Whatever one thinks of Sarah Palin’s political acumen or inability to name preferred reading matter, she has exhibited a high IQ in exploiting reality TV and new media to advance her cause. So it is with “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” a TLC series from producer Mark Burnett that functions as an eight-hour infomercial for the former Alaska governor, whose daughter is simultaneously championing the Palin name on “Dancing With the Stars.” Part travel show, part family sitcom, the objective — humanizing the once and potentially future Republican candidate while trading off her heavily polarizing appeal — is as clear as the mountain air.
The ostensible premise for the show is to allow Palin to act as tour guide for Alaska, but the real product here is of course the 2008 vice presidential candidate turned Fox News pundit herself. Toward that end she and husband Todd use their kids as props, even staging a cute little scene in which teenage daughter Willow tries sneaking a boy upstairs — without, notably, any reference to how that scenario turned out for Bristol.
Then again, that’s just part of the sitcom half of the program, which even transforms author Joe McGinniss — who has rented a house next to the Palins’ home in Wasilla to work on a book about them — into the wacky if irritating unseen neighbor, like Wilson on “Home Improvement,” only without the homespun advice. (Through his attorney McGinniss — whose face, glimpsed from afar, is obscured in the premiere — has asked to be removed from the show.)
To justify the travelogue aspects, the family goes on various adventures, from taking the kids on a fishin’ trip (as Palin calls it, displaying her usual hostility toward the letter “G”) to the happy couple climbing Ruth Glacier together. Along the way, Palin gets to deliver little asides that reflect her political philosophy, like the value of having a tall fence to secure a border.
At first blush, it would be easy to conclude such a heavily massaged exercise might taint a politician’s “brand,” but this dovetails neatly with Palin’s carefully managed folksy persona. For its part, TLC gets a ready-made reality star toting only slightly more baggage than its stalwart Kate Gosselin (scheduled to drop in, sitcom cross-over style, in a later episode) — a sort of “Todd & Sarah Plus Five … Plus Bristol’s Kid, Sarah’s Dad and Whoever Else Drops By.”
The nature footage is fairly impressive, including a sequence of two brown bears exchanging fearsome growls. As for the family stuff, Palin isn’t lyin’ when she suggests that the writer next door is “gonna be bored to death,” as will much of the audience. Indeed, even an accomplished reality storyteller like Burnett can’t craft anything even vaguely as compelling as the scenery.
So boring? You betcha — perhaps even for many who otherwise admire Palin. The experience will likely be different, however, for that part of the American cohort who finds her to be an empty vessel, and will thus see TLC and Burnett as cynical additions to the cottage industry whose benefits could help vault her into a position of true political power.
Viewed in that context, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” becomes something quite different than any of the aforementioned genres to which it owes a debt — and it’s hard to think of much on TV that’s more terrifyin’.