For all the silliness that permeated the second season of "Breaking Amish," some stunning, quite possibly genuine moments seeped through: The young cast mates stumbling on to a Martin Luther King Day parade, and admitting to knowing shockingly little about the slain civil rights leader. Abe asking for – and getting – his first hug from his mother, Mary. Abe's sheltered younger sister, Katie Ann, smiling and tottering on high heels following a Cinderella-style makeover.
But the most telling scenes in the second season of the TLC show were a product of the first season. Hopes for a fresh start in Florida were dashed by the reaction of other ex-Amish who shunned the cast for embarrassing their community on TV. The surprise on Rebecca's face when a restaurant wouldn't consider her for a waitressing job because of her “Breaking Amish” exploits said far more than the tiresome bickering that filled much of the airtime. So did wannabe tough guy Jeremiah’s uncontrollable weeping after being lambasted at a party.
The show returns for a new season Sunday with a new group of young Amish, yearning to break free. “It’s really hard to feel like you’re trapped in a box,” says Lizzie, one of the subjects of the new edition, set in Los Angeles. But, based on her predecessors' experiences, being a Reality TV character could prove a different kind of trap.
While more fascinating oddity than pop-cultural phenomenon, “Breaking Amish” echoes “The Real World” and “Jersey Shore” in that the unexpected impact of the initial season drives much of the action in subsequent episodes.
Until its debut on MTV in 1992, viewers had never seen anything like “The Real World,” which took young adults from disparate backgrounds and plopped them in the same house. The show offered compelling television for the first couple of seasons, until it began to feel like newcomers were playing exaggerated version of stock characters based on folks they saw on, well, “The Real World.”
The “Breaking Amish” franchise, strangely enough, hews closer to “Jersey Shore” than “The Real World” in key respects. Like “Jersey Shore,” the Amish programs deal with an insular group of young people. Both shows mine new material out of transporting familiar characters to new settings (even if the programs took jaunts to very different parts of Florida).
“Breaking Amish” and the Discovery Channel’s more gimmicky “Amish Mafia” tap into the collective curiosity about a largely closed community. The Amish portrayed on these shows ultimately display very relatable human aspirations and foibles, even as they struggle at times to navigate life among the so-called “English.”
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.