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"
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 vegan—you 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 Pennsylvania—home to a large number of the nation's 200,000
Amish—to 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 world—from 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
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
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 imagined—shamelessly 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.