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Decoding 'Sarah Palin's Alaska': Top 3 lessons from the debut episode

November 15, 2010 |  7:05 am

21239_0257 The claim that "Sarah Palin's Alaska" is a wholly apolitical travelogue-cum-family tableau, meant only to showcase the rugged beauty of our largest state and the just-folksiness of its former governor, lasts about five minutes into the first episode.

That's the point at which we learn that Sarah's enjoyment of working on the "cement slab" outside (naturally the Palins would have nothing so fancy-pants as a "patio") is hampered by the presence of a new neighbor, the writer Joe McGinniss, who's rented the house next door while researching what Todd Palin describes as a "hit piece" on his wife. Sarah explains that Todd's reaction to McGinniss' arrival was to get out there with his buddies and erect a 14-foot-high fence between the properties (as you do), and before I can finish writing "immigration analogy?" in my notes, she clarifies: "By the way, I thought that was a good example, what we just did, others could look at and say, 'Oh, this is what we need to do to secure our nation's border.'"

To be fair, that is the only overtly political remark Sarah makes in the first episode. There's still plenty of campaigning going on, most of it coming via metaphor, innuendo and sled-dog whistles. Sport fishing, for instance, provides an opportunity to empathize with recession victims: "The only thing more frustrating than not catching a fish," says Sarah, "is sitting there watching everyone else not catching a fish."

Negotiating a crevasse-pocked glacier offers an important lesson in unity: "If you're not roped together, you're gonna fall, and you may not stop." And even if she might run for president someday, Sarah Palin would like us to know she's not one of those off-putting, overly ambitious career gals or anything; she still believes in the old adage, "a poor day of fishin' beats even a great day of work."

There's plenty more to decode among the messages "Sarah Palin's Alaska" is sending to everyone else's America, and I'll be doing that each week after the show airs. Here are the top three lessons I learned from this episode:

1. If you don’t belong somewhere, it’s your own fault if you get your throat ripped out.

"You're in their territory," Sarah and Todd remind us more than once, referring to the brown bears that live along the shores of remote Big River Lake. Keeping your distance is not simply a matter of common sense or respect for wildlife, see -- it's a matter of respect for borders and ownership. You wander too far onto someone else's turf, you certainly can't expect a warm welcome, silly! You should be happy to get out alive. (Just in case you missed the fence line.)

2. As long as you exhibit a sense of wonder about it, there is no privilege great enough to automatically make you an elitist.

Some things that render Sarah Palin awestruck in this episode: Pristine lakes; impossibly vast, frozen landscapes; brown bears wrestling; Denali National Park; and the technology that allows her to be a regular Fox News commentator from a television studio in her backyard. As the song goes, one of these things is not like the others.

See also: her folksy amazement at getting door-to-door float plane service, which she claims is just like a taxi for places where roads are scarce: "It is pretty cool that I can just step out in my frontyard and there, on the dock, is an airplane that we get to hop into!" Yes, I imagine that is pretty cool! I wouldn't know, on account of how I'm an elitist who lives in a walk-up apartment in a sketchy neighborhood! But now that I've seen how the other half lives, I think I finally understand Sarah Palin and her down-home fans a bit better: Why would anyone want to pay more taxes to build and maintain roads when you can fly instead?

3. Scaling the face of Mt. McKinley is exactly like politics.

That is, if you're Sarah Palin; you go into it with very little knowledge, only recognize how woefully unprepared you are once you've gone too far to stop, and eventually get as far as you do thanks largely to a far more experienced man coaching you and pulling on your ropes. No wait, I mean you confront your greatest fears, persevere in the face of difficulty, stubbornly refuse to quit, and then rightfully enjoy it when your hard work and determination land you on top of the world! One of those, anyway. The great thing about this show is how it works on multiple levels.

-- Kate Harding

Photo: Sarah Palin checks fishing nets for holes. Credit: Gilles Mingasson / TLC

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