“Don’t scare the cubs!” Wary of the wrath of an actual mama grizzly, Sarah Palin cautions her nine-year-old daughter Piper and her niece McKinley not to make trouble. The kids make a few noises anyway, but none of the bears cut into this scene in Sarah Palin’s Alaska pays them much attention. As if on cue, the mother bear finds her own fight: as the two beasts bat at each other, Sarah lilts, “Hear that? That is a growl!” The camera cuts among Piper and Sarah and the bears. “It is amazing to watch,” explains Sarah, “A mama bear protecting her cubs. Nobody’s gonna mess with the future of the species.”
Except, of course, the Palins, who have come to fish for salmon at Big River Lake, the bears’ food and, as Sarah says more than once, the bears’ home. “You have to remember,” she says, “You’re in their territory. These are huge animals.” So, yes, Todd’s catching fish for her family to eat, and the camera crew might be just a little obtrusive, but that’s okay. So, when they start to look vexed, Sarah recalls after the fact: “I think we made the right decision. We got out of there.”
Back at the house subtitled “Palin’s Home,” this mama is protective too, even if she’s not likely to go batting journalist Joe McGinniss. Todd elucidates, “Our summer fun has kind of been taken away from us by our new neighbor, who’s moved in next door and is writing a hit piece on my wife.” Instead of having summer fun, apparently, Todd and a few friends built a 14-foot fence (“I thought that was a good example, what we just did,” adds Sarah, “Others could look at [it] and say, ‘Oh, this is what we need to do to secure our nation’s border”). Now she and Piper are on the watch for being watched: “Piper whispered to me as we’re coming up the lawn,” Sarah confides over a shot of mother and daughter scampering, “That neighbor’s out there, he’s watching us.” But he’s paying for it too: “He was stuck inside writing an ugly book,” Sarah instructs. “We one-upped him, Piper, we had a good day and he’s stuck in his house.” (And one-upping would, of course, be the point.)
Other sorts of watching are less odious. Sarah and her family act much like other celebrity families who invite camera crews inside their performative lives. Like the Osbournes, Whitney and Bobby, the Simmons, the Kardashians, and the Hammers, they perform themselves: they talk to the camera, they act out, they make complain and look to score points. Sarah’s clear that no boys get to go upstairs with Willow, Piper notes that her mom is “like, addicted to the BlackBerry,” and Todd tends to smile and nod. (Sarah explains, “Still waters run deep. When he talks, he’s talkin’ to say something. You know, he’s not just yappin’ his mouth.”) You see that Sarah’s used to getting her way and being the focus of attention, even when she’s ostensibly arranging for her children to “see everything that Alaska has to offer.” When Willow says her back hurts, so she can’t go rock climbing with her parents in Denali National Park, Sarah stands over and pronounces, “You always make stuff up.”
Ouch. Just as you’re wondering who might be the adult in this household, Sarah submits they’re just a “normal, kind of boring family.” Except, of course, they’re millionaires and aware of camera angles and backdrops. They’re watched for a living. When Sarah sets up for her chat with Bill O’Reilly, she has Todd help her with the mountain view behind her and possible good answers (like, for a “personal example,” she can say a tax hike on small businesses “would affect how many guys you would hire, amen?” When she takes Piper or Todd on an outing — up a mountain or a river — she makes sure to spread her arms and point out how grand the scene is, in her view. And in case you think it’s easy taking bush plane jaunts into the glorious wilds of Alaska, she reminds you a couple of times that “Unfortunately, we do lead in fatalities in these types of planes too.”
The risk yields great rewards, however. When she and Todd — both scared of heights, Sarah says — make it to the top of a peak, she’s thrilled. “The perception, anyway, in my mind, was we were on top of the world.” That sums up Sarah Palin’s Alaska in a sentence. The show is all about what’s hers — her view, her Alaska, her kids, herself. It can’t be easy to assume so much.