Executives at TLC, the cable channel airing “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” insist the docu-travelogue starring the former GOP vice presidential nominee and possible future presidential candidate has no political agenda.
Yet if Palin were looking to create a compelling campaign biopic, she could do worse than the lushly produced, eight-part series premiering Sunday. The program casts her as a chipper frontierswoman who juggles motherhood with adventures in Alaska’s vast wilderness. One moment Palin is baking cupcakes; the next, she’s perched in a boat watching two growling brown bears wrestle. The series is laced with breathtaking aerial shots of snow-capped mountains and vast lakes, set to dramatic orchestration.
“I love this state like I love my family,” a beaming Palin says in the show’s opening montage, which depicts her lugging a fishnet onto a boat, scaling a glacier and riding in a mud-caked ATV.
It remains to be seen whether the series will serve to further boost her profile for a presidential run in 2012 or whether it signals a pivot into a full-time media career. Either way, the program helps define Palin on her own terms, noted Republican strategist Ken Khachigian.
“It drops her into an environment and culture where she can excel in being natural and wholesome and athletic,” he said. “There are two goals here: One is to make some money, which nobody can fault, and the second is to position herself via a pretty large media audience in a way that doesn’t go through the lens of her critics.”
Palin has stuck to that strategy since getting pummeled in the 2008 campaign for appearing unprepared and out of her depth in media interviews. Nowadays, she chooses to communicate through Fox News, where she is a paid contributor, or speak directly to her fans through Facebook and Twitter.
Starring in her own reality show is a canny way to play to a public skeptical of the traditional press, said Michael Maslansky, chief executive of maslansky luntz + partners, which researches how people respond to forms of communication.
“As a form of political media, this is quite possibly the evolution of the personal biography,” he said, though noted: “A reality show probably isn’t for everyone. Can you imagine ' Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts’?”
Some are skeptical that the series is a smart move for Palin. “I am not certain how that fits in the American calculus of ‘that helps me see you in the Oval Office,’” Karl Rove scoffed to the Daily Telegraph of London.
That prompted a dismissive retort from the former Alaska governor. “I agree with that, that those standards have to be high for someone who would ever want to run for president,” she told Fox News’ Chris Wallace. “Like, wasn’t Ronald Reagan an actor? Wasn’t he in ‘Bedtime for Bonzo’ — Bozo?”
“Now, lookit,” she added. “I’m not in a reality show. I have eight episodes documenting Alaska’s resources.”
It’s true that “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” has little in common with “Dancing with the Stars,” the ABC show on which her daughter Bristol is competing. It’s more akin to the outdoor adventure series that populate Discovery, with the Palins taking on activities such as caribou hunting and dog mushing.
The concept was the brainchild of veteran television producer Mark Burnett, the force behind hits such as “Survivor,” whom Palin partnered with after being deluged with reality show offers. Together they shopped the idea to television executives last spring, and it was snapped up by TLC for an undisclosed amount.
“She is such a high-profile, engaging character that it made sense to be part of our brand, where we’ve really brought ordinary and extraordinary characters to life,” said TLC President Eileen O’Neill, who compared Palin to the network’s other famous mom, Kate Gosselin of “Kate Plus Eight.” (The network even arranged a crossover episode that airs later in the season, in which Gosselin and her eight children fly to Alaska to go camping with the Palins.)
Palin was careful not to invite the cameras into her home without some restrictions: As part of the deal, she got an executive producing credit and a role in shaping the episodes.
“Ultimately the network has creative control and approval over the show, but really across the production company and the Palin family it was quite a collaborative effort, which is consistent with the way we produce most of our shows,” O’Neill said.
During the seven-week shoot this summer, Palin had a surprisingly high comfort level with the cameras, O’Neill said, although at one point the former governor objected to using footage that showed her children acting up.
The result offers some tantalizing glimpses of Palin’s family life, though nothing that would make an opposition researcher salivate: Palin catches a teenage boy trying to sneak upstairs with 16-year-old Willow and orders them back downstairs; 9-year-old Piper complains about her mom’s constant BlackBerrying.
Along the way, Palin throws in some sly political references: in one scene, as she helps one daughter load a shotgun, she quips, “Don’t retreat; just reload.”
Palin’s political intentions remain fuzzy. She has left the door open to running for president in 2012, telling Wallace she would “if the country needed me.” Later this month, she’s heading out on a 16-stop tour to promote her new book, “America By Heart,” which will take her to Iowa and South Carolina, two states key to the GOP presidential nomination.
O’Neill said the TLC series does not have a political message, adding that the network’s only intention was to make “a good family adventure story.”
But Palin’s critics have reacted with incredulity, and many are vowing to boycott the network.
“You’re essentially paying her to let you show an entire season of campaign ads for how ‘nice and ‘reasonable’ and ‘homey’ she is,” read one typical comment on spalaska.com, the show’s website.
The sharp reaction speaks to Palin’s polarizing effect: 52% of Americans view her unfavorably and 40% favorably, according to a new Gallup poll, making her the most divisive of the potential 2012 GOP presidential candidates. She fares much better among Republicans, 80% of whom view her favorably.
While the TLC series could help humanize her, GOP strategist Scott Reed said it would not likely have a great impact on voters.
“If Palin is going to be serious about affecting the terms of the debate in the Republican Party, and I think she is,” Reed said, “she’s probably better off doing some deep dives on policy, rather than rock climbing.”