The Simple Life

[8 December 2003]

By Terry Sawyer

Money Changes Everything

Reality television, in the form of The Simple Life, seems finally to have found its karmic balance. Democrats would do well to tape this show as evidence for any future hearings about the estate tax, as suffering is here doled out where suffering is due. If anyone should find herself on the ass end of the boob tube, it should be the fake-n-bake party heiress whose most recent barnacle on the hull of proper fame was a grainy private porno featuring a sleazy former boyfriend.

At last, the cult of celebrity has reached its nadir. Though you might think the proliferation of fame might make it seem less attractive, in fact, reality television has made people all the more desperate for a taste, setting the bar so low that almost anyone can sacrifice enough dignity to garner a shameful pan flash. Fame is no longer solely a province of achievement, no matter how dubious. It’s an accessory, a trend that’s pedestrian to the point of being this decade’s parachute pants.

Case in point: Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton have no discernible talents (I haven’t seen the video) and personalities as pleasant as a bout of dry heaving. The premise has them leaving their wealth behind for a month on an Altus, Arkansas farm, where they live with poor people, namely, the infinitely patient Ledings. The Simple Life introduces the girls during a “typical” day: they spend thousands of dollars without seeming to think. (Hilton walks into one store to spend $1,500 on a bag for her dog, confident that mommy’s credit card is on file.) It was, in fact, a cagey opening gambit: after watching these coddled vipers giddily stuff their voids, I was eager to see the wealth teat ripped from their mouths. For them, it’s a kind of punishment; as one of Hilton’s friends observes, “I’d rather have no food for six weeks than no cell phone.”

What follows is one of the most protracted indictments of wealth and privilege ever recorded. It’s Clueless meets Survivor, as Nicole and Paris navigate the world of normal folk. They struggle mightily to maintain their ice-princess courtesy. Nicole asks, “Do you guys hang out at Wal-Mart?” This gives Hilton pause: “What is Wal-Mart?” The show is premised on such ping-pong hilarity, showcasing the girls’ class deformation to the point of retardation. “What are wells for?” asks Paris, as she’s warned about stepping over one in the floor of the house. Is she kidding? I have no idea. Usually, it’s only Presidents who appear on tv to reveal their numbing levels of disconnection from our lives.

My favorite moment of the premiere episode (so successful on its first night that Fox re-aired it on Wednesday, garnering 13.3 million viewers) comes when the girls are asked to go grocery shopping. They, of course, don’t stick to the list and end up spending more money than they have with them. When the clerk tells them they don’t have enough money, Paris asks, “Can we just have it?” He confuses them by telling them, “It’s not a soup kitchen.” In the car, Nicole echoes Paris’ surprise: “I can’t believe he wouldn’t just give it to us.” Apparently, she lives in that stratosphere of capitalism where your very identity is somehow a commodity to be bartered. If you can score free cocktails at the Viper Room for being peripherally famous, why not Miracle Whip at the Piggly Wiggly?

By contrast, the Ledings look like admirable people, entertained by the spectacle of prissy snots “roughing it.” From the start, one nurses the hope that their charm will prove contagious. Maybe by the end of the series, Hilton and Richie will have Dickensian epiphanies, where they say: “Our lives are vile. We’re going to be different people from now on.” More likely, though, they will see the experience as an affirmation of their social position, and have their assistants send the Ledings expensive pots of jam for the holidays. I know there’s a market for the psychological version of Queer Eye—these girls are prime candidates for existential makeovers.

Still, I did observe flickers of humanity cracking through the dead nights of their souls. Richie, for one, makes an effort to notice and reciprocate the politeness of her multigenerational host family. This is more than can be said for Hilton, who limply endures the experience like some cyborg who got lost on her way to the set of The O.C.. But they both display a moment of kindness, when they’re deciding what to do for the evening and show something approximating genuine warmth to the older son. Nicole offers the porny aside, “We should have a threesome with him.” That’s “Thank you” in the dialect of Beverly Hills.

I’ve often been told to lighten up when I’m bitching about something—as if it’s impossible to reconcile enjoyment and critical analysis in the same sitting. Yes, The Simple Life is cavernously stupid. But it’s also incredibly fun, a heavy bevy of easy targets that go perfectly with take-out and a circle of culture wolves.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/simple-life/