Before I get into the latest reality TV controversy, I want to give a shout-out to “Alaska: The Last Frontier” and “Deadliest Catch.” Both are nominated for Emmy awards for “Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program” and “Outstanding Cinematography for Reality Programming.” Good work, guys.
Now let’s get into “Escaping Alaska.” This show has been under intense scrutiny since the trailer premiered back in June. The premise is pretty simple: A group of five “young Eskimos” (at least one girl is an Athabascan from Tanana) decide to move to San Diego to pursue their non-rural-Alaska dreams. However, in an effort to not insult their families and culture (because leaving your village is “treason,” according to one girl), they decide to make up cover stories and move in secret. But of course it can’t be that secret, because there are cameras filming them…
The first thing to recognize about this show is that it’s on TLC. TLC stands for “The Learning Channel,” but it has traveled far from those roots. This is the channel that brought us numerous shows about the Palins, “Alaskan Women Looking for Love,” a show called “Sex Sent Me to the ER,” “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and about 50 other programs about weddings, cupcakes and families with too many kids.
TLC is also responsible for “Breaking Amish,” which mirrored the plot of “Escaping Alaska.” “Amish” was notoriously scripted and featured two cast members who claimed to be strangers, but in fact had had a child together before the show aired.
Social media has blown up over “Escaping Alaska.” Nuala Love’s Facebook page, YouTube videos, the “I am Alaska Native” and TLC Facebook pages, Twitter -- everyone seems to have an opinion about the authenticity and subject matter of this program.
I missed the first episode of “Escaping Alaska,” but recently watched the second one. In this episode, the cast arrives in San Diego. They get off the plane wearing fur parkas, which was the first indicator that this show was staged, because later in the episode they have many reasonable outfits with them for a sunny California climate.
The cast later goes on a whale watching cruise, and a random, already-mic’d, horrible “stranger” approaches them. As they tell this woman about whaling and subsistence culture, she responds with complete disgust and ends up storming away. One of the two gentlemen in the cast follows her and they end up going on a date that night. I was so confused. I rewound to see if I had missed something. But I had not. In the real world you don’t end up asking out people who tell you that your way life is repulsive.
Here’s the thing: I don’t want to be the reality police. If we are judging the show on its entertainment value and not taking into account how accurately it portrays Alaska Native culture, the real-life online acting resumes of the people in it and some of the questionable filming locations, the show is totally watchable.
I found the five characters to be likable, regardless of their fabricated story arcs. One girl, Tamara from Noorvik, brings a poster of her idol, Jennifer Lawrence, and a pillow with a picture of her crush, Prince Harry, on her journey. Which is just adorable. And I will never be someone who badmouths a good fish-out-of-water storyline, especially when it involves a boyfriend back home (Mary from Tanana) and some good partying in the streets (during Mardi Gras).
But the show is also treading lightly on big, often wrenching issues -- including the challenges facing rural Alaska Native young people as they make their way in the world and the disappearance of villages and traditional ways of life. In the end, it’s hard not to be the reality police when the subject matter is very real to many Alaskans.
Emily Fehrenbacher lives in Anchorage, where she reviews Alaska reality TV.