I set the DVR to capture our favorite Mama Grizzly’s new show, figuring it might be worth a look later with one eye in the middle of the night when sleeplessness strikes. Around 4 a.m., my hungry cat Butthole (aptly named) began gnawing on my toes as he does every night, since I inevitably give in and feed him. (B. F. Skinner was onto something. Butthole has trained me well.)
Unable to nod off again, I clicked on this “family adventure/not reality” show to see if media-savvy Sarah would let the mask slip. My first impression was that she might just pull this off. Her approval ratings are melting faster than Arctic ice, but Alaska is gorgeous, and its outdoorsy, born-free spirit has its allure. Showcasing the fecund Mrs. Palin and her five children against this backdrop just might boost her sagging fortunes if all we are given is an extended travelogue.
An opening scene with Sarah and little Piper making cookies in the kitchen was sugary kitsch, just the way her fans like it. (A moment’s digression on the huge house. It features an open kitchen with a wide staircase leading upstairs. But there is nothing about it that says home. It actually screams TV set, built large enough to handle a big crew. The only personal item on display was some animal-head trophy hung high on a wall, a reminder that Sarah loves guns and killing things.)
But Sarah cannot stop being Sarah. Soon after, we see her writing at a table behind the house. Todd joins her on the charming cement slab overlooking the lake, only to be greeted by one of her velvet-throated hatchet jobs on author Joe McGinniss who has rented the house next door. Their on-going feud about his choice of rental properties while writing a book on Sarah has already become the stuff of legend. A master of innuendo, Mama Grizzly Sarah regularly insinuates that McGinniss is a creepy perv and that she must keep an eye on him or who knows what he would do to little Piper.
(McGinniss may want to stay in Wasilla. Based on comments on various websites, some of Sarah’s fan back here in the lower 48 seem eager to settle that score if they get a chance. It should also be noted that McGinniss has enjoyed a long love affair with Alaska. He wrote one of the best books ever on the state – “Going to Extremes.”)
Later in the show, Sarah lets loose on McGinniss again. She must know that the knock on her by those who have crossed her path is that she loves drama and has a taste for relentless vendettas. Shortly after the erratic Mr. McCain chose her as his running mate, we learned that she was under investigation for pressuring the head of the state police to fire her former brother-in-law, and that she allegedly sacked the chief when he didn’t move fast enough.
For Sarah, family may be everything, but only if your family is the Borgias or the Sopranos.
Sarah and Todd take Piper and their niece salmon fishing at a lake where tourists routinely see brown bears up close. An article by The Guardian makes much of her reportedly violating the guidelines designed to keep people and bears a safe distance apart for both. And more than one reviewer has called her comments that the Mama bear is trying to teach her cubs to do for themselves a calculated swipe at our welfare state.
Some carefully crafted comments dotted throughout the show are clearly designed to improve her political fortunes. The promo keeps repeating Sarah’s self-deprecating comment that you can “see Russia from here – almost.” This initial show aired at about the same time that Tina Fey was receiving the Mark Twain Prize on PBS, in large part because of her devastating impersonation of Palin as beauty queen. Sarah’s goal was to show how good-natured she is about being portrayed as an airhead, though the rest of the show did little to dispel the image of her as an earthy woman with lots of kids who should never be allowed to run anything larger than a grocery cart.
I began to nod off during the trip to Denali in the camper with Sarah’s Mom and Dad, and then the climbing expedition on Mt. McKinley with Todd and a guide where Sarah’s fear of heights meant they didn’t get far. What surprised me, however, was that for all her talk about family time, Sarah and Todd had not apparently already taken their kids to the places that Sarah’s folks had taken her as a child.
Also surprising was that Sarah does not seem terribly enthralled with Todd. She says nice things about him and tries to paint him as the macho First Dude, but her body language betrays her. At one point, she says that they have recently spent more time together than ever before in their 30-year relationship. Many years, he spent at least half of his time on the North Slope – fishing? oil rig? taking a much-deserved break from Sarah?
She did not take the opportunity to gush about how great it was to have him around all the time. Todd may be conventionally attractive but he’s certainly not cuddly. You get the sense that his job all these years has been to play sperm donor, political adviser and breadwinner.
Playing armchair shrink is allowed when you open up your life to strangers like me. So may I interject the possibility that the beauteous Palin daughters seem eager to seek male attention to make up for the cold shoulder from Dad? All we see of Willow in this episode is when the teenage temptress goes upstairs to her bedroom, and Sarah points to the child gate at the bottom of the stairs as a warning to Willow’s boyfriend Andy that he must not follow.
While Sarah is ostensibly working at her desk below that winding staircase, we watch Andy, an abstinence-education reject if there ever was one, stride up the stairs to see his inamorata. Ever the queen of high tech, Sarah uses her cellphone to call Willow and order her to send the young man back downstairs. Apparently Sarah was without her Blackberry when the bumbling Levi Johnston was impregnating young Bristol.
But the real question is why do I know so much about what should be this woman’ private life? I hate pretension more than the next person, but even I think that if she might be president someday, she should try to hang onto some shred of dignity.
I fully expect Sarah to start discussing her periods in an upcoming episode. Or maybe we will be treated to long soliloquy on breast feeding or toilet training. Perhaps the only good news about this series is that it should drive a harpoon through the heart of any future presidential bid, though I don’t think for a moment that she is in this for anything more than fame and fortune. Like the distaff Colin Powell, she is titillating her followers by making them think she will run, but it’s really all about Ben Franklin – not as founding father but on those $100 bills.