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.
THE SHOW WAS CONCEIVED, of course, for one simple reason: People can't seem to get enough of those blonde hotel-fortune scions, the Hilton sisters--Paris and Nicky. While they did absolutely nothing to earn their celebrity besides kick up their Lucite heels while canoodling with similar B-list celebrities at it-bars across the world, their stars (Paris's family nickname was actually "Star") were officially launched in a 2000 Vanity Fair spread. At the time, Paris and Nicky were just 19 and 16 years of age, respectively. But they let it all hang out, literally in Paris's case. In David LaChapelle's photo spread, Paris was caught wearing a see-through mesh tank-top while flipping the bird in her grandmother's Beverly Hills living room, as well as playing peek-a-boo with her right nipple while laying sprawled on a beach surrounded by surfers, who looked more puzzled than lustful.
Their parents played along with writer Nancy Jo Sales. They made delusional comments, like Momma Hilton's claim that "Paris is the most modest girl," while their little angels behaved like Gabor sisters gone bad. (At one point, when Nicky's younger brothers were blabbering to the writer about what a mean sister she was, she disappeared, then returned with a large security goon who bounced the two siblings.) Whether lording it over the help at the Waldorf-Astoria (the crown jewel of the Hilton empire) or offering patently absurd clichés to hard-sell their humanity (at one point, Paris segued from talking about a bad slasher movie she'd just done to saying, "But what I'd really like people to know is that I'm working on fundraising for breast cancer"), one couldn't help but be left with the impression voiced by a an older Italian gentleman to whom Paris had claimed she was "American royalty": "If I were their parents, I would kick their asses," he said.
WHEN THE SHOW WAS CONCEIVED, younger Nicky took a pass, doing the Hilton-sister equivalent of getting serious by going to fashion school so she could design overpriced handbags. But Paris, who needs attention like the rest of us need food, not only signed up, but brought along her trollish, dumpy, childhood friend, Nicole Richie. Hilton didn't really have any better options. Sure she'd been romantically linked to everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to one of the Backstreet Boys, but the only thing (as opposed to people) she did was get in cat-fights over men with the likes of Shannen Doherty or Lisa Marie Presley (the latter of whom accused her . . . well, Paris told it best: "Lisa Marie just threw a drink over me because she thinks I f**** Nic Cage").
Aside from such résumé sweeteners, the aspiring actress only had snicker-inducing screen credits. She hadn't exactly gotten the chance to stretch in the tiny roles she'd taken. She played a "female club-goer " in "Cat in the Hat," a "strung-out supermodel" in "QIK2JDG," and a "girl on beach" in "Wishman." That was, until her infamous homemade porn tape leaked last November, in which millions of Internet users learned, while watching her in grainy night-vision, that she is capable of doing a convincing turn as a vapid socialite who enjoys getting stuck like the family pin cushion, all while making diving lunges at a ringing phone, because, well, a girl's gotta keep up with her schedule. (Paris, to be fair, was so horrified by the tape, that she started stepping out in Valentino, rather than the streetwalker landing-strips of fabric that usually barely covered her nethers.)
CONSENSUS SEEMS TO BE that Paris, with her nearly whitish-blonde hair, her thousand-dollar a month spray-on tan, and her feline blue eyes, is a real looker. But for a homegrown beauty, I've always found her suspiciously exotic, her voice pitched a little too low--usually a sure sign that the she is a he. Fortunately, her sex tape put the lie to that notion. Even if it didn't exist, there's little chance that she owns a male set. Because if she did, Hilton, never one for restraint, would have doubtless shown it to us to us by now.
While Paris is the reason so much ink has been spilled over "The Simple Life," she is hardly the show's driving engine. That dishonor belongs to Nicole Richie--the daughter of Lionel, who wrote the hit song "Ballerina Girl" for her (a song I always disliked; now I know why). Her hair, while artificially highlighted like Hilton's, is less like Barbie's and more like Cyndi Lauper's runtish sister. Built like a pot-bellied stove, she laughs constantly and inappropriately, her buzzard-like beezer pointing southward, while her cheeks scrunch, making her look like she's trying to grind down her nose with her teeth. While she canters around in bun-hugging micro-minis (just pop them back in, you want to say), she acts as if she's about five times as good looking as she actually is. But she's not just worthy of cosmetic cheap shots. A spoiled brat who has already been busted three times--for a DUI, a bar-fight, and most recently, heroin possession--Richie is ugly on the inside, too.
And if Hilton's résumé is thin, Richie's is even thinner. In her few screen appearances, she's had to play something worse than a "strung out supermodel." In shows like "Punk'd," she's played herself. Her only accomplishment--besides being Lionel Richie's daughter--seems to be that she's Michael Jackson's goddaughter. Regarding the molestation charge pending against him, Richie has insisted on his innocence. She's spent the night there, she says, and "If he didn't do it to me, why would he do it to anyone else?" Good taste, one suspects.
Critics, always in need of finding larger social implications, have misguidedly written thousands of words on how the ascendance of Paris Hilton means our culture is now so addicted to celebrity that we are willing to reward people with fame who've done nothing to earn it. Last summer, an Associated Press writer even diagnosed the condition with the coinage "PAC"--for "pre-achievement celebrity." But it's hardly a new grievance. Andy Warhol marked the same phenomenon in the '80s. And Homer took notice of it well before then, having written, in the "Iliad," "How vain, without the merit, is the name."
But if critics have correctly diagnosed the problem, they've undersold it's severity by pegging it to the wrong poster girl. The mystery isn't why Paris Hilton can become famous for having done nothing (she did, after all, allegedly make out with former Madonna girl-toy Ingrid Casaras in a bar). The true mystery is how someone like the charmless Nicole Richie can become famous for nothing more than being the friend of someone who's famous for nothing.
AS A RESPONSIBLE REVIEWER, I should probably load you up with all sorts of specific instances and outrages which illustrate the hollowness of our protagonists. I could tell you about how, in the course of the show, when Paris was sitting around with her host family--the Ledings of Altus, Arkansas, population 817--she asked, with a straight face, "What is Wal-Mart. Do they sell, like, wall stuff?" Or how she paraded around even young children dressed like an anorexic hooker whose pimp was withholding her lunch money.
Or I could tell you how Nicole sucked face with a townie, calling a halt to the session because the boy "smelled like onions." Or how, when she lost her purse at a local watering hole, she yelled at the bars' patrons, finally throwing bleach all over the pool table. Or I could tell you about how the girls, who were tasked with working real jobs like real people during their one month stay, made a mockery of everyone who actually has to earn a living, by belittling their jobs, stealing from their employers, and in one case, at the local Sonic burger joint, posting on the billboard "1/2 price anal salty weiner [sic] bugers [sic]," to the best of their spelling ability.
But I won't do that, even if I just sort of did, partly because there's not enough space and partly because I suspect neither of us has the energy for that sort of thing. Suffice to say that the show attempted to wrap in the traditional vein. Sitcom writers have a trade term called the "M.O.S."--or "moment of shit." It's shorthand for the formulaic necessity of concluding every show with the sappy, group-hug, ham-fisted moral of the story that's supposed to balance all the misanthropy and cheap one-liners that came before it.
"The Simple Life," too, reaches for such artifice, when the Leding family's patriarch, Albert, gives some aw-shucks, dirt-kicking speech about how he tried to instill some of his families' values in the girls--a hard work ethic, honesty, the kind of crap that doesn't cut much ice in Paris Hilton's world, or, increasingly, in ours. It rings as false as anything from one of your more rank sitcoms, like "Good Morning, Miami."
But the beauty of reality television is that no matter how meretricious a situation is, some truth usually peeps out, even through the heavy editing. In the case of "The Simple Life," it came at the end, as the townsfolk, who evidenced almost nothing but disdain and suspicion toward Hilton and Richie, pretended to play nice while bidding them adieu. On a barbecue sign that one could see usually bearing messages like "Jesus saves" or "3.99 Chicken Fried Steak," read "Goodbye Paris and Nicole, Where Legends Are Made and Lies are Told."
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.