"Alaska: I love this state like I love my family."
So Sarah Palin begins "Sarah Palin's Alaska," an eight-week look at the Last Frontier with your hosts, the Palins. Whether or not Sarah Palin's Alaska looks anything like Maia Nolan's Alaska remains to be seen, but I have to imagine there are things about growing up in the Palin house in Wasilla that can't have been too different from having grown up in the Nolan house in Anchorage.
We open on the Palin family kitchen, where 9-year-old Piper and her cousin McKinley are baking cupcakes with Sarah's help. In standard reality-show format, we cut back and forth between the kitchen scene and an on-camera interview in which Sarah tells us how Piper has "been my sidekick since the day she was born."
Piper looks up from the cupcakes she's baking and, cool as a cucumber, calls out, "What else, Sarah?"
Her mother (who looks a lot more put together in the kitchen than my mother ever did, but on the other hand, my mother never had a TV series filming in the kitchen) stops what she's doing, straightens up, raises one eyebrow and repeats, archly: "What else?" She uses the tone of voice you might imagine she'd use with one of the people who suggested she stay home and raise her children instead of hitting the campaign trail in 2008.
Next we go to the back patio, where Sarah is working on her writing (and drinking out of a Skinny Raven Sports coffee cup). Todd comes out to check on her, and talk turns immediately to summer neighbor Joe McGinniss, who famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) rented the house next door to the Palins while working on his forthcoming book about Sarah, which promises to be anything but flattering. I'll admit I sympathize a bit here with Sarah -- if someone were writing a book that promised to be critical of me, I'd be uncomfortable if they moved in next door to me. This may be one area, though, in which TLC has a hard time defending its insistence that the show is not supposed to be political -- especially when Sarah talks about how the 14-foot fence Todd and his buddies built to protect the family's privacy could be a "good example" of what we need to do to "secure our nation's border." I'm not sure she's right, though -- I mean, why hurt our Canadian neighbors' feelings by building a 14-foot fence between us and them?
A ‘taxi' to bear country
After the McGinniss interlude, Todd, Sarah, Piper and McKinley pile into a Rust's Flying Service float plane while Sarah talks about how "the local taxi for us is a Bush plane, usually -- that's how you get around in Alaska." I'm worried Outside viewers might be confused by this. Rest assured, friends, in Maia Nolan's Alaska, a taxi is a taxi. Big River Lake, where Sarah, Todd and the girls are going, though, is definitely off the road system -- just across Cook Inlet, off toward Lake Clark.
Footage of the flight is interspersed with an interview with Piper in which she talks about her mother being "super busy" and "addicted to the BlackBerry." She does a little imitation of Sarah texting with two thumbs.
When we land at Big River Lake, I notice another difference between Sarah Palin's Alaska and Maia Nolan's Alaska: Carl the fishing guide. In my family, there was Dad the fishing guide, and he was not always as friendly as Carl the fishing guide, probably because he wasn't getting paid like Carl the fishing guide is. Although once, when the engine on our 16-foot Achilles sprung a fuel leak and caught fire out in the middle of Kachemak Bay with a full load of family members, Dad actually fixed the leak with a chewed-up piece of Nicorette gum straight out of his own honest-to-God mouth. I kid you not. Beat that, Carl the fishing guide.
Apparently Carl the fishing guide hears my silent challenge, because the next few minutes of "Sarah Palin's Alaska" are filled up with the kind of crazy grizzly encounter you usually only see in stock footage.
"So girls, when you cast, don't aim toward the bear, OK?" Sarah says as they drift a few yards away from a frolicking juvenile brown bear. The bear is having much better luck than the Palins, who are catching nothing for a long time.
"We're gettin' skunked," Sarah complains. And there's another similarity between Sarah Palin's Alaska and Maia Nolan's Alaska: I've heard my mom utter that exact phrase from a fishing boat many, many times.
More bears show up then, and Piper roars at them, which prompts Sarah to scold her not to scare the cubs. Then there's a bear fight, and at this point we've seen more bear action in one river trip than I saw in my entire childhood, which makes me wonder if there isn't a Disney animal wrangler back there in the woods somewhere chasing them out into the water to provide Sarah some opportunities to make "mama grizzly" jokes.
Life around the house: No boys upstairs
Back at the house, Piper points out that Neighbor Joe is back out on his deck. Sarah asks her, playfully, if he's "takin' pictures." Which is kind of funny considering he is, instead, sitting on the deck reading and having his own picture taken by TLC. (McGinniss doesn't think it's too funny, turns out.)
In a midmorning scene at the house, Sarah is prepping for a Fox News interview when Willow, who tends to be the least-public Palin, wanders downstairs, texting. She's not interested in helping her mother. She is interested, possibly, in sneaking her friend Andy up to her room, but Sarah nips that in the bud, explaining that the baby gate at the foot of the stairs is both to protect Trig and to keep boys out, and Willow goes up to her room alone while Andy waits in the living room. (I assume this rule, or its strict enforcement, is the result of its apparently having been violated at some point by Willow's older sister, my "Dancing With the Stars" homegirl Bristol.) With Sarah's back turned, Andy, apparently having received a text from Willow, makes a break for it! He's all the way upstairs when Sarah catches on and calls Willow, who doesn't sound thrilled to have been busted. (Hint: There are television cameras in your living room.) Andy strolls back downstairs, rebuffed.
Sarah goes next door to her home TV studio, where Todd plays producer while Sarah preps for her Fox News spot. Todd and Sarah have a discussion about how new taxes would negatively impact the number of employees he's able to hire. There's that non-political issue again.
"You know," Sarah says, "having every word, every action scrutinized and, in some cases, mocked -- I can handle it. You know, I kind of have asked for it, right? And if I'm tempted to kind of say, ‘Oh, here comes another shot. Why us?' Todd reminds me all the time: ‘Eh, why not us? We can handle it.'"
Denali-bound in the family RV
After the Fox News interview, the family piles into a motorhome and cruises up the highway toward Denali National Park. Here is perhaps the most major difference between Sarah Palin's Alaska and Maia Nolan's Alaska: Members of the Palin and Heath families ride unsecured in the back of the motorhome, lounging on couches, getting up and walking around. That would have been heaven for us as kids. But in Maia Nolan's Alaska, Dad the fishing guide was also Dad the paramedic, who would have been as likely to feed his children paint chips as to put them in a moving vehicle without seat belts.
Up at Denali, Sarah gets ready to go climbing. At Alaska Mountaineering School, she gets oriented to her equipment. Her teacher tells her she'll be responsible for getting herself out of a crevasse if she falls into a crevasse.
"But it'll be much easier if we just don't fall in a crevasse," Sarah points out. Amen, sister. In Maia Nolan's Alaska, mountain climbing is left to other people. Slightly crazy people.
In Sarah Palin's Alaska, though, Sarah, Todd and Willow set off for Ruth Glacier to do some rock climbing. Weather forces the plane to turn around, which gives Sarah a chance to educate viewers about Alaska's aviation safety statistics. They try again the next day sans Willow (her back hurts and she doesn't feel good; also, perhaps she has regained her sanity after sleeping on this whole mountain climbing idea), and this time they make it. Nobody falls in any crevasses, and they make it to 5,000 feet, where Sarah gets to talk about how great it is to be outside. Then the rock climbing begins, which makes Sarah pretty nervous. She's afraid of heights. There's a lot of "oh my gosh"ing and many, many "flippin'"s. At one point she yells for Todd.
"I was so cocky!" she shouts, stuck partway up a rock face. "I'm being punished for it."
Guess what, though? She makes it, and the view is amazing. Betcha didn't see that coming!
Next week: Our girl B shoots clay pigeons and makes fun of her mother's "prom hair." My DVR is set.
Contact Maia Nolan at maia(at)alaskadispatch.com.