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ADVENTURES OF AMISH YOUTH AREN'T EXACTLY WILD AND CRAZY

The Amish are coming! The Amish are coming!

But don't be afraid for us -- or for them.

We are reminded of three simple lessons while watching UPN's reality series, "Amish in the City" (8 tonight, WNLO-TV): You can't tell a book by its cover, a person by the clothes he or she wears, or a television series by its premise.

The series was harshly prejudged by many critics and some members of Congress, who expect the worst from television -- and usually with good reason.

But the most shocking thing in the first two hours of this needlessly controversial series is how often the experiences of the five Amish young adults venturing into the real world are moving and even sweet.

That's if you consider the Hollywood Hills the real world. Or anything about this series a real example of rumspringa, the time the Amish are allowed to leave their spiritual homes to experience the ways of the world before deciding whether to commit to the Amish church and the only life they have known. Loosely translated from the Pennsylvania Dutch, rumspringa means "running wild."

Those concerned about the premise apparently feared that rumspringa would turn into the wild Jerry Springer show and embarrass the Amish. That certainly was not the intention of the producers, two of whom were involved in an acclaimed 2002 documentary about Amish teenagers, "Devil's Playground."

The culture clash premise in this 10-hour series is simple. Five Amish young adults are sent off to the Hollywood Hills to live with six young adults from the city who also are at crossroads in their lives. The city roommates are the typical reality show stereotypes -- including a gay guy who causes turmoil, a female space cadet who thinks cows are from outer space and a Boston guy who may make us forgot how annoying Boston Rob was on "Survivor."

The city folk apparently thought they were there to have a MTV-"Real World" experience and aren't thrilled when they discover they will be the guides to the seemingly innocent Amish.

But after some initial shock and prejudgment upon seeing their new housemates at the door dressed in traditional Amish clothes, the two groups develop a mutual respect and even walk in each other's shoes and clothes. Literally.

Of course, there are some typical, contrived reality TV moments. The gay guy becomes as annoying as Richard Hatch, an Amish girl surprisingly reveals she and one of the Amish guys used to be an item and the space cadet tries to turn everyone into a vegan.

But there are also some beautiful moments that allow the audience to enjoy the reactions of the Amish as they experience a six-lane highway, a hot tub, an escalator, sushi and some bigger things they never imagined would be this breathtaking.

Like the beach. The joy of Ruth, a sweet Amish lady who is the oldest of 13 children, when she sees the ocean for the first time becomes the viewer's joy. The fears of Mose, a strong-voiced, scholarly Amish male with visible insecurities, when he has difficulty swimming in the ocean, become our fears.

However, as in all things associated with television, the series gives some false impressions. It distorts the rumspringa experience, heightening into what one critic smartly summarized as a Super rumspringa. After all, most rumspringa experiences are within a few miles of their Amish communities and oceans away from Hollywood.

The Super rumspringa makes for a super show, but it isn't the real thing.

Many viewers also may assume the Amish participants had just left their life and were exploring the world for the first time. In actuality, some of them have been away for at least two or three years. And there is no deadline on when they can go back.

In an interview here, the two most appealing Amish TV personalities, Mose and Ruth, were dressed in modern clothes and cleared up some misconceptions with the help of two city roommates.

Their last names were kept a secret, as was the filming of the series. Ruth told me it was shot from early May to early July and that all the Amish received $10,000 for their participation. She and Mose told critics they never felt exploited.

"I wouldn't have missed it for anything," said Mose.

"I can't even tell you guys how much I've experienced and it's meant a lot to me," added Ruth.

Mose had an extra reason for doing the show besides learning about LalaLand.

"I felt like I could be the person to teach America about how the Amish live," he said.

Kevan, a hunky swimmer who is one of the most likable and normal of the city roommates, felt the Amish had an advantage in the house.

"They all had a connection that we didn't have," said Kevan. "It was kind of cool for them to be able to get together and sing songs at night, or they would have stories they all shared."

"Like a family, we did fight and we love each other at times and hate each other at times," said Kevan. "In the end, we came out of there without too many bruises."

The bruises that UPN received earlier from the controversy are bound to fuel ratings. They won't get a boost from the Amish. The Amish don't watch television and Mose said they don't want anyone sharing their rumspringa experiences. Asked if there was anything that would prevent them from returning to the Amish community, Mose envisioned one scenario.

"If there was ever anything, it would probably be being on television," said Mose. "If they still take us back after we have been on national television, they will take us back whatever we do."

Rating: 3 stars out of 4

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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