I’m not sure how I landed a job with a TV production company in New York. During my interview, I accidentally blurted out that I didn’t watch any television. In fact, I didn’t even own a television. Maybe they took my confession as some sort of Australian joke? Somehow, I landed the internship. But the joke was on me: I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
The company specialized in reality television about minority groups after it struck gold a few years earlier with a Big Brother-style show that placed naive Amish adolescents in a house with wild teenagers. The executive producer was a man with a vacuum in place of a soul, who still maintained that this ratings bonanza was his greatest life achievement.
As an intern, I had the task of phoning up Native American communities for the executive producer’s latest concept: a reality TV show about casinos that aimed to capture Native Americans fighting — physically, if possible. Not one Native American community was interested in speaking to me on the phone.
My internship eventually transitioned into a paid production assistant job on a show that, according to contracts, was called, “Untitled Amish Documentary Project.” Producers pitched it to financiers as a nonfiction series that would depict what it was like for a real Amish person living in modern America. I heard this pitch so many times that I could recite it by heart when it became my responsibility to recruit new cast members and explain how we wanted to “correct the negative stereotypes of the Amish in the media.”
We said we were “documenting” — but what we were really doing was facilitating.
“What’s missing from the representation of the Amish,” I said over and over, “is the voice of the Amish themselves.”
Very few Amish were willing to actually appear on TV, and those who did imposed strict stipulations about how much of their faces could be displayed. Producers responded by simply shifting the premise to focus on a band of youths in Missouri who had left the Amish…