Amish: World's Squarest Teenagers, Channel 4 | TV reviews, news & interviews
Amish: World's Squarest Teenagers, Channel 4
Members of the rural sect are exposed to the joys of South London
Where can or will television’s thirst for tabloid anthropology fetch up? In previous tribal exchanges, wives have been swapped, geeks have gone to babe school, thugs to boot camp, WAGs to townships, Papua New Guineans to the big smoke. Posh girls have lately been parachuted into Peckham. Is there no social grouping so polarised that some bright spark at BBC Three or Channel 4 won’t want to thrust them into an alien environment for our voyeuristic pleasure? Porn stars to hang with the Taliban? It could yet happen. Lib Dems to lie down with Tories? Oh, they already did that.
In the mean time, here come five young people from an Amish community in the Midwest, three slightly dorky boys and two more articulate girls. Where are they heading? In our direction, to sample our non-Amish ways. First stop, sarf London. Of our world they know nothing, although one of them was fairly sure that drugs are legal. They haven’t heard, for example, of JFK, neither man nor airport reachable only by taxi, never having watched television or flown or actually done much at all but till the land and read the bible. Ah, but which bible? One of the boys packed two, plus a longbow and a quiverful of arrows. We never did find out what happened at customs.
By their large barns shall ye know them, plus their discontinuation of class at 14
We can laugh. As subtitles go, World’s Squarest Teenagers is pointing-in-the-playground sneering. Maybe we shouldn’t so much. This may have been billed as a film about a religious sect which chooses to keep all 10 toes in the 18th century. By their long beards and their large barns shall ye know them, plus their plain style of dress and discontinuation of class at 14. They set more store by rules than schools. Occasional quotations from the more wrathful sections of the Old Testament were read to camera, just to remind you of the basic tenets of Amish isolationism.
The barn-raising scene in Witness (1985)
But no, this series is really about us. We can gawp at the Amish all we like, but they’ve got a lot to gawp at too. They arrived in South London – hot on the heels of those posh birds who went to Peckham. Pretty soon they were being inducted by the hosts – a nice bunch of mostly black kids - in the ways of the street: the stabbings, the shootings, the rapes. You don’t need to have disavowed electricity to see such modern conveniences as drug crime and alcoholism as undesirable.
None of the hosts could lay a bat on the ball. The Amish thwacked it clean out the park
Whenever anyone travels to a distant culture, the things they notice are the discrepancies from their own. In this case it was also the moral purview of a previous century taking the measure of the way we live now. Of course our crime figures weren't all that discomfited them. The girls in particular were deeply upset by the sex before marriage, single-parent families and commodification of flesh in sleazy Soho. Also the small houses and the materialism. They were further puzzled by such abominations as nail extensions, robotic group dancing and teenagers sleeping in till the afternoon. "What do you make of that?" they kept on being asked. Creepy was the answer more than once. One of the boys couldn’t get with the whole urban dislocation thing. “They play video games”, he observed slowly, “and I’m out in the barn playin’ with horses.”
The differences in physicality were also telling. They had a getting-to-know-you game of rounders, not often seen as a favourite pastime of South London homeys. Needless to say none of the hosts could lay a bat on the ball. The Amish thwacked it clean out the park. But then the hosts could do back somersaults. The guests struggled with cartwheels. None of these activities is strictly necessary to survival in city or country, but the differences told their own story: one is about teamwork, the other individual display.
For the Amish the real eye-opener was a visit to a mosque, where people as obedient as themselves to holy writ regularly muster. They noticed the absence of women as men prayed, and flinched when the imam told them that Muslims don't believe Jesus died on the cross. But all in all they mucked in, and even made friends. “Love deir singin’,” said one of their teenage hosts. “It did remind me of being in one of dem films.”
Amish satire: 'Weird' Al Jankovic's take on Amish paradise
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
AN Wilson's highly condensed biopic rattles along giddily but brilliantly
Magisterial, richly entertaining study of Scottish identity through its literature
Superficial tribute to one of pop’s great albums
Great television as stammerers make moving journey towards self-expression
Flimsy documentary is one for the feline-minded
Fascinating and original concept only partially ruined by condescending direction
Military intervention might have helped spark some life into this panel chat
Final episode of Hugo Blick's absorbing thriller avoids neat conclusions
Capaldi's eyebrows steal the show as a new era begins
A great compendium of Bush's back catalogue, though the talking heads are hit and miss
Giddy self-regard only lets up briefly in a circus of expensively-tanned backs being slapped
Does James Fox have anything interesting to say? Judging from this series, no