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TLC has found another subset of America to hover a microscope over, this time acting not only as documentarian but as liberator. Their new series Breaking Amish follows five young adults who find the courage to leave their restrictive communities. The group head to New York City, where the series looks like it may transform into MTV’s The Real World, in which (or so it used to be with that show) somewhat sheltered youths begin experimenting with alcohol, living up the nightlife, and experiencing the drama and heartache of relationships for the first time.
In the pilot episode, however, the focus is mainly on the “breaking” — producers were able to make contact with young adult members of Amish communities through an Amish producer, and give them the opportunity to go to New York for a limited time to find out if they want to leave their former way of life for good. None of this is shown on camera, as any interaction in the small and isolated community arouses immediate suspicion (in one scene, interviewee Jeremiah as well as the crew nearly jump into the bushes when they see the Bishop’s wife spying on them). Most of the families seem genuinely shocked and surprised that their children are suddenly considering leaving town and “living a life of sin,” a decision that will mean the participants will be “shunned” from the community. As 22-year old Abe’s mother says to him calmly, “you understand that you if you leave you may not be able to come back, right?”
It’s not difficult to feel for Jeremiah, a 32-year old who was adopted into an Amish family and has desired to drive a car (not a buggy) his whole life, or Rebecca, 20, who longs to escape the patriarchal setup of Amish life so she can be an independent woman. There’s also Abe, a highly responsible and level-headed lad of 22, just looking to experience a little bit of life before possibly returning to the Amish community, whose polar opposite is Kate, 21, the Bishop’s daughter who is kicked out of the house for participating in the series, and almost immediately arrested for a DUI while visiting friends in Florida. Rounding out the group is Sabrina, 25, who is Mennonite (meaning that electricity and modern conveniences are allowed, but listening to anything other than Christian radio or wearing clothes other than caps and long dresses are not). But there’s something specifically Amish that may be a struggle for the show to potentially overcome, something Abe brings up early in the pilot — as a community, they are not very emotionally demonstrative. It’s the extreme of the Puritan ideal: you don’t see family members hug each other, and photos are considered vain.
The problem this causes for viewers is it makes it hard to bond with the cast, and it also makes for very stilted interactions. When Jeremiah is forced to break up with his girlfriend, who he had planned to marry, in order to get the opportunity to go to New York, it’s difficult to know if the two had first had this conversation off-camera and were dryly replaying it for narrative benefit, or if it was just a sincerely awkward exchange between two young people who are not used to showing any emotion. Though Jeremiah says shortly afterwards, “she doesn’t show it but I know she’s hurting inside,” it’s a world away from the screeching, profanity-laden fights of, say, The Jersey Shore. But it’s also, unfortunately, not as entertaining.
From the previews for the rest of Breaking Amish, screaming fits may become a part of it as the five shed the limitations of their Amish life and begin to experience “Western luxuries.” It’s likely to be a good turn for viewers, but one wonders about the lasting effect of throwing five extremely sheltered people directly into the deep end. One of the most striking scenes from the pilot is of Kate in a Florida court with her Amish clothing on trying to figure out if she needs a public defender or should hire her own lawyer regarding her DUI. It seems an extreme leap for a girl who grew up unable to read fashion magazines or paint her fingernails, who maybe wanted to rebel a little, but got in over her head almost immediately.
The pilot episode acts as a prologue to the rest of the series — in it, most of the cast have not even met yet (they come from various Amish communities), whereas once they move to New York they’ll be with each other every day. It’s hard to judge how the series might play out once the group have each other to bond with and rely on as they face being shunned by their home communities, but watching these young adults begin to open up and experience a life they could only dream of before holds promise. Like many TLC series, a simple fascination with observing a perceived strangeness will pull in most viewers, but the pathos evoked by the struggling five refugees will likely keep people watching. This isn’t a competitive series, but there’s an uneasy feeling of winners and losers in this gamble. One can only hope that for those who experience a less positive outcome, there will be the opportunity for some building back up after the breaking down.
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