Palin, Alaska and Reailty TV

During her fumbling, now classic, Tina Fey-worthy interview with Katie Couric, Sarah Palin was given an opportunity to backpedal on her suggestion that hailing from Alaska was a qualification for the vice presidency. Instead, she doubled down, insisting that Alaska's proximity to Russia has imbued her with foreign-policy savvy. Palin has been pilloried for the argument, and deservedly so. But the real issue with her claim is that she missed an opportunity to make an argument that would resonate with anybody who owns a television. Her Alaska roots are indeed a qualification, not because Alaska is close to Russia, but because Alaska is Alaska. Anyone who can't parse that logic doesn't watch much Discovery Channel.

Alaska is a big hit in American homes, as it's the setting of so many of those "He-Man" television shows—the nonfiction genre that focuses on unpleasant, difficult and dangerous work. Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" documents the fishing crews that brave icy, turbulent waters to bring home Alaska's king-crab bounty. The grizzled grunts plod on boats with names such as North American, Fierce Allegiance—even Maverick. Discovery is also the home of "Toughest Race on Earth: Iditarod," a new show documenting eight teams competing in the quarter-century-old dog-sled competition over nearly 1,200 miles of Alaskan terrain, through gale-force winds and subzero temperatures. Early next year, PBS will broadcast "Games of the North," a documentary series about Inuit athletes who trek through Alaska competing in ancestral games of strength. The History Channel broadcasts "Tougher in Alaska," which portrays life in the 49th state as unyielding toil. The description from the show's Web site says it all: "Everything is harder in Alaska. From the way Alaskans earn a living to how they bury their dead, making a go of it in the far north requires people to adapt to extreme conditions or die trying." Alaska, at least the reality television version, is an intimidating force. It's huge. It's desolate. It's freezing cold. During the summer, there's perpetual daylight—you can't even sleep. Alaska does not forgive. Alaska is not your friend.

And Palin, as well as her husband, Todd, is the embodiment of Alaskan grit. She hunts moose and eats moose stew. She's a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association. Todd, Alaska's "First Dude," owns a fishing company and works for BP as an oilfield production engineer. (Which would make him a perfect candidate for "Black Gold," a He-Man show set on oil rigs, though it takes place in Texas.) He competes in the Iron Dog, a snowmobile race that runs nearly twice the length of the Iditarod. It's no wonder, given the success of He-Man television, that Sarah Palin and her family have instantly become objects of fascination. If she wasn't busy jockeying for the second-highest position in the nation, she could just as easily be starring in a top-rated Discovery Channel show all her own.

He-Man shows have broad appeal because they offer good old-fashioned escapism, perhaps, or a rush of schadenfreude that comes from seeing people with worse jobs than yours. But their audiences tend to skew male—just like Palin's. When she was first named to the McCain ticket, the polls revealed a counterintuitive trend that still holds true: men have a more favorable view of her than women do. Her beauty-queen looks are undoubtedly part of the reason. But given the popularity of He-Man television, there seems to be a more current explanation. Perhaps there's a fear that America is suffering from a mettle deficiency. A fear that, to borrow from H. G. Wells, we've become a nation of Eloi, and that all of our prosperity, technology and comfort have emasculated us. "America's grit has waned with modern technology and how easy things are," says Craig Piligian, a producer of several He-Man shows, including "Dirty Jobs." "Everyone sits home behind a computer, and these shows hark back to an era of Americans getting out there and getting stuff done. It's the blue-collar working guy that made America great. These people are doing things that other people aren't willing to do to keep this country moving." By the way, Piligian's next project is a survival exercise in which participants are dropped into—you guessed it—the Alaskan wilderness. For Palin's sake, let's hope they get home by Election Day.