Once reality sets in, novelty of `Amish in the City' wears off

TVPreview

July 28, 2004|By Noel Holston | Noel Holston,NEWSDAY

Between the ages of 16 and about 24, many young Amish men and women are allowed, even encouraged, to leave their cloistered communities and spend time in the outside world, testing their faith and values against the temptations of Anheuser-Busch, Old Navy and Girls Gone Wild. It's a rite of passage known as rumspringa, Pennsylvania Dutch for "running around" or "running wild."

Some Amish youths treat the rite like a seeker's sabbatical. Some simply find themselves a mobile home to rent out of sight of their families and proceed to consume large quantities of beer, like Coneheads.

Neither of these variations of rumspringa is depicted in Amish in the City, a 10-week series that UPN developed because head programmer Dawn Ostroff believes that there is great curiosity in TV land about people, such as the Amish, who are different. But rather than bankroll a documentary series about Amish life - or show Witness a couple of times - UPN bought into a souped-up, stunt rumspringa that situates five Amish young adults in a modernist Los Angeles mansion with six city-dwelling 20-somethings, among them a catty gay guy, a vegan gal who acts as though her name should be Moon Unit and another young woman whose favorite verb is "party."

Fortunately for the latter, Amish in the City entails only little adventures - to the seashore, to the mall, to exotic restaurants. It's not a competition like CBS' Big Brother, in which viewers get to vote someone out of the house every week. If it were, they'd probably all be gone by Week 6.

UPN's announcement of the show back in January was greeted with suspicion and protests. There was concern that the Amish youths and their old-fashioned ways would be ridiculed. Not to worry. In tonight's back-to-back introductory episodes, at least, the Amish kids comport themselves with admirable dignity and levelheadedness, while the worldly kids mostly come across as ignorant, closed-minded, selfish and snide - a veritable brat pack.

When the five Amish show up at the front door of the manse wearing their traditional, modest attire, the city six, unaware of whom their other roommates would be, react as if they've been beset by Martians or a mime troupe, recoiling and squealing. It's as though they're all rabidly Am-ophobic. Even the gay guy.

The Amish, bless 'em, handle such childish insensitivity with forbearance and a sense of humor - at least initially. Their innocence and unabashed sense of wonder about the new worlds they're seeing give the series a poignancy almost never encountered in the managed reality shows that continue to proliferate like toadstools on the TV landscape.

Watching these country kids marvel at the Los Angeles skyline or at their first glimpse of an ocean is to see those things afresh yourself.

They can be quick-witted and funny as well. I laughed out loud during a sequence in which two of the Amish, Mose and Ruth, went grocery shopping with the aforementioned vegan space cadet, Ariel. She turns up her nose at the idea of buying eggs.

"I bet Abraham Lincoln had eggs for breakfast," Mose points out.

"Yeah, but I bet he died at, like, 35," says Ariel.

"Yeah," says Mose, "but not from the eggs."

Amish in the City is pleasantly entertaining - up to a point. Once the novelty of the culture clash wears off - for me, about halfway through the second hour - the series starts to resemble more and more the "house" shows of which it is just another variant.

There's no winner at the end, no prize, just a revealing of which Amish re-embrace their heritage and which, if any, stay on the outside. It's that old, old question: How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm, after they've had sushi?

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Amish in the City

What: Unscripted series that presents an exaggerated version of an Amish rite of passage known as rumspringa.

When: 8 tonight

Where: UPN, Channel 24

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