuaded the notion, responding to Karl Rove’s criticism of the show by saying, “Wasn’t Ronald Reagan an actor?” Yes, he was—before he completed two terms as governor of California, but perhaps that’s besides the point.)
This is not quite reality TV, though. Palin, who is listed as an executive producer alongside Burnett, is in complete control of the message here, free of questions from badgering reporters. She tries to come off folksier and friendlier than the Palin of the past few months—much of the show is dedicated to life as an Alaskan mom. But you don't forget that she's a mom with teeth. When a neighbor non-grata, journalist Joe McGinniss, moves to town to write a book about Sarah, Todd responds by building a 14-foot fence to block McGinniss’s view. From her porch, Sarah chirps, “Others could look at it and say, 'Oh, this is what we need to do to secure our nation’s border!'”
For such a loud show, Sarah Palin's Alaska is surprisingly slow and tiring. We see a bear fight, and Sarah and Todd go climbing on Mount McKinley hours after she dons a suit to appear remotely on Bill O’Reilly—and still, the viewer gets the impression that nothing much happens. The camera is always moving, panning around Palin, Todd, and the children, a swirl of effects surrounding the small show of family life. The grand Alaskan landscape appears as a bit player, background for the swell adventures of the state's most famous citizen.
Struggling up a small section of Mount McKinley with the aid of a top-roping guide, Palin yells, “Oh, I just don’t like heights, I was so cocky, I’m being punished for it!” The scene goes on far too long; it’s just not that much fun to watch a beginning climber struggle up an easy section of rock. But perhaps Burnett and co. decided to show the little ascent in all its extended tedium for another reason.
“I didn’t want to quit,” Palin says, after reaching her guide. “I didn’t want to quit in front of other people.” It could be a long campaign.