Debuting last night, “Breaking Amish” is TLC's overdramatic look at the secretive Amish and Mennonite communities that dot Central Pennsylvania and Ohio. It follows five young 20-something characters—Kate, Jeremiah, Sabrina, Abe and Rebecca—who make a fateful decision to uproot themselves from their strict religious families by moving to New York City. Unlike the critically acclaimed 2002 documentary “Devil's Playground,” the cast members are not following the traditional rite of Rumspringa, but more throwing in the towel of their Amish and Mennonite identity. For more or less, they're done. They'll spend seven weeks working in Midtown Manhattan, living together and soaking up a way of life dramatically different from their upbringing. In other words, it's like a lovechild between “The Jersey Shore” and “Midnight Cowboy,” except with bonnets and horse-and-buggies.
One episode into the show, the plot arcs for the rest of the season are already beginning to unfold: Kate, 21, from Punxsutawney, Pa., is a bishop's daughter who contemplates a career in modeling. Just a few weeks after she was kicked out of her parents house, Kate ends up with a DUI in Florida. Jeremiah, 32, is shunned from his family in Ohio after the bishops' nosey wife catches him with a camera crew. Abe, 22, also from Punxsutawney, wants to go date pretty women and drive cars in the city. Rebecca, 20, from Lancaster, PA, is sick and tired of being sheltered from the outside world and not knowing what other ways of life are out there. And Sabrina, 25, the show’s only Mennonite in the predominately Amish-populated show, has a group of friends who constantly tell her she's destined for hellfire by embarking on life in the big city.
The recipe for this compelling reality show concoction that couldn't be juicier: There will be boozing. There will be temptations. There will be fights. There will be lots of painful “Oh shucks” revelations. There will be painful moral quandaries that come from the emotional baggage of turning one's back on a family. There will still be family drama, even with families that now want absolutely nothing to do with them. Feelings will be hurt. And, of course, there will be hook-ups. Lots of hook-ups. Like, freshman year hook ups. It's a television casting dynamic oddly familiar with “Jersey Shore, Season 1, Episode 1″ before the show rocketed in ratings and its storylines became a bunch of obnoxious regurgitated diarrhea about each cast member's quest for fame.
There is an important distinction between the shows, however, making this new program a much more culturally insightful than Snooki and The Situation's shallow contriteness. When “Jersey Shore” fist-pounded itself onto the pop culture map in late 2009, we knew exactly what they were getting into. MTV had conditioned us with enough seasons of “The Real World” to know that shameless hook-ups and the occasional violent housemate brawl were coming. Enough people on the Eastern Seaboard had also made the trip to Seaside Heights to realize the Guido charm of the cast. As an audience at large, we bought into the housemates hook, line, and sinker. We bought “GTL” tank tops.
Those audience expectations aren't as clear with “Breaking Amish.” Instead, we're watching five people's innocence being chiseled—if not sledgehammered—right before our eyes. We're watching Plain people shed their Plain people clothes and, more clearly, their Plain people values, for our Sunday night entertainment. Even if it's campy and contrived as hell, as far as cultural milestones go, that's equally amusing and horrifying. Because of that unusual energy, “Breaking Amish” tastes like the same sauce that launched a cultural craze back in 2009.
Barely guised as educational programming, TLC has perfected the formula for train-wreck broadcasting. It started with “Jon & Kate” and reached for a progressively lower bar with “My Strange Addiction” and the new “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” “Breaking Amish” is the latest to fit into the mold. Will we watch? Probably. It has all the DNA of water-cooler talk television. But remember, three episodes from now, no one care simply because they're “fascinated by the Amish way of life” because they had a slice of shoefly pie on a field trip to Lancaster County. Rather, it's because tempers are flaring and lips are being locked. Sex sells, especially when it's from a religious community that's shrouded in secrecy. And that makes for damn good TV.