Television

The City

A boring heroine you can’t help rooting for.

Olivia Palermo in The City.
Villainess Olivia Palermo in The City

As presented on The City (MTV, Mondays at 10 p.m. ET), New York is a dreamscape of little black dresses and big yellow taxis. Perfectly sanitized, it reflects the perfect blankness of the show. (Asking the question “Do you watch The City?” is not too distant from inquiring, “Do you stare at the wall?”) There is no litter on the streets, no chaos in the air, none of the mongrel vivacity that makes the place thrum, no major hassles. When 22-year-old protagonist Whitney Port goes looking for a place to live, she succeeds in snapping up the first apartment she sees. This is the most vexing of the reality show’s many departures from reality. Conventionally a wee bit less pleasant than the iron maiden, the New York apartment hunt is intended to build character by testing the soul.

But since self-commodifying Whitney—an alumna of the lustrously phony Hills—has peddled her soul to MTV, that issue is moot, and The City is free to proceed as a provincial teenager’s idea of urban paradise. Meanwhile, New Yorkers can admire the interstitial shots of elegant fire escapes and underappreciated bridges and also receive final confirmation that the noxiously gentrified Meatpacking District, where Whitney works and plays, would have been better off ceded to the federal government and maintained as a wildlife preserve for tranny hookers.

That neighborhood is the site of both Whitney’s office (she holds clipboards and twists her mouth at handbags for designer Diane von Furstenberg) and some of the hash houses where she rehashes the intrigues of which her stage-managed life consists. Appropriate to a show that should be judged on the same aesthetic level as conversations overheard at brunch, much of The City involves Whitney discussing her love life in bad restaurants—and yet she and her confidantes are rarely seen putting actual food in their pieholes. They must subsist on their own insipidity.

Whitney faces some tough choices heading into tonight’s season finale, chief among them whether to continue deluding herself that her boyfriend is in any way suitable. That is Jay, and he’s from Australia, which is still no excuse for using the word babe as a form of direct address. Jay fronts a band called Tamarama, its name helpfully evocative of its sound, soft rock that calls to mind afternoons on airy beaches and the effect of taking two Ambiens. It took him a while to get around to telling Whitney that his band would be going out on tour. The problem is for the viewer to sort out what kind of joker Jay is: Is he the player who cannot bite back his grin when a friend forecasts panty-flinging groupies on the road? Or the wuss who cries like a girl when Whitney calls him out? Storming away from another dinner table, she tells him, “I don’t want to be in a relationship with someone that thinks I’m a burden.” The prig in me is tempted to scold Whitney for using that rather than who, but he is outmatched by another fellow—a sucker for her strictly because she seems nice and is pretty—who only regrets that she had not ordered a meal to toss in his simpering face.

A cohort of photogenic acquaintances and fond frenemies counsels Whit in such matters, sometimes proffering bromides unsupported by actuality (“Good things happen to good people”), sometimes undermining like mercenaries practiced in tunnel warfare. The best of these—which is to say, the worst—is a doll-like individual named Olivia Palermo, who is likely to stand as the most odious reality-TV villainess of the year. Olivia, a talented arriviste, doesn’t put on airs; she’s all airs. The worst kind of name-dropper, in terms of both tone and technique, she summons a forced casualness in mentioning that the perfectly lovely Brooke frigging Shields will be in attendance at some silly fundraiser she is throwing at some awful nightspot. She employs champers as a synonym for Champagne, a usage approved only for characters in Evelyn Waugh novels. Preparing an in-house presentation at DVF, the lazy thing glows with an empty confidence that makes it a robust pleasure to witness her extravagant failure at the task. Compare her spoiled indolence with Whitney’s respectable work ethic. Say what you will about how vapid her show is—no, really, say anything—but girlfriend’s got hustle. “If I came home I would just be quitting,” she breathes over the phone this week to good old Lauren Conrad. But there is no suspense here. MTV has picked up the show for a second season, and Whitney is tolerable enough as a citizen of this ersatz wonderland. She couldn’t go home again even if, encased as she is in her fabricated celebrity, she wanted to try.