Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mama Grizzly drives her own bus

Alaska! It’s a state whose scale and space is a perfect stage for those with ambition to match the vistas of its rugged terrain. For the political personality and former temporary governor Sarah Palin, the state may well be a launching pad for the next phase in the most fascinating, if frankly bewildering, political quasi-career in memory.

Palin has lately had to deal with her kindred political spirits apparently deciding that (having worked to get Republican candidates elected in the midterms) her services on behalf of the party are no longer required. Karl Rove dissed her as a prospect for 2012; so did conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, and others in the Republican hierarchy. But rather than slink back to her cave to hibernate, Palin’s doubling down on visibility. Her latest gambit could well revolutionize political campaigns permanently.

On Sunday night, the TLC Channel debuted “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” the long-awaited travelogue/reality miniseries of the Palin family going about the business of their daily lives amid the unspoiled grandeur of the last frontier. The debut, in keeping with TLC’s talent for extreme-family shows (“Jon & Kate Plus 8,” “19 and Counting” … where’s the balloon-boy brood?) drew just under 5 million viewers on Sunday, the highest for a debut in TLC’s brief history.

Some of them were probably curiosity seekers, viewers bored with “Sunday Night Football” and waiting for their “Mad Men” fix, people who figured they’d tune in to watch the bearded lady from Wasilla make an ass of herself. But it didn’t happen like that.

What’s developed so far is the start of a vivid eight-week advertisement for Alaska tourism that money couldn’t buy, as well as a sneaky, not quite subtle, cable-powered springboard for Palin’s political aspirations (whatever they might be). This is the introduction to Sarah Palin the nation never got on the campaign trail back in 2008. If this show had been around that summer and fall, when most of the country was asking “Sarah who?” the outcome of the presidential election might well have closer than it was. Maybe even something other than what it was.

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The first show’s rhythms, mix of elements and production values reflect the hand of executive producer Mark Burnett of "Survivor" fame. Part National Geographic-style celebration of nature, part study of a highly visible family in transition, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” proves how durable the Palin name is these days (daughter Bristol’s star turn on ABC’s "Dancing With the Stars" hasn’t hurt either).

With Palin being the political animal that she is, we might have expected one scene, in which Palin and husband Todd sit outside, surveying their spread and regarding with derision their recent neighbor, the author Joe McGinniss, who’s renting the house while writing a book about Palin. The Palins’ mental state of siege arouses a typical passive-aggressive expression from the former governor; a suggestion that their backyard McGinniss solution (erecting a 14-foot fence) is the solution to the nation’s immigration issues is so calculated and dumb it makes your hair hurt.

Another thing that makes the show at least briefly compelling is the revealing accident, that evidence of unintended consequences that, when all’s said and done, makes “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” a reality show for real.

In one scene, Palin, husband Todd and some of the children are salmon fishing from a boat observing a brown bear in the distance. That distance disappears fast when the bear sprints toward them at incredible speed — while still in the water. The look on Palin’s face, the obvious concern fast morphing to fear, is refreshing by virtue of how rarely we’ve seen her and her expressions in circumstances she can’t influence or control. You don’t cheat your way through an encounter like that with notes scribbled on your hand.

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In another scene, Palin, on a rock-climbing excursion in Denali National Park, is seen in midclimb, slowly making her way up the rock face, after revealing she has a fear of heights. Her back is to us but we know — we can see in the truth of her body language — she’s worried about how to make the right moves, she’s evaluating the crags and footholds that will hopefully support her as she climbs to the top.

It’s of course an organic physical metaphor for her own ascendancy in the national life and the political conversation. But there’s something more here: This is Sarah Palin without handlers and opening acts at a rally or a speech, without flags and bunting.

For a few moments, we seem to witness Sarah Palin as utterly vulnerable — probably not in mortal danger, it’s true, but presented with a situation she can’t rhetorically bluff her way out of ... not sure where to step, facing the risk of (certainly) embarrassment or (possibly) real physical injury. This is a Sarah Palin we can almost relate to.

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Critics roundly indulged in panning the series opener, viewing its cornier, goofier aspects strictly through the reflexive prism of mainstream entertainment. But there may be method to Palin’s seeming madness:

The TLC program, added to her growing use of the social media platforms of Facebook and Twitter; last year’s autobiography; and the pop-culture force multiplier of Tina Fey impressions in high places, have combined to reveal Sarah Palin self-evolving as an American brand, bypassing much of the conventional machinery of political announcement, meeting the American people on their terms, in their living rooms, using an eight-week miniseries to do an end run around the usual anointers of gravitas.

“It’s a dream of a rollout,” said Joan Walsh of Salon, on Monday on MSNBC. She’s playing to her strengths. … I don’t see a down side for her. If she does want to run, this is an excellent way to do it. She’s staying away from The New York Times ... and she’s reaching her audience with these folksy little glimpses of her family.”

Mary McNamara, television critic for the Los Angeles Times, said the miniseries 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."

“Trust me: right now Mitt Romney is talking to his advisers, trying to figure a way to get five million viewers to listen to his life story,” said Matt Kibbee, president and CEO of the conservative advocacy group Freedomworks, also on MSNBC.

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Monday was a good day for Sarah Palin®. The overnight ratings were in from the TLC show. And the same day, the Global Language Monitor, which tracks emergence and persistence of new words in the lexicon, voted “refudiate” — Palin’s mashup of “refute” and “repudiate” — one of the top words of 2010.

Mama Grizzly may have been thrown off the vehicle operated by the Republican establishment, but she’s clearly pretty good at crawling from the wreckage into a brand new car.

Whether that car is wreckage already or not, whether she’ll ever see the White House from her dashboard, remains to be seen. But for now, there’s no refudiating the movement of the Palin Express, creeping slowly to where Americans live their lives, ten million eyeballs at a time.

Image credits: All images and series ad still via TLC.

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