Viewers Witness Culture Clash, Bonding

Published: Jul 27, 2004

LOS ANGELES - If your opinions of the Amish come from movies such as the thriller ``Witness'' or the comedy ``Kingpin,'' then you have a lot to learn.
``Amish in the City'' may not qualify as educational programming, but it's an eye- opening experience in many ways.

The five young, clean-cut, hardworking Amish men and women who have led sheltered lives have much to teach us and their clueless Southern California roommates.

It's like ``Real World Meets Rumspringa'' at 8 p.m. Wednesday on UPN.

Rumspringa is Pennsylvania Dutch for ``running wild,'' the term used to describe a period of time when Amish teens and young adults leave their sects to test their faith and values against the sinful outside world.

Most come back. But then rarely does the test involve sharing a posh Los Angeles pad with six handsome and hedonistic young folk.

Touching, funny and at times disturbing, ``Amish in the City'' is a new 10-part reality series that arrives surrounded in controversy.

Although Amish communities aren't likely to see it because they don't have electricity and television is considered evil, others with connections to the religious sect have objected.

There has been a public outcry from states with large Amish communities. More than 50 lawmakers and politicians in those states have petitioned UPN not to show the series.

Others such as Joseph Yoder, who runs an Amish cultural center in Indiana, have protested, saying it exploits the Amish.

Yoder has been quoted in the media as saying that it amounts to an invasion of privacy because the Amish reject the modern world, including television.

`Chance Of A Lifetime'

But the five young Amish adults on the series come off as sympathetic heroes. And there are great moments of discovery, such as when they shed simple bonnets and overalls for T-shirts and jeans or when they sample sushi for the first time.

There is awe and wonder over seeing a parking meter, a work of art or the Pacific Ocean for the first time.

In the two-hour opening program, the non-Amish come off as insensitive boobs. However, as the series unfolds, these two groups find that there are universal things that bond all of us.

``It was the chance of a lifetime, and I would do it all over again,'' says Mose, a 24-year- old Amish teacher from Wisconsin who has been ``on a journey of self-discovery'' for two years.

In an interview with TV critics in Los Angeles last week, Mose said one of the main reasons he participated in the series was to clear up misconceptions outsiders have about the Amish.

In addition to Mose, the Amish participants (identified by first names only) are Jonas of Iowa, Ruth and Miriam of Ohio and Randy of Indiana.

The non-Amish are Ariel, a Los Angeles waitress and vegan who believes cows came from outer space; Reese, an openly gay and self-centered club promoter; Kevan, a hunky jock and swim instructor; Whitney, an inner-city student; Nick, a loutish party animal; and Meagan, a sexy free spirit and fashion stylist.

Ariel says she expects to be ``embarrassed by how judgmental I was'' when she sees the series. She adds that she has come to respect her Amish roommates.

The two cultures clash and mesh as those who practice faith, modesty and unadorned lifestyles are introduced to the good, the bad and the ugly of the modern world.

There are also heartwarming moments. Ruth sobs when she sees the ocean for the first time.

The oldest of 11 children, she has spent most of her life cleaning and cooking for her family. She is overcome with joy when she steps on the beach.

``I can't tell you how much I've experienced - it meant so much to me,'' Ruth, 20, told TV critics attending a UPN news conference here last week.

Two producers of this reality series also worked on ``Devil's Playground,'' a more serious, darker and straightforward documentary about rumspringa that aired on Cinemax last year. The cable network Trio will run ``Devil's Playground'' at 9 tonight. It shows that many Amish youth who leave on these journeys are fearful of the outside world. They seldom travel far from home.

``They will date, get drunk and party with each other in trailer parks not more than 10 miles from their Amish communities,'' said producer Daniel Laikind. ``We wanted to see what would happen if they had a bigger exposure to the outside world, so they could make a more informed decision.''

A Near Drowning

Most disturbing in the opening episode of ``Amish in the City'' are scenes of Mose nearly drowning in his first foray into the Pacific Ocean.

Cameras recorded him struggling as Ariel comes to his rescue. Executive producer Jon Kroll said a lifeguard also was nearby, so the camera operator did not have to drop his equipment and come to Mose's aid.

We see Mose's anguish after he is teased by some of the non-Amish youth. He said he was taught that if he died while on rumspringa, he would go to hell.

Laikind said the people on this show are dealing with the question of how to spend the rest of their lives. If they decide to leave their Amish communities behind, they risk losing contact with their families.

``If they still take us back after being on television, they'll take us back no matter what we do,'' Mose said.