I swore that I would not write about reality TV again because, well, let's face it, are there really any more surprises to the genre? (OK, The Surreal Life is still on my must-watch list.) But then I saw The Simple Life, and I can barely contain my contempt. For those fortunate few who might not know, The Simple Life is Fox's attempt at The Real Beverly Hillbillies (my description, not theirs), the reality show that CBS quietly put on the back burner after they received criticism for the show's premise, which is to place a poor family in the middle of Beverly Hills and see what hilarity ensues. (The last I heard, CBS exec Les Moonves said the network intends to proceed with the project. Apparently, TRBH critics are not as daunting as those who persuaded the network to dump The Reagans biopic).
Well, Fox got smart. Instead of putting poor folks in the middle of Beverly Hills, they put two prissy rich girls -- hotel heiress and star of her own sex video Paris Hilton and gal pal Nicole Richie, daughter of Lionel -- in a small Arkansas town among pickups, chickens, grammas, pickled pigs' feet, and roadkill. What ensues is a thigh-slapping half-hour of cultures clashing -- or so we've been promised.
It doesn't really matter if you put working folks among the rich or rich folks among working stiffs: In TV land, the result seems to be the same. The working class, those from rural regions in particular, are set up as the bumpkiniest of all bumpkins. They don't know how to dress; they dress their own food; they wear funny glasses. The working folks, as in the Leding family, with whom Hilton and Richie stay, have a grate-covered well in the middle of the room where the girls stay, apparently not knowing that in the modern world, that's just not done. It seems to me there had to have been some nimble editing to exclude the legitimate explanation for the well and the reason the girls were going to bunk there (a producers' idea for capturing laughs, perhaps?).
Of course, Hilton and Richie are also laughable, but in an entirely different way. Mainly, as the stars of a reality show that could be subtitled "The Hidden Pitfalls of Slumming."
Directly spoken or not, the "good life" is the life of limos and private jets, personal servants, a portable pooch, and outfits that cost more than the small home the girls are staying in. The "simple life" is something to mock because of an inbred cluelessness as to how the good life operates. Beneath the "Oh, that darn rich girl" giggles that come from watching Paris thrust her arm into a cow's end quarters is the recognition of her imperial sneer. The thought bubble above Paris' (or Nicole's) head could read, "I may look like a freak with my arm up this cow's ass, but I don't have to make a living this way -- in fact, I don't have to work at all!"
Maybe The Simple Life will surprise me. Maybe Paris and Nicole will learn something about a slice of America, and in this case, the very real hardships of rural life, a life that is vanishing. A life that used to be valued, even romanticized, and what it means to live a life that has gone from being considered the backbone of American culture to the butt of pop cultural jokes. Maybe I'll decide that in spite of my initial reaction, Paris and Nicole are good, decent, and thoughtful women I would want to know, and who would want to know me.
I'm not holding my breath.
When Hilton was asked in a TV talk show why she decided to do The Simple Life, she said, "Fox has all the good reality shows," adding that the other network's reality shows had all the "D" list people.
I think it's clear where Hilton sees herself on "the list." Being aware of this is the first clue that she has a stake in remaining at the top of the list and, more importantly, determining who will remain at the bottom.
The Simple Life airs Tuesdays, 7:30pm, on Fox.
It's a Wonderful Life (Dec. 13 & 24, 7pm, on NBC): Who names their kid "Zuzu"? Oh hush, it's the holidays.
A Kid Rock Christmas (Dec. 14, 8pm, on VH1): What's Christmas without Kid Rock and Carmen Electra?
Jingle Ball Rock '03 (Dec. 15, check local listings, on Fox): A Christmas rock music special. That, or it's a darn sneaky way to include the words "jingle" and "ball" in the same title.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (Dec. 18, 7pm, on the WB): The best damn rendering of the Dr. Seuss tale, excluding the book, of course.
Chanukah on Planet Matzah Ball (Dec. 16 at 1:30pm, Dec. 19 at 10am, and Dec. 22 at 1:30pm on KLRU): A family from Planet Matzah Ball travels to Cleveland to learn about Chanukah. Why Cleveland? I have no idea, but see if saying "Planet Matzah Ball" doesn't make you smirk just a little.
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