‘Breaking Amish,’ a moving reality series
TLC nine-parter gives insight into the world these young people are escaping
September 7, 2012
The line between a documentary series and a reality show is sometimes hard to locate. On TLC's new series "Breaking Amish" it seems to lie somewhere between the first episode and the second.
The premiere episode, airing this Sunday, Sept. 9, at 10 p.m., shows four young Amish men and women and one Mennonite woman as they prepare to leave behind their traditional lives and their families. As they talk about their decision, we learn about their culture and empathize with their hopes and fears.
The episode ends with a montage of what will happen in the eight future episodes, after they've all moved to New York City. We see them going out at night, trying on flashy clothes and bikinis and having what sound like typical reality-show arguments.
By that point, even inattentive viewers will have figured out that the producers didn't simply find five people from traditional communities who happened to be planning simultaneous moves to the Big Apple but in fact encouraged and subsidized that decision. The only significant difference between this show and UPN's "Real World"-style 2004 show "Amish in the City" is the solemn documentary tone that "Breaking Amish" employs.
That said, the premiere episode is moving and often enlightening, and the participants seem to be looking for more than their nine hours of fame. Since it's the only episode provided for review, we have some reason to hope that the more conventional reality material in the rest of the season will be more than the fighting-fish-out-of-water stuff we can get from any season of "The Real World." The series probably deserves a second look.
Despite the similarities in their background, the participants are surprisingly diverse. Rebecca, 20, who lives in Punxsutawney, Pa., was born out of wedlock and was raised by her grandparents. Jeremiah, 32, who lives in Holmes County, Ohio, was, like four of his six siblings, adopted. "I got kinda thrown into this Amish crap," he tells the camera, "and you know, it's not cool."
Abe, 22, another Punxsutawney resident, introduces us to his family. His mother warns him that he'll be "shunned" if he goes off to New York. Kate, 21, who lives in Lancaster, Pa., wants to be a model. Her father, the local Amish bishop, kicked her out of the house when he learned she was being filmed for the show.
Finally, Sabrina, 25, another adoptee, lives in a Mennonite community in Ohio. Although the Mennonites are less strict about modern conveniences than the Amish, they seem as insular. She has been receiving letters from neighbors warning that if she leaves, she is "in danger of hellfire."
Although many of the relatives refused to be filmed, we get interesting glimpses of the participants' lives. Sex roles are strict. Rebecca's young cousins expect her to cook breakfast for them, and she says that one time when her grandfather had to wash some dishes, he drew the curtains so the neighbors wouldn't see.
Rebecca gives us a tour of her farmhouse. The outhouse, she says, is freezing in winter and smells "beyond horrible" in summer. She also shows us a typical knickknack cabinet in which she says her people store "their hopes and dreams." Then she says, "My dreams would never fit in this."
The emotional reticence of the Amish is stunning. Abe's mother's voice remains calm as she describes the possibility of never speaking with him again. When Jeremiah tells his girlfriend that he's leaving, she quietly gets up and walks away. He tells the camera, "Just because Amish people don't cry doesn’t mean we're not hurt."
In a more comical moment, Jeremiah, who lives next door to his local bishop, hides in the barn with the camera crew when the bishop's wife passes by on her bicycle.
Having been thrown out of her house, Kate tells us that she moved in with friends who live in an Amish community in Florida. She got her driver's license and was arrested for driving drunk. We see her wearing her traditional clothes in the Florida courthouse. These are probably the least interesting parts of the episode.
Unfortunately, the preview at the end of the hour suggests that the rest of the season will be more of the same. Watching the participants question their lifestyle is compelling. Watching them abandon it may not be.
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