A columnist cherishes his reader mail, even the letters of complaint and especially the nastiest of these, so often genitally fixated. Where some gentle souls will send a female writer questions about her menstrual cycle or implore her to get laid, others will ask her male counterpart whether he has any testicles—or, kindly presuming that he indeed does, suggest that the writer be gelded, “preferably with a rusty knife.”
But people also say nice things and send thoughtful remarks. At the moment—here preparing to chat about The City (MTV, Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. ET)—I am thinking of a thank-you note received after doing a bacterial count on the dating show Double Shot at Love: “Incredibly, MTV has even more horrendous attacks upon, well, humanity. The Hills is even worse as it takes the entire lives of people and makes them commodities to be produced, scripted, filmed and sold such that life is robbed of all meaning.” The disgust is justifiable, and it rhymes with the shuddering nausea expressed by the very fine critic James Wolcott in the current issue of Vanity Fair:
It’s the series that clog the neural pathways of pop culture with the contrived antics of glorified nobodies and semi-cherished has-beens that may help pave the yellow brick road for Sarah Palin, Idiocracy’s warrior queen. … The influence of Reality TV has been insidious, pervasive. It has ruined television, and by ruining television it has ruined America. Maybe America was already ruined, but if so, it’s now even more ruined.
That’s a few degrees too hot for my own temperament, but the fact remains that a half-serious person who indulges himself in reality TV’s pseudo-documentary presentations of narcissism, petulance, and performed folly must at some point reckon with certain shame. The phrase guilty pleasure assumes a new meaning. When you watch, say, a Kate Hudson romantic comedy, you are risking only feelings of aesthetic guilt: You have wasted 100 minutes on piffle. But if you buy into Wolcott’s argument, then you necessarily agree that to binge on, say, Rock of Love Bus With Bret Michaels is to commit an act deserving of moral guilt. You are an accessory to debasement after the fact.
Anyway, The City, as established, is a lot of fun. That the proceedings are relatively civil—that self-degrading histrionics are kept to an absolute minimum—helps to ease the conscience. That New York has rarely looked as lustrous as it does here—where the spire of the Chrysler Building is the ultimate fetish object and even blocky old 1633 Broadway gleams like magic onyx—is seductive to the point of coercion. That heroine Whitney Port makes like a sweet and unaffected young woman striving to earn a secure station in the glamour industries is heartening. She may well yet be our Mary Tyler Moore.
When Whitney first got to town, she was working for Diane von Furstenberg as one of those girls whose central job duties include looking pretty while holding a clipboard. I will concede that this is not the noblest profession life has to offer, but the world really does need pretty girls to hold clipboards at garment-trade events. They are a vital part of the economy. Having moved on, Whitney now spends part of her time sketching her way toward a first fashion collection of her own and part of it holding clipboards for Kelly Cutrone, who runs a PR firm called People’s Revolution and who is one of the most appealing people on all of basic cable.
A middle-aged woman with no makeup, or what looks like no makeup, on her age-appropriate face and with no airs about her at all, Cutrone is a person, not a personality. She is an adult with adult values, immune to inanity and rightfully terse when her underlings and protégés go astray. It is a wonder that someone so well-balanced should tolerate the presence of camera crews in her office—not to mention the presence of Roxy, a reliably despicable old frenemy of Whit’s and also Kelly’s newest, dumbest intern. But then, if you know anything about the publicity business, you know what there is no such thing as.
Meanwhile, over at Elle magazine, a most fascinating battle of wills and smirks has been unfolding between a publicist named Erin and a horror named Olivia. Erin, rightly offended by Olivia’s particular cocktail of deep cluelessness and aggressive entitlement, has now entered a kind of spite spiral. At one point, she was just trying to do her job, which in no small part involves locating attractive handbags at various price points, and getting pissed that Olivia was making that difficult; now, tilting, Erin is rooting for the powerfully silly thing to fail as extravagantly as possible and suffering the occasional comeuppance when she, Olivia, completes a task competently. Like most everyone on The City, these gals do their best performing solely with lined eyes and glossed lips—staring in disbelief or odium, gaping with bewilderment or affrontedness, narrowing their faces like animals on the hunt. The show also follows these girls out on dates with boys, but these particular boys, like the handbags, are accessories that will sometime soon be out of season.
Is there redeeming value in any of this? I hope so, and I’m encouraged by another note from another reader, an employee of the State Department, no less: “I have a crackpot idea that amid all the vacuousness there’s something Edith Wharton-y, or maybe Claire Boothe Luce, about the show and how it demonstrates the pecking order among women. Also, the straight-men-are-undependable subtext sometimes makes The City seem like a glammed-up early-’70s feminism, Shulamith Firestone in Dior!” The reader adds that he sometimes must summon his inner Kelly to get things done in Foggy Bottom. I offer this as a small, small piece of evidence that The City is good for America.