This past week, I happened to catch part of an episode of NatGeo’s new reality series American Colony: Meet the Hutterites. Hutterite authorities are none too pleased, though I haven’t yet seen commentary from the Hutterites who actually participated in making the program. While reading up on the subject, I was intrigued to find that there is a surprisingly savvy Hutterite website, which includes links to Hutterite blogs. (“Hutterite blog”–there’s a term you expect to be an oxymoron.)
Here are some questions that occurred to me as I watched the NatGeo program:
1. How self-consciously is this show intended to counterbalance another NatGeo reality series, Amish: Out of Order? I’ve commented in an earlier post about that series: it follows young Amish who have left their communities and puts the Amish in a quite critical light–closed off, repressive, dogmatic, willing to sever ties with family members rather than compromise on their religious standards. Is American Colony supposed to be a more positive representation of an Anabaptist community?
2. How aggressively do American Colony‘s producers manipulate the reality that the show professes to transparently reflect? I’d wondered that even before reading the Hutterite bishops’ complaints along that line. Dramatic turns pop up suddenly and get resolved in a suspiciously pat way; at times the participants give the impression of reciting lines from memory. When the bishops complain about the show’s “distorted” representation of Hutterite life, to what extent is that because the show depicts actual Hutterite lives that the bishops don’t consider normative–and to what extent is it because the producers are coaching participants to craft storylines that don’t actually reflect their lives but do satisfy a certain politics of representation?
3. How familiar were participants with the reality TV genre and its conventions–like those cutaway interviews where individuals comment to the camera, in the present tense, on what was happening in their heads during the action we’re presently watching on screen? To what extent did producers have to teach participants these conventions vs. their having already seen them in other reality shows they’d watched? Related to this question: Why did the participants agree to participate? What work did they hope the show would accomplish for them–or what pleasure did they hope to derive from it?
4. What is the appeal of this show to viewers (assuming it proves to have one)? Is this intended to be family-friendly reality TV–a version of the genre that can be enjoyed by conservative Christians who would eschew Jersey Shore? In other words, is this show a television equivalent to the Amish romance novels that I see for sale in my local grocery store–another risque genre tamed for conservative Christian consumption?