Four years ago, Bristol Palin was a teenager living in Alaska, a state filled with reindeer and gorgeous-yet-dangerous nature that gets 19 hours of sunlight in midsummer. She slept with a douche bag and got pregnant. Unlike many other pregnant teenage girls, she was immediately thrust onto the national stage to symbolize hot-button political issues. She became an essential supporting character in the 2008 presidential campaign, which ranks alongside the first season of Survivor and the third season of The Real World as one of the great narrative sequences in reality TV history.
Since that campaign ended, she — or her family, or her mother, or whatever shadowy cabal you choose to believe pulls her strings — has made a career for herself by being herself. At this point, her precise job description is fluid: motivational speaker, mommy blogger, alleged role model, autobiography co-author. Palin herself is not very political. Or rather, her political beliefs are vague, based more on gut reactions than logical reasoning — which makes her no different from any other 21-year-old. (She mostly gets upset when people insult her mom.) Which is part of her appeal: You either think she stands for everything you believe in, or you think she’s the demonic representation of everything you are afraid of. She’s one of the most controversial contestants in the history of Dancing With the Stars, which is kind of like being the most politically outspoken student in kindergarten.
She is first and foremost a personality — she would have been called “famous for being famous,” back when that phrase was an insult and not an endorsement. So Life’s a Tripp was always an inevitability. But whatever you were expecting from Bristol Palin’s reality show, I can’t imagine that anyone was expecting Life’s a Tripp to turn into one of the weirdest — and most uncomfortable — reality shows in recent history. Because the show is not a catchy piece of pop propaganda like Sarah Palin’s Alaska. Nor is it a “My Funny Famous Family” riff on The Osbournes. Nor is it a show about the struggles of parenting, like Teen Mom or pre-controversy Jon & Kate Plus Eight. Instead, the season premiere of Life’s a Tripp saw Bristol Palin trying to go full Kardashian, to pitch herself as a character who is simultaneously approachable and decadent. She failed, quite visibly. Besides Mother and Daughter Palin, almost no one seemed to want to be on screen.
The problems began right at the start of the hour, when Bristol announced the concept of her show. “I’m moving to L.A. to work for a charity, and I’m using this opportunity to show Tripp what’s out there,” she said. “I want to get out of my comfort zone, show Tripp another part of the world…and also it’s warm!” Right away, we’re in uncomfortable territory I like to call Realityville, where people who are nominally “normal” suddenly make sweepingly expensive lifestyle choices on a whim. This is The Hills season 5 territory; this is “Let’s send the Jersey Shore cast to Florence!” This is every season of Real Housewives, without the reflective self-awareness.
In the first scene between Bristol and her younger sister Willow, Bristol wanted Willow to come to Los Angeles with her. She attempted to couch the move as something that was important for Willow’s personal growth: “If you don’t get out of Alaska for a few months, you’re gonna be stuck here.” Bristol was saying: “I’m gonna be Lauren Conrad, you’re gonna be Heidi Montag, and we’re gonna do The Hills.” This is the moment when you have to remember that Willow Palin was 12 years old when The Hills debuted on MTV.
From there, the ladies were off to Los Angeles, where they were staying in one of their “parents’ friends’ houses.” The house turned out to be a gigantic mansion. There was a pool in back, and I swear there was something that looked like a Civil War cannon dripping spring water into the pool. Also: “There’s a ton of bidets in this house,” said Bristol, “and I don’t think there’s one single bidet in all of Alaska.” Then they went shopping and marveled at how strange the clothes in Los Angeles were, and Bristol said: “People are a lot more into their image here than they are in Alaska.” She said this, mind you, on a show whose title is her name, a show where every single conversation is about the life and struggles of Bristol Palin.
NEXT PAGE: “Is it because you’re a homosexual?”
I have to pause here and note that I have no idea who the hell this show is aimed at. There may be a lot of people who desperately want to watch a pair of wealthy (and somewhat directionless) young women who never have to get real jobs joke about how funny Los Angeles is. Earlier in the episode, Sarah Palin herself — who we can only assume is the puppetmaster/Kris Jenner of this whole miserable project — name checked The Beverly Hillbillies, the popular fish-out-of-water sitcom about a family of working-class country folk who become rich and move to the wealthiest zip code in America. The simple but effective joke is that the supposedly civilized society of Beverly Hills is weirder — and far more vicious — than the family’s home in the primordial backwoods.
If that’s what Life’s a Tripp is trying to be, there’s a simple problem: Bristol Palin is already more famous than most people in Beverly Hills. And to judge from her reality TV work, she seems considerably less self-aware than the typical Beverly Hills resident. That became clear in the most off-putting portion of the episode — the sequence that was played for political controversy and has already become the subject of a lawsuit. Bristol was in a bar riding a mechanical bull. From off screen, someone yelled a grotesque insult at her: “Did you ride Levi like that? Your mother’s a whore!” Bristol walked over to the bar and talked to the bald guy who yelled at her. The conversation went like this:
Dude: “Your mother’s the devil! If there is a hell, which I don’t believe there is one, she will be there!”
Bristol: “Why do you hate my mom? Is it because you’re a homosexual?”
Dude: “Pretty much!”
Bristol: “That’s why you don’t like my mom!”
Dude: “She instigates anger and hate!”
Bristol: “You haven’t given me one example.”
Dude: “You know what? I met Levi here. He’s so much more of a gentleman than you.”
Bristol: “Yeah, well, he hasn’t seen his child in a year.”
Now, I don’t care where you fall on the political spectrum. (For the record, I voted for Kodos.) We can all agree that there is no part of this argument that is remotely defensible: not for the dude at the bar who used hurtful language and took a bunch of sub-Keith Olbermann cheap shots; not for Bristol, who approached the dude surrounded by her cameras and acted like his sexuality was the topic of the debate; not the Life’s a Tripp producers who edited this argument in such a way that it was impossible to tell how much was chopped out to heighten the drama.
The only part of Life’s a Tripp that didn’t feel stage managed came afterwards, when Bristol walked tall out of the bar and then immediately fled to the shadows to call her sometimes-boyfriend Gino. She said: “I have a ton of cameras on me and a ton of paparazzi. This is not fair. This is not fun.” Again, the blunt lack of self-awareness was shocking. The cameras were filming her reality show. She chose to visit a large bar in paparazzi central. Life is not fair. Nobody ever said show business was fun. The world’s smallest violin will always play for the famous person who complains about being famous.
When the premiere concluded with Bristol alone in her big borrowed mansion, holding her son in her arms, you couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. When most of us were 17, we were just starting to figure out how to be a person. Bristol Palin was only ever allowed to be a personality. Her story could make a great TV show. But Life’s a Tripp is just awful.
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