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Critic's Notebook

Palin leads her own charge into the reality spotlight

This week Sean Hannity interviewed Sarah Palin on Fox News, and (below) she and daughters Piper and Willow made an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show. This week Sean Hannity interviewed Sarah Palin on Fox News, and (below) she and daughters Piper and Willow made an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show. (Shealah Craighead/Fox News Channel via Associated Press
)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / November 20, 2009

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This week’s Sarah Palin TV tour has been like “Jon & Kate & Sarah & Todd & Bristol & Levi Plus Kids.’’ A 2012 presidential candidacy may not be on Palin’s “radar screen right now,’’ as she told both Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters in separate interviews, but her desire to remain a free-floating reality star on the American stage clearly is. The former governor of Alaska brought us inside her complicated family life with all the carnival spirit of a TLC docu-soap.

Palin wouldn’t do a TV reality series, she told Walters, because “our life has become a kind of reality show.’’ She made the remark with the same disdain for the media that marked her confession to Oprah: “I was naive to think the media would leave my kids alone.’’ But Palin did not hesitate to use that same media’s invasive tendencies to publicize her new book, “Going Rogue: An American Life.’’

This week, Sarah Palin ran for the top spot on bestseller lists, plying the media with dish in exchange for renewed attention. And she won.

In her appearances, spread across the week including tonight on “20/20’’ at 10 p.m. on Channel 5, she spoke at length about her frustrating experiences on the campaign trail, oppressed by the McCain camp and manipulated by the media. Both Winfrey and Walters dutifully and politely asked frank questions about whether she feels responsible for McCain’s defeat (no, she answered, it was the economy), her judgment of President Obama (4 on a scale of 10, she told Walters), and why her interview with Katie Couric was so disastrous.

But Palin was quite willing to go beyond politics to toss out People-magazine style tidbits, and both interviewers were quite willing to ask about them. Palin described the emotional moment when she told her husband, Todd, that their fifth child would be born with Down syndrome, and she talked about how she was “devastated’’ when teen daughter Bristol announced she was pregnant. She introduced her two younger daughters to Walters, who was the embodiment of insipidity when she asked them, “How do you feel when people criticize Mommy?’’

Palin also dropped a few logs on the Levi Johnston fire, when Oprah asked her about the teen father of her grandson. “I don’t think a national television show is the place to discuss some of the things he’s doing and saying,’’ she said. But she proceeded to discuss them in an ironic tone: “I hear that he goes by Ricky Hollywood now,’’ she said, “so if that’s true, we don’t want to mess up that gig.’’

Truly, Palin herself directed the Palin reality show this week, despite her veneer of reticence. Palin didn’t need to say anything at all - about Johnston or about her family. Really. Even to Oprah. The famous people whose private dramas play out in the media generally ask for the attention they get - they hire people to help them win coverage. They release footage of themselves at the gym, they let interviewers talk to their children. They invade their own privacy. Like every celebrity out hawking goods, Palin knows she needs to tease and inflame - while trying not to look like she’s teasing and inflaming.

The week has proved that Palin’s reality celebrity is still alive and well, regardless of the current vagaries of her political life. A year after the election, she’s still got the self-revealing, button-pushing fascination that has helped reality stars such as Jon and Kate Gosselin and Richard Hatch achieve notoriety in the past decade. She has the kind of buzz that led Sean Hannity, while promoting his Wednesday night Fox News interview with Palin, to call her “a rock star.’’

Palin’s interviews with Walters and Winfrey led the infotainment shows such as “Entertainment Tonight’’ this week, focusing on her personal revelations. And Palin got covered in less gentle entertainment corners. On “The Late Show,’’ David Letterman ran a list of “Things More Fun Than Reading the Sarah Palin Memoir,’’ including drinking your own urine. “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon’’ featured a copy of “Going Rogue’’ going rogue, and shooting Rachel Maddow.

There are just certain people like Palin who catch the country’s eye as they polarize public opinion. Those who don’t like them support their fame as much as those who do; our scrutiny is money in their pockets. Whether we’re talking about how great they are, or about how awful they are, or about why we talk about them so much, we’re talking about them. Based on the week’s events, Sarah Palin is putting on a show, and we’re still tuning in.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/ tv/blog.

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