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Famous by Association

What Nicole Richie and "The Simple Life" teach us about America and celebrity.

11:00 PM, Jan 15, 2004 • By MATT LABASH
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WHENEVER I EXPRESS my penchant for reality television in the circle of snide, knowing, not-as-smart-as-they-think-they-are crosspatches that I'm cursed to call friends, I often do so defensively, as if I am advocating Satan-worshipping or kid-touching. No more. From it's earliest dawn--when MTV's "Real World" debuted in 1992--I have been there for reality television, and it has been there for me.

For those who watch television, it is a pointless exercise to pose as a television snob, for the simple reasons that even the most cerebral shows are generally accessible to the average seventh grader. The traditional narrative television vehicles--the drama, the comedy, the dramedy--have basically exhausted the possibilities with their endless parade of wacky neighbors and poker-faced detectives. While it's occasionally possible to find a refreshing spin on the form (HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm or Fox's "Arrested Development"), the medium has, for the most part, become like three-chord rock'n'roll: the music's still getting made, but most of the good hooks have been taken.

CONSEQUENTLY, when anything slightly different comes along, critics tend to wildly overpraise it. Take HBO's "Sex and the City," a critical darling. I have seen several episodes, and would rather watch puppies get railroad spikes driven through their eyelids, than to be subjected to Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall seeing who can out-blue-streak each other in the forced patter some have called the Vagina Dialogues. It is a show written by gay men who think they know how straight women talk. If straight women actually talked that way, I'd probably become gay, too.

Leaving aside the intrinsic entertainment value of voyeurism, there is nothing in the worst reality TV shows that isn't preferable in nearly every way. What, about the human condition (venality, envy, lasciviousness) can be illuminated by the jabbering yentas on "Sex and the City" that isn't better illuminated on even a dim-bulb reality show, such as "Paradise Hotel?" To do the unthinkable, and draw a parallel to books, I, like most, would say there's no rapture comparable to that provided by a great novel. But I'd rather read a mediocre work of non-fiction to a bad novel any day. At least with the former, its mediocrity is mitigated by the fact that it allows us to experience characters or events as they actually exist. The latter is nothing more than an endurance test inside some stranger's failed imagination.

THAT SAID, reality television, to take a giant leap, tells us much more about where we are as a species than traditional forms of television. The last time I took our cultural temperature, we were shallow, had short attention spans, and worshipped fame over nearly any other attribute. That makes us--en masse--a perfect audience for Fox's "The Simple Life," starring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie (daughter of singer Lionel)--two spoiled rich-bitch socialites who do a contrived fish-out-of-water turn when they go live with a goober family down on the farm in the Ozarks.

Concluded just this week after an eight-episode run, "The Simple Life" was a ratings smash. Last month, when President George W. Bush did a special interview with Diane Sawyer on the heels of Saddam's capture, he was outdrawn by Paris and Nicole. Before my fellow conservatives start clucking about the end of civilization brought on by our youth, they'd do well to note that the "Green Acres"-rip-off was the favorite even among 25- to 54-year-olds. And Bush himself didn't do much to provide intellectual contrast, when he basically admitted in his interview, not for the first time, that you'd need to pull his eyeteeth to get him to read a newspaper. "The Simple Life" isn't mere junkfood. Rather, it's our just desserts.