BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — It's easy to make fun of the Palins' penchant for playing themselves on television — I've done it often enough myself.
But while it was a little odd to have a former vice presidential candidate at a poolside party at the Beverly Hilton last week to promote her husband's appearance on an upcoming NBC "reality" competition, "Stars Earn Stripes," and only a few days later, at the same hotel, have ABC introduce her oldest daughter to the Television Critics Association as one of the returning "all-star" competitors on "Dancing With the Stars," we're in an odd time, and in an odd place.
And that pool area where Sarah Palin was chatting with reporters last week? It's not very far from the men's room where another former vice presidential candidate, John Edwards, tried to hide from National Enquirer reporters four years ago this summer.
Edwards at this point probably wishes that the worst anyone could say about him is that he's gone Hollywood.
Still, while "Dancing" host Tom Bergeron insisted last week that Bristol Palin hasn't yet "really gone full Kardashian," the specter of that family of E! Entertainment-made celebrities can't help but hover over her family's growing number of projects.
For those keeping count at home, we've had TLC's "Sarah Palin's Alaska," which featured the entire Palin family against one of the most beautiful backdrops in television; Bristol's first stint on "Dancing With the Stars," followed by a never-aired Bio channel "reality" show featuring Bristol, her son Tripp and her fellow "Dancing" alum Kyle Massey that was apparently repurposed — without Massey — to become her current Lifetime show, "Bristol Palin: Life's a Tripp," which has also featured the rest of her family, including her sister Willow; and now "Stars Earn Stripes," in which Alaska's former First Dude will compete with the likes of Laila Ali and Nick Lachey to raise money for military and first-responder charities by participating in challenges based on military exercises.
But while they may be just about keeping up with the Kardashians, who've had four E! shows that are arguably all pretty similar and three rounds on "Dancing With the Stars" — one for Kim, one for Rob and one for stepfather Bruce Jenner — the Palins, I'm beginning to realize, can't be so easily dismissed.
For one thing, they're diversifying, having worked on multiple networks on projects that don't all look alike.
More important, though, perhaps, is the story they tell about their presence in our living rooms.
Because just as they seem to have for most of Sarah Palin's political career, the family's constructed a narrative in which being on TV isn't cashing in or overstaying their 15 minutes of fame: It's part of their decision to live their lives "vibrantly," advice Sarah Palin told me comes from her husband, Todd, and from their oldest daughter.
"We took a good lesson from our daughter Bristol, who, when she was asked to be on ‘Dancing With the Stars' — and you know I warned her that the critics were going to be harsh — and she said, ‘Mom, the critics are going to criticize and the haters are going to hate, anyway — you might as well dance.'"
Now, she said, "Part of our life's mantra is, ‘Might as well dance.' We will seize opportunity."
Nevertheless, the older Palins do seem to draw a distinction between their daughter's shows and their own.
"Our girls are independent, and as far as, you know, when they're 20 years old, you know, they're on their own. And so when she's doing a show, we're not going to be hovering over her 24/7 and she's going to learn on her own. Any situation's going to be a life lesson, positive or negative," Todd Palin said when asked about a recent incident in which Bristol's toddler son was caught on tape using a not very nice word.
Coming as they do from a state whose TV reputation is somewhat classier than, say, New Jersey's, the Palins aren't just "reality" TV stars, but fans.
"There's a ton of Alaska shows, and I enjoy watching all of them," said Todd Palin. "Most of these Alaska shows, they're out in the elements, whether gold-mining, or Bering Sea or ‘Deadliest Catch.'"
As for whether any of this might hurt any political aspirations his wife might still have, "We take life one step at a time," he said. "No. 1 is the health of our family. And as opportunities come, we'll decide. But we never think, ‘Oh, can't step this way, because, you know, it'll cut your opportunity down over here.'"