Sarah Palin may be able to see Russia from her house. Come Sunday, you'll be able to get an extended look at her from your living room.
With the state's stunning scenery as a backdrop, TLC's Sarah Palin's Alaska (9 p.m. ET/PT) offers the most telling look yet at the private life of 2012's highest-profile potential contender for president, mostly through a politics-free lens.
A hybrid of adventure travel, documentary — and, despite Palin's protests, reality TV — the eight-episode series follows Mama Grizzly encountering brown bears, Sarah Barracuda hauling in freshly caught halibut, and Caribou Barbie mingling with moose, bison and, yes, caribou.
"This is not Housewives of Alaska," Palin said in a rare interview at home on the shores of postcard-worthy Lake Lucille. "This is about the uniqueness of Alaska, the special place it is, and showing the rest of America why we are here and what we have to offer."
Launching at a time when Palin has helped energize the grass-roots Tea Party movement and backed dozens of Republicans with mixed success in statewide, Senate and House races during the midterm elections, Alaska and its family-friendly tone could be an image-shaping public-relations bonanza.
For Palin, 46, the show represents a chance to begin redefining a shoot-from-the-hip reputation shaped by sharp anti-Washington rhetoric that has won her support among conservatives nationwide but raised questions about her qualifications and motives — and inspired parodies by Tina Fey on NBC's Saturday Night Live.
It's unclear whether Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008, will make a run at the White House in 2012. But if that's her plan, is an entertainment-oriented cable TV show an appropriate platform for a presidential contender? Skeptics, notably prominent Republicans such as strategist Karl Rove, have said Palin's TV foray is decidedly unpresidential.
"For many Americans, it's hard to take her seriously, politically," says Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of the rothenbergpoliticalreport.com. "She doesn't do many things to demonstrate depth, seriousness and substance. She's not going that route with this TV show."
Even so, Rothenberg says, Alaska could help soften Palin's nails-tough, polarizing reputation and broaden her appeal beyond core conservatives. "She's a celebrity, a brand and a phenomenon — much bigger than she was as a vice presidential candidate," he says. "But this isn't really about politics. It's about pop culture. And this could show a dimension that could make her appealing to people who think she's just snarky and opinionated."
Joining TLC's slate of featherweight reality, lifestyle and cooking shows such as Kate Plus Eight , What Not to Wear and Cake Boss doesn't seem politically risky to Palin, a multitasking mother of five. After Rove's criticism last month, Palin noted on a Fox News show that former president Ronald Reagan — whose portrait hangs above the fireplace in the great room that doubles as Palin's pulpit for remote Fox satellite feeds — was a film and TV actor.
Palin spurned offers for TV gigs outside her role as a Fox News pundit until Mark Burnett, producer of Survivor and Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?, sold Palin and her husband, Todd, on an adventure-centric family exploration of Alaska's pristine outback and diverse cultures.
"Basically, the other shows were all about following a day in the life of Sarah Palin, only it would be extended for days on end," she says. "How boring."
Alaska "is a way to undo a lot of the untruths, inaccuracies and lies about our family," she says. "This is a way to show — as we're showcasing Alaska — what our family is all about."
'We've been burned so many times'
Lambasted by mainstream news media for lacking gravitas and for stepping down as governor after just two years as she parlayed political notoriety into celebritydom and wealth (Forbes recently pegged her net worth at $10 million), Palin's distrust of most news media — which she has called "limp, gutless and impotent" and "corrupt bastards" — runs deep.
The University of Idaho journalism graduate says she's shocked at how she and her family have been portrayed. "We've been burned so many times. How else can they kick us? Can they keep saying Trig (her 2½-year-old son) is not really my child? That Track (her eldest son, 21 ) had to join the Army to avoid jail? That Todd and I are in the middle of a $20 million divorce?"
Alaska may provide National Geographic-style moments of Palin and her family fishing, camping, panning for gold and watching critters, but it's also a Family Circle-type platform to showcase Palin on her terms, warts and all. "This allows us to get the truth out there," says Palin, who prefers sending her message to the masses via social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
On Sunday's Alaska premiere, Palin gets to express some barely hidden contempt for author Joe McGinniss, whose pixilated image is seen from the home he rented next door while researching a Palin book due in 2011. "It's none of his flippin' business. ... It's an intrusion and an invasion of our privacy," Palin tells viewers. "If some dude you knew was out to get you, 15 feet away from your kids, how would you feel?"
(McGinniss asked TLC to remove his likeness from the show.)
In her living room earlier in the episode, a tongue-in-cheek Palin makes sure that teen interloper "Andy" knows a safety gate blocking a staircase isn't just meant for Trig's protection but to block Andy's private time with Palin's 16-year-old daughter, Willow. "No boys upstairs. She'll be downstairs in a minute. You can text her," Palin tells the kid. He sneaks upstairs anyway.
Other touches of family life are sprinkled through the series. Daughter Piper, 9, relishes a fishing trip to Big River Lake, as much for the adventure as the remote locale that could disconnect Mom from her ever-present BlackBerry. And on an excursion near Denali National Park, the steely Palin's vulnerability is exposed as the young grandmother nervously crosses crevassed ice fields and fights fatigue and frustration scaling a mountainside.
Future episodes feature poignant moments with Palin ruminating about Trig's future after seeing an older child who, like Trig, has Down syndrome.
TLC chief Eileen O'Neill says plotting out the series was a collaborative effort with the Palins.
"There was no list of anything off-limits. Knowing she is certainly controversial, we weren't going to produce a controversial show," O'Neill says. "I think this will be really good television and storytelling about an amazing state and a charming family."
Burnett, who has dealt with outsized egos of celebrities such as The Apprentice's Donald Trump, says he was surprised by the Palins' casual nature.
"If you knew nothing about the political world, they're like any other relatable family," Burnett says. "They're genuine, fun and, if there's one thing people can take from the show, normal. They didn't take themselves too seriously, which is a nice quality and makes for an authentic show."
Palin says she's pleased with the series.
"Critics are going to say what they're going to say," she says. "I think the show is amazing and the scenery spectacular. It shows a real family with the same challenges and joys as any other. There's no made-up drama. What I didn't want to do is sit around talking about feelings and that kind of stuff. That's not our real life."
'Who knows what she'll do?'
Palin's campaign efforts on behalf of Fairbanks lawyer Joe Miller may not have panned out in Alaska's U.S. Senate race, but her backing of scores of Tea Party candidates helped them win five Senate, 15 House and six gubernatorial races, Politico says.
"Lots of candidates (who) pundits said had no chance of winning — all the more reason for their messages to be heard," Palin says.
Potentially headed for political obscurity after the 2008 election and her abrupt resignation as Alaska governor in July 2009, Palin has become a force within the Republican Party.
A pre-election cover story in New York magazine suggested Palin could win the 2012 presidential race as a third-party candidate. The Daily Beast, a left-leaning website, weighed in with an opinion piece headlined "How to Derail Palin." Politico reports that mainstream Republicans are mounting a "Stop Sarah" campaign, fearful that her appeal, while strong among the party's most conservative members, isn't broad enough to win nationwide.
Palin's parents, Chuck and Sally Heath, would prefer Palin to remain a private citizen. "I don't see why she needs to do this," says Chuck, 72, a retired Wasilla schoolteacher.
"She has so much to offer," Sally says. "But I say don't do it. It's too painful."
"Who knows what she'll do?" says Todd, a soft-spoken snow machine racer, commercial fisherman and outdoorsman who was sought for ABC's Dancing With the Stars show before daughter Bristol agreed to sign up for this season. "He's my Captain America," Sarah says.
Palin, who says she'll run if "there's nobody else to do it," remains coy about 2012 and beyond while promoting Alaska through a few media outlets — including People magazine and Entertainment Tonight, whose fawning co-host, Mary Hart, presents an eye-rolling Palin with a "Palin for President 2012" T-shirt at the end of a lengthy autumn afternoon schmooze.
"If it came down to raising money and fighting the political machine, it sure won't be me," Palin says of seeking the GOP nomination.
What about running as a third-party candidate?
Palin pauses. "If people are tired of what they get out of big money and big machines running campaigns and candidates who have to compromise, then the American electorate would look to someone like me."
Running for office, however, would mean leaving money on the table.
Palin pulled in about $5 million from her 2009 best seller, Going Rogue: An American Life. She could make as much or more from the release Nov. 23 of America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag. The new book, parts of which she says were composed in the family RV and on her back patio, is "a compilation on historic and present-day writings and some pop culture, things that have influenced me to be an American," she says.
Palin also is in demand on the lecture circuit, where she draws up to $100,000 an appearance. She's also being paid for Alaska but says it's nothing close to the widely reported $2 million. "As it pencils out, it's not even half of that," she says.
"All these things are lucrative, but for Todd and me, money is the last thing that drives us," Palin says. "Being raised by a schoolteacher in a big household, we had to work hard for everything we had. Todd's never stopped working. We were fulfilled when we were living paycheck to paycheck."
Palin says she will continue to speak her mind, "callin' it like I see it — and bringing to life issues that should be part of the national debate." This week she blasted Ben Bernanke, urging the Federal Reserve chairman to "cease and desist" a $600 billion economic stimulus plan.
"I haven't played it safe," Palin says before a short SUV hop to Finger Lake Elementary School, where she catches Piper's basketball game before retrieving Trig from a dental procedure. "I don't play that game. I'm not wired that way."