brucekluger.com

    USA Today, July 28, 2004

    Amish reality TV show takes the lowest road yet  

    By Bruce Kluger


    I've never understood the appeal of reality TV. Call me a wet blanket, but the idea
    of round-the-clock phony millionaires, smug bachelors and desperate worm-
    noshers doesn't really do it for me.

    More worrisome, however, is the slow, steady march these shows have been
    making toward a perverse and voyeuristic fascination with human cruelty. In just a
    few years, reality TV has moved from exploring the more duplicitous side of our
    nature (Survivor) to glorifying verbal abuse (American Idol) to giddily celebrating
    some sap's misfortune at hearing those universally dreaded words, "You're fired"
    (The Apprentice).

    If TV is, indeed, hunkering down in this muddy reality trench, I've often fretted that it
    won't be long before some show crosses the line into the unconscionable.

    That line is about to be crossed.

    Tonight, the UPN network, a subsidiary of Viacom, will debut a new program called
    Amish in the City, a "fish-out-of-water" reality show in which Amish teenagers are
    time-warped from the antiquated, cloistered confines of their religious communities
    to a forced housemate setup in the Hollywood Hills, complete with six "mainstream
    young adults" (one gay, one black, one ditzy veganyou get the picture). Naturally,
    the show capitalizes on the inevitable culture clash, zooming in on the Amish kids as
    they swap their buggies and water pumps for SUVs and bottles of Evian, or gaze in
    amazement at a parking meter and an automatic dishwasher.

    Predictably, Amish has not been greeted with open arms. When plans for the show
    were first announced last January, protests erupted across the country, from
    politicians in Pennsylvaniahome to a large number of the nation's 200,000
    Amishto the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Ky.

    "Viacom's got plenty of ways to make money without ridiculing rural people," the
    center's president, Dee Davis, complained.

    As if the concept of Amish weren't manipulative enough, producers have cagily
    tethered their snarky series to a Pennsylvania Dutch ritual called "rumspringa"
    (translation: running wild), in which Amish 16-year-olds are permitted to flee the fold
    and taste the temptations of the real worldfrom drinking to dating to driving. After
    their romp, it's up to the kids themselves to decide whether they want to return to
    their flock and be baptized into the Amish church. (According to Devil's Playground,
    a 2002 documentary about rumspringa, 90% of the teens do come home.)

    Although UPN's lab-rat spectacle brims with breathtakingly humiliating moments
    (witness the awkwardness as the smug housemates mock the country clan about
    their clothing), the producers insist it is "totally respectful" and "not intended to
    insult."

    Baloney. Insult is precisely what this bad idea is all about. To make matters worse,
    these are kids we're talking about. And the deck is stacked against them.

    Unlike Fear Factor, which promises the most daring (and stupid) participants a
    guarantee of $50,000 as a top prize, the subjects of Amish in the City don't have
    any sort of reward dangling on the horizon—other than their own mortification, of
    course.

    Unlike Survivor, in which cunning ultimately dictates who gets the last laugh in the
    final week, the human guinea pigs of Amish in the City will quickly discover that the
    joke is always on them.

    And, most tragically, unlike The Simple Life, in which rich brats Paris Hilton and
    Nicole Richie reverse time-travel, trading cellphones and designer bags for overalls
    and swamp boots, Amish in the City plunks its old-world co-stars into strange new
    worlds they've never imaginedshamelessly exploiting their naivete along the way.

    Say what you will about the bubble-headedness of Hilton and Richie, at least
    they're hip to the cultural deprivations of the "simple" life from the outset.

    The Amish kids, on the other hand, are headed for a mind-blower, as the most
    basic tenets of their religious conviction unravel before their eyes. And though I've
    never been a fan of fundamentalism of any stripe, it's not up to me to mess with the
    minds of those who truly believe. Nor is it up to TV.