By Ken Tucker
Updated November 21, 2010 at 12:00 PM EST
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Dancing With the Stars

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Sarah Palin’s Alaska and Dancing with the Stars combine to throw a monkey-wrench into pop and political culture. The second episode of the former governor’s TLC series Sunday night was an irresistible hour of halibut fishing and clay-pigeon shootin’: “Don’t retreat, just reload,” she told daughter Bristol as she racked a rifle. Meanwhile, Bristol will reload once again on Monday to out-last more dainty hoofers on DWTS. What is it about these two that exerts such a pull on viewers?

On Sarah Palin’s Alaska, Bristol bristled at her mother’s constant stream of advice, and snapped at her, “Mom, take your prom-hair home!” Sarah paused, apparently perplexed for a moment: She knew she’d been sassed impudently, but at the same time, she clearly admired her kid’s spunk.

So it is with both Palins on TV. As Bristol thunders across the ABC stage soliciting home-audience votes, the “candid” rehearsal footage shows her reeling off the sort of talking-points her mom trades in, chatter about how ordinary folks like her because she’s “real.” Bristol’s DWTS longevity has given rise to debate about whether or not her continued presence long after superior dancers have hung up their tap-shoes is damaging the “integrity” of the show. Except for the inviolate humor of Tom Bergeron, integrity is so irrelevant to the purposes of DWTS that a Palin — whether it’s one on the dance floor or a Mama Grizzly in the peanut gallery — cannot be blamed for sullying anything.

On Sarah Palin’s Alaska, the titular hero relished telling the camera that she’d had her “first baby shower on this shooting range,” and that “I love to share that story, ’cause it gets the liberals all wee-wee’d up.” Priceless. No humbling vista of nature captured by the show’s cameras is sufficient to stanch the flow of Palin’s grudgery. (Hey, if she can coin words, so can I.) Thus the family outing with Bristol as well as daughters Willow and Piper became, in Sarah’s eyes, a chance to escape the media glare Bristol had endured “bein’ drug through the tabloids … because of someone she had been associated with.” (Somewhere, Levi Johnston was feeling a verbal fish hook suddenly embedding itself in the back of his skull.)

Whenever Palin puts fame and its travails to one side, however, she becomes far more engaging. The scenes of her helping to haul a heavy, thrashing halibut onto a fishing boat and then clubbing it (“Ya need to bop ’em right between the eyes,” says the ship’s captain) to keep the fish from “bruising its own meat”: This was as engrossing as an episode of Deadliest Catch. I thoroughly admired Palin’s roll-up-your-sleeves effort on the “slime line,” pulling ice out of the fish’s innards and proclaiming joyfully, “It smells like work!” Tea Party or Tuna Fish party, you have to give some credit to anyone on television in 2010 extolling the virtues of good, decent manual labor.

The quality of forthright enthusiasm, whether it emanates from Sarah or Bristol Palin, is a large part of what viewers respond to — what’s made them stars. Sometimes it can be a bit much — you feel as though you’re behind hit in the head with a charm onslaught, or what Sarah called “stunnin’ the fish.” And stunning the fish seems to be one Alaskan strategy that these Palin women have adapted for their own purposes, as a canny media tactic, with the public as the fish.

What do you think of the power of the Palins, Sarah and/or Bristol?

Twitter: @kentucker

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Dancing With the Stars

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