Next step down in `reality' television: exploitation of the Amish

April 26, 2004|By Robert Schroeder

PERHAPS IT WAS inevitable. Casting is reportedly under way for the UPN television network's newest "reality" series: Amish in the City.

The idea, which is patently offensive, is to plunk down a group of Amish teen-agers in a big city - apparently Los Angeles - and watch them get "freaked out" by their environs. So said CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves, who oversees UPN programming. Mr. Moonves' words are worth quoting in greater length: "To have people who don't have television walk down Rodeo Drive and be freaked out by what they see, I think, will be interesting television."

Interesting is not the right word. But the network's proposal shouldn't be surprising. In an increasingly cluttered television landscape, and with the reality genre even beginning to repeat itself - think Survivor: All-Stars - producers are of necessity digging deeper for subject matter.

With this one, however, they've sunk to rock bottom.

The impetus for this show comes from a source lower than the lowest common denominator: namely, the instinct toward mockery. UPN denies this, of course. A statement from the network said that the show's producers "have every intention of treating the Amish, their beliefs and their heritage with the utmost respect and decency." That's as ludicrous a statement as ever passed the pen of a corporate shill. But let's review the idea for the series anyway.

The Amish, of course, are a Christian sect concentrated in Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ohio. They shun technology, including electricity, they drive horses and buggies and they wear plain clothes. It's a demanding life, to be sure, but one that most return to after a period in their teen-age years called rumspringa, a Pennsylvania Dutch term meaning "running around."

Typically, this means driving cars, dating and other mostly harmless forms of partying. It's during this period when UPN proposes to step in, substituting the Babylonian atmosphere of Beverly Hills for the bucolic hills of Lancaster County, Pa., or another Amish stronghold.

What's so wrong about this is not just the hicks-on-parade spectacle that would surely figure so prominently in the show. That's bad enough. But the show would also exploit the customs of a religious group. That's worse.

Amish faith and life are one woven strand, inseparable from each other. Rumspringa might be considered a stop on the way to one's place in a sacred community.

Fortunately, UPN has taken some heat for the proposed Amish show. And, if the example of The Real Beverly Hillbillies is any indication, pressure can still keep Amish in the City off the air. Rural groups strongly protested that CBS-planned reality series, which would have placed a lower-middle-class family in a luxurious California home. The show appears to have been shelved.

More than 50 members of Congress have criticized the proposed Amish series, with U.S. Rep. Joseph R. Pitts, a Pennsylvania Republican, saying it reminded him of "the old sideshows in the circus."

How true. As much as any other ism, voyeurism is part of the way we live now. Many of us know more about the lives of "reality" TV stars than about those of our own families. But it is questionable knowledge. Television in any form is shot, edited and packaged. One wonders if UPN might try to market the Amish show as a sort of window into their lives. If so, here's a suggestion for would-be viewers: Throw away your TV. Then you'll really know what it's like to be Amish.

Those who would watch, meanwhile, will simply debase the Amish - and themselves.

Journalist Robert Schroeder is a native of Lancaster County, Pa. He lives in Chevy Chase. Columnist Ellen Goodman will return Thursday.

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