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.
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