Palin Goes for the Gold

The “Alaska” finale leaves us with a cliffhanger: is Reality TV a new step in the yellow brick road to the White House – or just a path covered in pyrite?

On the final installment of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” which aired Sunday on TLC, the presidential wannabe went panning for gold.

"Does it come down to who works hardest or who's the luckiest?" Palin asked her gold-mining guide.

It's enough to leave you wondering whether the prospecting scenes simply reflect the latest Palin Family outdoorsy fun or serve as a convenient metaphor for her political aspirations (or both). But the images of Palin going for the gold undoubtedly delivered an apt end to an often fascinating show that yielded plenty of pyrite amid gems offering varied (and not always flattering) reflections of the woman who would be president.

Never before has an American TV audience spent this much time, unfiltered by the press, with a prospective leader of the free world and her family – albeit through the fun-house mirror that is the lens of Reality TV, the fuzzy lingua franca of this strange era in television.

During the eight episodes (plus a one-hour retrospective special with outtakes), viewers got welcome glimpses of the undeniably beautiful Alaskan landscape, which provided a scenic stage for lots of kayaking, camping, hiking fishing and even lessons in logging.

But the series wasn’t an infomercial for Alaska as much for Palin, who might not really be able to spot Russia from her window – but you betcha she can see clear all the way to the White House.

The images of an attractive family amid the stunning backdrop proved at times powerful – and entertaining as they sloshed their way through some bumpy white water rafting, spotted battling bears and gutted fish. We can never know what happens when the cameras are off, but there seems to be affection among the family members, who possess an impressive energy.

Nine-year-old daughter Piper, in particular, comes across as an outspoken, independent spirit who’s a natural in front of the camera – perhaps because she’s spent a larger percentage of her life in front of them than the older members of her family. When Sarah Palin tearfully talks about her hopes for her 2-year-old son, Trig, who has Down syndrome, she genuinely connects with the audience as a caring mom.

But much of the positive impact was blunted by Palin playing her Mama Grizzly character, shooting from the hip, verbally and otherwise. We witnessed her gun down a caribou, fire at a charging wooden bear target on wheels – and take a gratuitous pot shot at Michelle Obama’s efforts to fight childhood obesity, painting the First Lady as an elitist enemy of s’mores.

"This is in honor of Michelle Obama, who said the other day we should not have dessert," Palin declared as she collected s’mores ingredients during a family camping trip.

The line, like much of the purportedly unscripted show filled with outdoorsy activities and folksy charm, seemed calculated to build on the scrappy hockey-mom/political maverick persona Palin began cultivating when she was thrust into the nation spotlight in 2008. Palin is determined to present herself as the next Ronald Reagan, and she clearly has used to the program to project bygone Reaganesque notions of rugged individualism, with a God-helps-those-who-help-themselves subtext that was as unrealistic then as now.

In the first episode of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” the former GOP vice presidential candidate told us that she and her family are "normal, average everyday Americans" – which, no matter what you think of her, is, at this point in their lives, untrue.

It’s unclear, though, whether the show, a kind of Rorschach test wrought in snow, will change anyone’s mind about Palin or just reinforce previously held opinions.

A recent poll by Public Policy Polling found that 58 percent of Alaskans hold an unfavorable view of their former governor. Her debut show drew 5 million viewers, a TLC record, and settled into an average of 3.2 million – hardly “Jersey Shore” numbers (last week’s third season premiere attracted 8.45 million viewers), but very respectable.

The ratings probably will turn out to be strong for the “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” finale, most likely because of well-timed recent reports the program won’t be back for a second season. That may be the strongest signal yet that Palin will run for president. Perhaps she’s taking old-school GOPers' criticisms of her as a reality show lightweight to heart, and she’ll instead stick largely to her online and Fox News platforms. Or maybe there’s another Palin plan in the offing.

She may not have the following of Snooki or even her recent guest star, Kate Gosselin, but Palin’s Reality TV gambit already might be inspiring others. Donald Trump revealed last week that this season’s “Celebrity Apprentice” finale could include an announcement on whether he’s hiring himself as a 2012 presidential candidate.

Time will tell whether we’ve reached the sad point where having a Reality TV show is a mandatory step along the yellow brick road to the White House – or just another path covered in fool’s gold.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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