I come from a poor Midwestern family where my notions of the upper castes involved unnavigable place settings and the labyrinthian social order that I encountered in etiquette books. In college, I would read about people obsessed with the leisure class. Andy Warhol and Jann Wenner both seemed consumed with the perceived glamour of dilettantes, as if the money, power and exclusivity produced something even more magical than their other other lifetime fixation: fame. How far we’ve fallen from the ideals of these cultured, worldly elites cocooned in Victorian rituals of status. The villains of High Society have no class; they’re intellectual dead zones with charisma deficits whose tacky and shiftless lives breed the kind of collective contempt that used to get the peasants sharpening the guillotine blades. No one aspires to be Tinsley Mortimer and Paul Johnson Calderon, because there’s nothing here to aspire to: no refinement, no worldliness, and no accomplishment. They are a Warhol film, stagnating in the gaze the camera, ostentatiously refusing to pick up a verb. They’d prefer to let the maid do it while swearing at her and throwing up on the rug. This is upper class living in 2010 and it is indistinguishable from the gutter.
High Society makes you painfully aware of how actor’s and actresses have presence and how that presence actually brings weight to each frame. Jules, Tinsley and Paul have shrinky dinked personalities; they’re howling holes on your television screen that seem perpetually dwarfed by the high end hotels and bauble boutiques that they have shut down while they shop (presumably because the natives would be clawing at them like diamonds dumped into a mob). Bitterly tiny inhabitants of a tedious itinerary-driven world, most of High Society revolves around the ways in which these cruel and insensitive people seek to damage each other’s mystifyingly outsized egos. Jules and Tinsley used to be friends, but now Tinsley thinks she’s too good for Jules. Paul and Tinsley used to be close, but she wouldn’t even wear the dresses he picked out for her for some event where she would huffily blow off Jules. Paul and Jules so hate each other with the kind of burning passion that can only be produced in high stakes vacuity. This is the kind of entertainment that can barely compete with the kinds of primitive Welcome to the Dollhouse warfare of junior high.
The only thing sadder than these attention-seeking parasites is the shameful new media infrastructure that seems to have spawned them. I blame Perez Hilton and his ilk for enlarging the media gaze to include urban scenesters and rich, boring party kids. Much of what amounts to intrigue in the show revolves around the trio desperately scouring the blogs and gossip columns for mention of their cloying antics. It’s a portrait of Ouroboros: people made artificially famous through the ubiquity of bored bloggers spending much of their time sifting through mentions of their own lives. It’s also a curious inversion of the world and hierarchy Warhol and Wenner wanted desperately to break into. In High Society, the elites would eat Fame off the floor, clawing for attention as if it were oxygen, never pausing for a second to ponder what might merit attention. They assume its deserved because they’ve heard from their indulgent absentee parents that they were uniquely gifted and special since birth. One can only hope that reality soon arrives like the Semi in Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” video. Sure, they launch bag lines, supposedly dress celebrities and run a magazine about themselves, but the tragic flaw in High Society is that none of these people seem to gainfully exist. Every episode begs ever louder versions of the simple question: why, why, WHY?!
The show only entertains when it exposes these children of the high borne, in the intermittent moral autopsies that pin prick the engulfing boredom. And not not just boredom, but boredom shot through with molten hatred. As Tinsley’s sister tortures hotel staff to amuse herself, you can’t help but seethe at the depravity of these vulgar morons. They make the Jersey Shore cast look like bastions of civility and grace. In one episode (one of many), PJ Calderon has to call his mother and beg for cash because he got wasted and destroyed the sconces in some high rise because he thought they were ugly. It’s embarrassing to watch, because he has no compunction about the drug-fueled shame hole he’s dialing from. I guess his narrative arc for the duration will be something about finding the trapdoor in rock bottom. His mother, a classic enabler, seems to have no qualms about allowing her son to be the walking talking apotheosis of human deficiency. Not that Tinsley’s mother, Dale Mercer, scores any higher in her own attempts to siphon her daughter’s notoriety to lavish attention on herself. They’re two junkyard dogs fighting over the same scrap from the kid’s table of celebrity. This is Dynasty for the internet age, excess built on empty content. We can do no worse.