Breaking Amish

Breaking Amish debuts tonight on TLC at 10 p.m. Eastern.

“Being Amish, you can’t do nothing,” says Jeremiah, one of five Amish or Mennonite men and women thrust into New York City in Breaking Amish, a surprisingly complex look at what it’s like to leave everything behind in a search for self.

Before I continue, it’s important to note that I’ve only seen one episode and that takes place entirely in the Amish or Mennonite communities where the cast is from, places like Lancaster and Punxsutawney in Pennsylvania or Holmes County in Ohio. No one gets to New York before the end of the episode, so it’s hard to fully judge Breaking Amish when its central MacGuffin hasn’t happened yet. Previews for future episodes seem to ratchet up the drama, full of boozy tears, ill-advised tattoos, and bickering that would make the Manzo family invite these kids down to Jersey if the whole New York thing doesn’t work out.

We first meet Rebecca as she is doing laundry at 5:30 in the morning, dreaming of a man who would deign to do the dishes for her. Abe is introduced jumping on a trampoline. This is what they do for fun, if there’s time, he says with audible contempt. Kate looks like an Amish Peggy Olsen, all doe-eyes and downturned mouth, with a similar wild streaking hiding underneath her bonnet. Jeremiah and Sabrina (the lone Mennonite of the group) both chafe at surroundings that they feel were thrust upon them. Throughout the episode, we watch as they mentally prepare themselves to leave everything, knowing full well they may not be allowed back.

The first episode doesn’t shy away from subtlety, unlike most TLC reality offerings that are fueled by spectacle, whether it’s a redneck beauty princess or an overtaxed couple with a large family. Each member of the cast is like any selfish kid in his or her early 20s (Jeremiah is the oldest at 32, Rebecca is the youngest at 20), but their declarations of independence mask larger issues. Kate talks about how she wants to be a model to wear makeup and pretty clothes, but she also has no baby pictures of herself, because photographs are considered a sign of vanity. Jeremiah obsesses over driving a car, but what he really want is to not be under the watchful eye of the bishop next door. It’s a car he idolizes, but it’s a desire for privacy that’s driving him to leave.

Breaking Amish takes the time to actually develop characters, rather than forcing narrative from the get-go, unlike, for example, TLC’s recent Abby & Brittany, which lost its momentum as soon as it decided it needed a plot rather than giving time to focus on its extraordinary subjects. Each member of the cast has a cross to bear, and the show slowly doles out back-story, rather than providing the traditional onslaught of info and introductions. Sabrina and Jeremiah were adopted from outside of the community, left only to wonder what it would be like if they had been adopted by an “English,” or non-Amish, family. Rebecca’s mom wasn’t married when she became pregnant by a non-Amish man. Kate is the bishop’s daughter. Abe craves fun, but laments his lack of education.

Breaking Amish falters when it loses that subtlety, adhering too strictly to the standards of current reality TV. Staged situations are duplicated, breaking the facade that we’re watching something that feels less meddled with than an episode of The Hills. Each person is tasked with talking to a family member or a friend about their decision before they leave, as if it’s not already a foregone conclusion. Shacking up in producer-paid pad in New York City will most likely not help in this department.

While the first episode was worth watching, it’s truly the best example of what the show will be. What will make Breaking Amish work from here on out is how people act when they haven't been inundated with the iconic image of the off-the-rocker reality star. Will they play to the cameras less because they don’t know how the game works? Will they keep in mind that future profits (not to mention spin-offs) can be made for the impression they make? Still, the critical fate of Breaking Amish largely depends on which mode the show continues in: carefully presenting real people who live unique lives at critical junctures or Amish Gone Wild!

Stray Observations:

  • Quick explainer: The cast of Breaking Amish aren’t on rumspringa, the rite of passage each 16-year-old goes on in the Amish community to decide whether they want to continue being Amish in their adult lives. In that case, Amish teens still live with their parents, and it is sanctioned by their communities. This is a separate seven weeks, and 10 episodes, living in New York City against the wishes of family and friends. For more on rumspringa, check out Lucy Walker’s Devil’s Playground.
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