Vanilla Ice restored my faith in humanity. Shocking, I know. It happened when, in the new DIY Network series Vanilla Ice Goes Amish, the rap artist also known as Rob Van Winkle donated and raised a horse barn in rural Holmes County, Ohio. Lesson? Kindness and hard work can go a long way toward bridging culture gaps.
The show couldn't have come at a better time. I had a no good, awful, very bad weekend. Disturbed by my fellow humans, I turned to a little television therapy. Reality TV should be avoided at all costs when you hate the world, as the constant bickering and shock-value antics hardly provide balm for a discouraged soul. In this scenario, it's usually best to look for trusty throwbacks like Cheers, the soothing sounds of Austin City Limits, or insightful biographies like the recent American Masters documentary on Jimi Hendrix. (PBS, I love you.)
Something led me to the On Demand channels, though, and I found myself clicking on Vanilla Ice Goes Amish. Like any good child of the 80's and 90's, I know "Ice Ice Baby" by heart. I also have an unhealthy obsession with all things Anabaptist and have been known to pull out diagrams comparing Amish, Mennonite, German Baptist, and Hutterite communities. I live in Ohio. Buggies are still very much in vogue in neighboring towns. I couldn't pass up the chance to see what happened when two of my guilty pleasures collided.
Mr. Van Winkle's home improvement series The Vanilla Ice Project is already a success, but this new spinoff presented a different challenge. Ice has two earrings, tattoos, and an arrest record. He's also displayed a fondness for destroying the sets on his past reality shows. Unleash him on Holmes County? What could possibly go wrong?
It turns out the show is actually a complex cultural study in Extreme Home Makeover-meets-Cribs clothing. In his two months in Ohio's Amish country, Ice befriended construction teams, impressed the locals with his design skills, birthed a calf, learned to fish for bass, played a little ping pong with a church elder, and, most notably, donated materials and the helping hands of his Florida crew when an Amish family couldn't afford a new barn to properly house the horses vital to their way of life.
Reality TV isn't so horrible when it skips the contrived he-said, she-said drama and instead focuses on practical tips, introduces us to new cultures, or offers positive moral lessons. Vanilla Ice Goes Amish manages to hit the trifecta, teaching us how to renovate our kitchens, speak a little Pennsylvania Dutch, and show kindness toward our neighbors.
Each episode only runs 20 minutes, so delving into the more complicated aspects of Amish religion and social norms wasn't a priority. Likewise, we don't know what the Amish elders thought about Ice's sex, drugs, and hip hop history. No matter. Leave that for The History Channel. What's there is good enough.
The Amish are notorious for avoiding being filmed. How did the producers get elders like John Schlabach to participate?
"We assured them that we weren't there to tarnish their name, or make this into the next 'Amish Mafia.'" Van Winkle told Huffington Post Canada. "We want to shine a light on who are you are as an individual group, what your passions are, what you do for fun, and how you live."
Furthering the comparison between those programs which arguably exploit the Anabaptist communities, Ice added: "It's become a fad to have these shows with 'Amish' in the name. I want to turn that on its head, and show a real Amish community. It's the real deal; it's not a reality show. It's not staged or scripted."
Four episodes later, it seems he accomplished that goal. The show proves that at least in this particular Amish community and with this particular rapper, getting along isn't dependent on what you wear, how you speak, or whether you can survive without an iPhone for two months. Vanilla Ice discovered a strong work ethic opens doors, rap isn't so different from auctioneering, and laughter is a universal language.
His summary of the experience? "It was an honor for me to go out there and have them accept me."
Verdict: Vanilla Ice Goes Amish is more than a home improvement series; it will make you a better neighbor.