UPN in ‘Amish’ country again

Reality skein rides onto sked

In a stealth move designed to head off potential critics, UPN and New Line Television have quietly wrapped production on a reality show mixing Amish youth with their urban counterparts.

What’s more, the series — now officially dubbed “Amish in the City” — is scheduled to premiere in less than three weeks. UPN will air back-to-back episodes from 8-10 p.m. on Wednesday, July 28; series will then air Wednesdays at 9 p.m.

Separately, UPN is expected to roll out another reality show — dating skein “The Player” — in early August, slating the series Tuesdays at 9 p.m. after repeats of the original “Top Model” wrap up.

New Line exec VP Jon Kroll (“Big Brother”) exec produced “Amish in the City,” along with Stick Figure Prods.’ Steven Cantor and Daniel Laikind, the documakers who made the critically acclaimed Amish doc “Devil’s Playground.”

Filmed in secrecy over the past two months, “Real World”-esque skein puts five Amish youth and six streetwise roommates into an ultramodern Hollywood Hills home and captures what happens when the two cultures come together. Amish young people are allowed to leave their rural communities as part of a coming-of-age ritual known as rumspringa.

“Amish” came under immediate questioning from TV critics when UPN first announced plans for the show at its portion of the winter TV Critics Assn. press tour in January (Daily Variety, Jan. 19). Politicians entered the fray not long after, with 50 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signing a letter urging UPN to drop the project.

Some critics assumed their protests had paid off when UPN failed to mention “Amish” at its New York upfront presentation in May. But the net has never said it was killing the project.

Indeed, UPN execs in recent months have largely stuck to a no comment policy regarding the project — until now.

Preem poised

Net will officially announce the premiere of “Amish” as soon as today, and with several episodes in the can, the hope is that critics will wait to see the show before judging it.

“Foremost in our minds as we went forward was to treat with the highest respect the young Amish people who were entering a world they had never before experienced,” said UPN prexy Dawn Ostroff. “In working with our producers, two of whom produced ‘The Devil’s Playground,’ a film that touched on many of these same issues, we believe we have succeeded in developing a program that is both serious and entertaining and ultimately very thought-provoking.”

Kroll said he and his fellow exec producers were “a bit surprised about some of the conclusions people came to” about the project when it was first announced.

“The assumptions were diametrically opposed to what we wanted to do,” he said. “This is a show that was always intended to be a journey of discovery, a compelling, positive story that people can embrace.”

Kroll said UPN ultimately decided to let the producers “shoot the show as we always intended, with some of the concerns (of people with close ties to the Amish community) integrated into the process, and then let the show speak for itself. I’m very pleased the network stood by the show. They’d didn’t have to.”

There’s no game element to “Amish” and no financial payoff for any of the Amish should they decide not to return to their native communities.

During their stay in L.A., the Amish worked with the mentally disabled, walked the red carpet at a movie premiere, visited the ocean for the first time and took a helicopter visit to a resort island. Producers wouldn’t say if the Amish took their first airplane trips on the show, though Laikind hinted the idea prompted some drama.

“In the (first episode), you see how kids react to the idea,” he said.

The Amish’s urban roommates — including a party girl, a busboy/musician and a hunky swim teacher — took part in all the activities as well.

Wiser than most

“The most surprising thing for me was that, despite their lack of experience in the outside world, the Amish people proved to have more wisdom about life than anyone,” Kroll said.

Many typical reality conventions were thrown out the window during the production of “Amish.”

Recruiting Amish youth for the show couldn’t be done in the typical reality cattle call style. Instead, producers spread out over eight states, mostly in the Midwest, and took up residence near Amish towns for several weeks.

Producers got to know some of the townsfolk and Amish and reached out to youth on rumspringa who might be interested in doing the show.

While many Amish don’t stray far from home during rumspringa, some end up in very unsafe situations, as documented in “Devil’s Playground.” Pic showed some Amish youth exposed to drugs and alcohol.

With all of the supervision and pre-show screening involved in reality TV, a case could be made that the Amish youth in UPN’s skein were less exposed to harm than some of their peers.

In any case, Laikind said many people have inaccurate impressions of Amish people’s ability to interact in the urban world. “Just because people are devoutly religious and don’t watch TV, it doesn’t mean they’re naive or easily exploited,” he said. “They’re perfectly capable of handling themselves.”

Kroll believes once critics view “Amish,” they may change their mind about the project.

“The Amish people were approached and treated respectfully, and the importance of their journey was honored,” he said. “If you talk to any of the Amish participants, you won’t find a single one who regretted the experience.”

New Line is prepping “Nightmare on Elm Street: Real Nightmares” for CBS, while Stick Figure Prods. (with Cactus 3) has a 10-episode order from HBO for the docu skein “Family Bonds.”

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