In the grand scheme of things, Sarah Palin’s Alaska seems like a really good idea. The TLC show, which features the former governor and her family as they go on various adventures across that majestic state, is bound to be a coup for the network. And I suspect it will do some good things for Palin, too. That’s because the majority of the show is Americana at its most grandiose. There is swelling, Aaron Copeland–style music. There are Ansel Adams–style panoramas of spectacular natural wonders. And the actual wildlife (muscular salmon and rangy brown bears) come so close to the camera — and to Palin — that you feel like you can actually touch the wilderness. It feels good to remember that we are a nation of incredible natural richness and diversity. If our flesh is politics and culture and commerce, is not our spine the craggy mountain peaks that climb up our coasts, and our blood the spectacular glaciers, lakes, and rivers that carve out our lowlands?
The bigness of the show, and of Alaska itself, is appealing and even enchanting. It’s where it gets small that the program stumbles. And Sarah Palin, for all her charm, is an expert on all things small.
“It gives me goosebumps to think that we are somewhere that people dream about coming to,” Palin exclaims over swelling orchestral music as she and Todd snowshoe across an incredible glacier. This part works. Even the former governor of this state can’t help but marvel at the wonder of it all. But then, unable to stop, she continues talking. “Denali National Park, it’s huge. It’s over 6 million acres, that’s 9,400 square miles,” she remarks in a voice-over. “In comparison, the state of New Hampshire, that’s only 9,200 square miles.” Sorry, New Hampshire. You may be a required stop for presidential candidates, but compared to Alaska you are a wee bit of nothing.
When the show telescopes in to follow the personal lives of the Palin family (no doubt a requirement of Mark Burnett, the reality genius behind the whole program — and also Survivor and The Apprentice), it loses steam. A portion of the first episode is devoted, for example, to fretting about author Joe McGinniss, who just happened to rent the house next door when he was working on Palin’s unauthorized biography. Palin says she feels uncomfortable working in her normal “writing and researching” spot out on the “cement slab” patio in front of the house, so she had Todd construct a fourteen-foot fence to keep out McGinniss’s prying eyes. “I thought that was a good example, what we just did. Others could look at it and say, ‘Oh, this is what we need to do to secure our nation’s border,’” Palin says. In response, McGinniss is repeatedly “caught” on camera reading a book on his porch, apparently ignoring the Palins altogether.
Adorable young Piper Palin, in a confessional delivered from atop a bright-pink soccer ball, observes that her mother is “addicted to the BlackBerry.” And looking at the vast television studio that occupies part of the second floor of the house, it’s hard not to conclude that Palin’s connections to Washington are not insignificant. In the introduction to the show, a Palin voice-over intones: “This summer we’re setting aside time to spend with family and friends — doing what we love to do, and that’s exploring Alaska.” But looking back on her summer the way I remember it, she spent a lot more time getting her hands dirty in political races in other parts of the country.
Even when she’s indulging rare moments of pettiness (“See? We one-upped him, Piper — we had a good day!” she tells her daughter at one point, regarding McGinniss. “And he’s stuck in his house”), Palin is actually a charming, self-aware, and likable narrator. “You’ve always wanted to be a rock climber, Sarah!” a guide shouts at her while she attempts to scale a cliff while brandishing a perfect manicure. “Was it a rock climber or a rock star?” Palin shoots back. “I just don’t like heights! I was so cocky! I’m getting punished for it.” She has an amusingly verbose manner of speaking in complete sentences, the way a kindergartner delivers a lengthy “thank-you” to an adult because that’s what he’s been taught. “I think in this sport you need patience,” she says, regarding rock climbing. “Which is not always a virtue which I’ve been able to embrace.” Later in the show, much fuss is made about Palin’s unwillingness to quit climbing while halfway up a rocky cliff. It reads like overcompensation.
While it is hard to imagine, as Karl Rove observed, that appearing in a tell-all reality show would help Americans envision Palin in the Oval Office, it is not hard to see how the swelling patriotic elements of the show will add to Palin’s mythology. It’s just when it gets down to the details of her family life — such as when she vaguely pretends to help her daughter and niece make cupcakes in the family kitchen — that the show begins to hit some sour notes. Watching a “Mama Grizzly” (actually a brown bear) with Piper from a fishing boat? Fun and interesting! Watching Palin halfheartedly hector her daughter Willow for having a boy up in her room? Boring and kind of off-putting (rather than going upstairs to confront the kids, Palin calls Willow’s cell phone from her own phone downstairs). If it sticks mostly to the grand scale — and includes some charmingly self-deprecating Palinisms — I predict this show will be a win for her. My favorite moment of the episode, for example, actually came during the preview for the rest of the season: Palin, in a sporty fleece, sits atop a gorgeous, rocky Alaskan peak. “You can see Russia from here!” she yelps. “Almost.”