Two of the producers of Amish in the City – a reality-genre entry simultaneously fascinating, tedious, and infuriating – assembled the revelatory 2002 documentary ”Devil’s Playground,” about the period in an adolescent Amish person’s life called rumspringa (a Pennsylvania Dutch word loosely translated as ”running wild”). It’s a kind of sanctioned, telescoped time of exploration, an opportunity to rebel against the strictures of assiduously unworldly Amish life. What the producers of ”Amish in the City” have done is cheapen and coarsen that experience, mixing five Amish kids with six fairly standard ”Real World” types. These include a couple of muscle-heads, a sketchily portrayed young black woman, a vapid vegan so loopily vehement she calls eggs ”chicken abortions,” and a gay fellow interested in making over the dowdily attired Amish.
The city is Los Angeles, mecca for decadent materialism (can we coin the phrase decca-mecca?). The house is decorated like the set of a porn film – flimsy plastic furniture, beds pushed together, shower stalls with only partially frosted glass proffering the promise that private parts will be bared on UPN (this is, after all, the network of ”America’s Next Top Model”). The Amish folk are portrayed as mostly earnest hicks; we’re supposed to find it sweet that one of them marvels at the sight of her first parking meter, and another tears up at her first sighting of sand and surf.
But ”Amish” turns everything that made ”Devil’s Playground” sociologically revealing into condescension: Oh, isn’t it sweet that Mose, the bespectacled one who looks like a Weeble in a straw hat, makes wooden toys? By contrast, the city kids are titanically arrogant, ignorant, and moronic. The repulsive ”fashion stylist” Meagan, who calls herself the ”ultimate party girl,” has a sneery smile that says everything about her reflexive indifference to learning anything about the new arrivals. Indeed, the filmmakers position the non-Amish as the realists – they are the ones who need to teach their sheltered-from-the-media roomies how to dress and have fun, which in this atmosphere means getting raunchy and ”hooking up.”
”Amish”’s debut pulled in big ratings for UPN, but the series became repetitive in its second hour – not a good sign for its future. By the premiere’s conclusion, some of the Amish had boogied in Diesel jeans and smoked ciggies, but Mose was reading his German Bible, praying for guidance and wisdom for beyond what his urban counterparts could conceive. If only the influence were working in the other direction, the series might be something to look forward to.