Just when it seemed reality television couldn't get any worse, the unexpected happens: The genre takes a turn for the better, an event all the more surprising because a new series started out with low expectations.
The title alone, "Amish in the City," seems intentionally provocative. The 10-part series, featuring five Amish youths and six city slickers, is set to launch this Wednesday at 8 p.m. on UPN.
Announcement of the show earlier this year drew howls of protest from critics, the US Congress, and TV affiliates, who denounced it as a new low in "humiliation TV." Without having seen it, US representative Joseph Pitts (R) of Pennsylvania has condemned the show for "grossly distorting Amish belief and culture."
But what a difference a few hours of actual footage can make. After a private screening for TV reporters this past week, critics have begun taking back their criticisms because the show is unexpectedly good. In the first two episodes, numerous scenes offer a sensitive (if also entertaining) look at the anguish of young men and women of conscience as they question their dearest beliefs. Media mavens say this treatment is a sign of better things to come.
"This is going to take reality TV to another level," says Nancy Snow, a communications expert at Cal State Fullerton. "I think we're going through a shift in attitudes about the format."
Media guru Robert Thompson has watched reality TV evolve over the past decade and says this show sets a new standard. "It tells us the kind of thing the reality show can really do," says the Syracuse University professor, adding that the format of improvisation within strict parameters has the potential to be a "whole new way of telling a story."
Dr. Thompson says this iota of integrity in a format better known for gross-out stunts is no surprise given the producers' pedigrees.
"This is a project we were passionate about," says executive producer Daniel Laikind, cocreator of "Devil's Playground." That film, which garnered three Emmy nominations in 2003, detailed the little-known Amish practice of rumspringa, a time in which Amish youth leave their cloistered lifestyle and explore the world.
One of the more poignant aspects of the documentary is the fact that many of those on rumspringa never get more than a few miles from home, says Mr. Laikind. Most return home, more from lack of options than a genuinely informed choice. This is what attracted fellow producer Jon Kroll, who grew up in northern California, in a community like the Amish without TV, electricity, or telephones.
"I was really fascinated by the idea of rumspringa," says Mr. Kroll. "My feeling was that it would be a very interesting decision to make, even more interesting than it already is, if you were more informed about what sort of alternative there was to the Amish way of life."
Make no mistake, the show has artificial elements, familiar to fans of such shows as MTV's "Real World." The young crew of 11 live together in a modern Hollywood Hills home, decorated with hyped-up Amish lifestyle artifacts - a wall of the broad-rimmed straw hats, a huge photographic mural of an Amish cornfield, and Amish-style quilts in Play-Doh colors for all the beds. Each day, the group starts out on a new expedition, from bumper-car racing and clothes shopping to a day at the beach.
But nobody is voted out and there are no cash prizes. The drama comes from crises of conscience. For example, Amish Mose wanders the house in the middle of the night, and then gets on his knees to read his Bible and pray after a day at the beach nearly ends in disaster. Often, the laughs come from the country mice giving their city cousins a comeuppance. City girl Ariel is a vegan who tells Mose he can't eat eggs, to which he responds, "I bet Abraham Lincoln ate eggs." Ariel says, "I bet he died at like, 35."
Mose answers, "not from eggs, though."
The point of this exercise in the end, say producers, is self-awareness, for both the city and the country mice. "All these people are at a crossroads in their lives," says Kroll, "and it's definitely going to be a decisionmaking point. That is the big difference between this show and other shows that involve a bunch of people living in a house."
Kroll hopes "Amish in the City" will open the door for more meaningful exploration of unscripted television. "Reality shows can be documentary filmmaking for the masses, if they're done properly.
"You're conveying a truth to the masses in a format that will be seen because most documentaries are never seen," he says. "I've done hours of unseen shows, but we think this [network show] is a compelling opportunity."