Monday, November 19, 2012

So, I watched that "Breaking Amish" Reunion Special

editor's note:  I don't think I've talked this much about TV or a reality show since I predicted in Season 1 not just the impending divorce of Jon & Kate, but exactly how ugly it would be for Jon.*  

Last night I posted the following to Facebook:

So, those "Breaking Amish" kids sort of played TLC for a trip to NYC and reality TV fame. Well played, Amish thugs, well played.

A few months ago I was on the elliptical and decided to spend my time watching Breaking Amish, one of several series on the cable spectrum that has launched in the past 10-12 years.  The series are, invariably, about Amish young adults leaving the fold and experiencing our world for the first time.  The shows have arrived in highbrow flavor from National Geographic channel taking a true documentarian's approach, to Fox "reality" shows pairing Amish 20 year old's with the worst reality-TV-type folks you can imagine and turning in a show about Amish people squirming uncomfortably as dopes try to ridicule them for not being awful people with subscriptions to Us Weekly.

"so... do we pretend we don't know what a bus is?"

Breaking Amish took several young adults from Amish communities (and one from a Mennonite community - where electricity and other conveniences are allowed), and dumped them into New York City. It was a TLC show, so it followed the formula of "come watch the weirdos we found as we walk them through something that looks like a heartwarming learning experience, but, I mean, yeah, obviously not really".  TLC is, of course, home to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

I didn't think very much about the show other than that it had the usual "well, this is all clearly 'stage managed'" vibe I get from all reality shows, and I didn't watch more than the one episode.

And then the internet happened.

Here

and here for some of the more interesting bits

I saw some headlines appear about how the cast of Breaking Amish was not what it appeared to be, that these people were not portraying who they actually were - not that any of these shows does.

So, last night I watched the "Reunion" episode of the show where TLC brought on quite a tenacious host, and proceeded to try to get answers out of the cast.  But in a very weird way - by laying the charge out, but not following up with details readily had online, I learned as I read a bit to write this post.

In some ways: I have mad respect for those lying Amish kids.  They seem to have totally played the network, making some money and enjoying a few weeks in New York on someone else's dime.

Yes, they were all from the communities they said they were, but it may be the outside world's interpretation of what it means to be Amish, especially a young adult Amish person in the modern age of cell phones, social media, digital photography and a community that has willingly not participated in any of that.

The big lesson of the discussion of the hour may be that the Amish community does not hermetically seal itself off from the world and it is not what we think from that one time we watched Witness.  That idea that the Amish are timelost aliens all living a life meek and ascetic is not the whole picture.  Amish society has its own rebellious youth, and the Rumspringa thing is serious.  People come and go and come and go again.  They may not be equipped to deal with everything the world outside their community brings to the table, but they're not unaware of the wide world, and perhaps we're not so sophisticated as we like to think that we'd be inscrutable to these exotic peasant folk.

Really, it seemed like the crew of wayward Amish young adults, even when cornered with something that looked like the truth of their situation, stuck to their guns in a way I almost admired, refusing to fall into the part of the confessor or the out-of-control diva.

Whether that was out of learned fear of what would befall them in their home communities or whether it was to save face or simply befuddle the audience and obfuscate the trail...  I don't know.  But it was masterful work watching the host lose her patience, likely expecting the weepy confessionals that we usually get in an hour of reality TV.  Part of me wonders how much of that is learned behavior from years of putting the best face forward in a tough, small community where every action is measured.

I'm not saying these people were good people, and for some of them, the opposite seems to be true.  But I do appreciate what I perceive to be what happened:  a bunch of kids who had already strayed from the flock signed up to be on TV and ride that wave.

To give you some context:

One of the women decided to try out to be a model, and within a few episodes (I guess) was modeling swimsuits.  And it seems she may have modeled before.  It was revealed that one of the men hadn't really lived Amish in years, and had been married.  A couple that seemingly formed on the show may or may not have already been together, and may have already had a child together - which posits the possibility that they signed up so they could have a nice vacation together on someone else's dime.

What these people may not have been savvy about was how fast any existing pictures of them would become distributed around the web, and many were, in which they appeared in streetwear of anyone out there.

As a further context clue - None of the participants of the show planned to return to their communities.

I don't know - but I'm guessing none of these people felt particularly welcome at home to begin with and this was the last gasp on their way out the door.  What was obvious was that this was not the first go-round in mini-mall America for any of the participants of the show, and if the NatGeo docs I watched on the topic were any indication, that transition can be very difficult, sometimes booze and drug-fueled, and the limited education obtained within the communities becomes a huge drag on figuring out what to do with yourself when you are suddenly free to do as you like.

I have no idea what the norm is, but I did note while watching the show last night - I have absolutely no idea what really happens in other peoples' houses, so why would I assume I had any understanding of what individual experiences are like for Amish people transitioning out of that way of life from watching a little TV?

As scripted as these shows are, its not too hard to imagine the people who became the subjects of the show simply putting on their old clothes and just wandering around New York acting like they weren't sure how much food cost, etc...  They're Amish, not morons.

If the producers did figure something was up, would it benefit them to stray from script?  Did they really clue in and hope that they could just get the show on the air, make due with edits to cover their tracks and collect their check from TLC?  That was never discussed.

Whatever happened - good for these people for grabbing a chance, and if it didn't conform to the idea we had of the pious, wide-eyed hayseed when they hit the streets of New York, that's all right, too.

I just wish I wasn't pretty convinced that whatever these guys are dealing with didn't mean I wasn't gravely concerned for all of them as they sort out the transition to living outside of the world where they grew up.


*and I was RIGHT, people.  Listen to your Unky Ry.
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