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Scott D. Pierce: Amish join Muslims, polygamists on TLC

Published September 10, 2012 12:34 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

TLC has given us shows about Utah polygamists and Michigan Muslims. So maybe a show about Ohio and Pennsylvania Amish and Mennonites makes some sort of sense.

It's part of the channel's "commitment to explore cultures beyond our own personal reality," according to TLC general manager Amy Winter. And she said that with a straight face.

Let's be clear: TLC is exploiting these people (and all the others on its multitude of "reality" shows) for ratings and profits. The people in the series are willing participants, but that doesn't mean they're not being used.

And they're using TLC as well. Kody Brown and his "Sister Wives" made it clear they were hoping the series would allow them "to be seen and understood without prejudice."

Suehaila Amen, who participated in the short-lived "All-American Muslim," expressed a similar sentiment. "This is our opportunity to show the world that we're just [like] any other American family."

But there's something vaguely uncomfortable about watching the five young people in TLC's new series "Breaking Amish" (Sunday, 11 p.m., TLC). They know little about the "English" world — the world most of us inhabit — so making the decision to allow their lives to be filmed seems more exploitative than most.

The premise is that the three young women (ages 20, 22 and 25) and two young men (ages 22 and 32) leave their farms and sheltered lives and head to New York City. It's not like leaving home to go to college or for jobs. These people are running the risk of being shunned by their families and friends and being cut off from their lives to this point.

"I don't think there was anything wrong with wanting to go out and explore the world and see if that's really what you want," said Sabrina, 25, the only Mennonite on the show. (The other four are Amish, an even more restrictive culture that shuns electricity and all modern conveniences.) "You've got to make a decision in the end, but there's so much at stake."

Like other so-called "reality" series, the nine-part "Breaking Amish" isn't altogether real. Executive producer Eric Evangelista insisted the show is "authentic," but they aren't simply documenting lives, they're directly influencing them.

The five participants "were going to leave and they didn't know how to make that happen," he said. "We provided them with a much safer way to do that."

In other words, this is sort of "The Real World: Amish."

And there's something a little heartbreaking about watching these young adults struggling with the "guilt of leaving home," as Kate, 21, put it.

"They tell you you're going to go to hell," Sabrina said. "And nobody wants to go to hell. Like, it's really intimidating."

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.