Last night, at the end of Fox’s new reality show, The Simple Life, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. At last, trashy heiress Paris Hilton had made her television debut. Now we can finally put an end to the mandatory anticipation fueled by her sex-tape scandal and move on to the consumption of the product itself, which, succeed or fail, at least brings Hilton that much closer to her inevitable resting place in the celebrity graveyard, where some day we will all bow our heads and mourn the passing of her fame. Not that I wish Hilton or her co-star Nicole Richie any ill will, nor do I begrudge them their time in the spotlight. But when you start haunting me in my spam, you’ll have to forgive me for wanting you to pick up the pace.
Now there is an actual show to watch, and unfortunately it’s neither as good-good nor as bad-good as you’d like it to be. The premise of The Simple Life is for spoiled brats Paris and Nicole to receive a wake-up call in the form of life on an Arkansas farm—finally, a kind of Fresh Air Fund for youngsters who are truly in need. The show is produced by The Real World producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray, and I was hoping for similar standards of quality and integrity—a show where the cameras prod and pry but the producers and crew are under strict orders not to interfere. Instead, The Simple Life feels strangely staged. Even though there is no host, there were moments when I half-expected Jeff Probst to walk out and say, “Wanna know what you’re playing for?”
Before leaving Beverly Hills, Paris forsakes her cell phone, credit cards, and money clip, which she places on a silver tray held by a liveried gentleman. As her limo is about to pull away, the butler raps on the glass, and Paris coughs up a second cell phone like a suspended cop surrendering his backup piece. Later, after Hilton and Richie land in Arkansas, instead of a being greeted by their host family, they are met with a dusty pickup and a set of driving directions. What follows is a set piece that defies even TV logic. As Hilton wrestles with the strange vehicle, I am reminded of Sam Kinison’s routine about the camera crew filming hungry waifs for Save the Children. I realize I’m supposed to laugh at the mundane struggles of a girl who somehow disproves the truism about being too rich and too thin, but as Kinison would say, can’t someone give her a freakin’ sandwich?
Or perhaps I’m all wrong and the problem is not with the show, but with me. I have to confess to coming to The Simple Life with an inordinate amount of pop cultural baggage. Typically the scandal surrounding a reality show breaks during its run, not several weeks before, and if anything, the disgrace helps round out what are often tragically flat characters. The original Joe Millionaire was much improved by the revelation that Evan Marriott was an aspiring professional wrestler and part-time underwear model and that co-star Sarah Kozer had had a brief career in bondage videos. But between Richie’s heroin bust and Hilton’s tabloid life, I am drowning in subtext before the opening credits have rolled. Furthermore, when it comes to television, Hilton has already been prominently featured in an E!True Hollywood Story; a VH1 Fabulous Life Of; an E!It’s Good To Be; as well as a brief turn in VH1’s All Access: Awesomely Bad Girls. The end result is The Simple Life has the dubious distinction of being the first new show that you feel is already in repeats.
And yet, strangely, Hilton comes across better in The Simple Life than she has before. In the aforementioned clip shows, Hilton is usually shown being photographed on the red carpet or partying the night away while the narrator scolds her for her profligate life. The Simple Life predictably catches the girls being vain and vapid, but so far neither Hilton nor Richie has done anything execrable. (The one exception might be Hilton’s professed ignorance about Wal-Mart, which she has already admitted was a prank—more staginess.) One of Hilton’s earliest lines is something to the effect that this experience will probably make her more grateful for the life she has. To me this felt like starting a coming-of-age comedy with the awkward lead realizing that people will like him if he just acts like himself. What is the point of Hilton’s journey if she has already started to fulfill her character arc at the beginning of the show? The answer is that, like a true celebrity, Hilton is doing this not for herself but for us. We in the audience need to play out the story of the Tarnished Image. Regardless of her behavior, Hilton’s screen time will only serve to humanize her while simultaneously exhausting us of our disapproval. In the end, The Simple Life may not feel very fresh, but it might pull off a reality show first, with public humiliation offering someone their best shot at redemption.