Slinging Dirt

Through class clowns Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, `The Simple Life' deftly shows the clash between the haves and have-nots and lets viewers feel superior to everyone.

December 02, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

There's nothing simple about The Simple Life, Fox TV's new reality series about two Beverly Hills jet-setters who move in with a farm family in the Ozarks.

The show, which stars wealthy party girls Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie and premieres tonight, could be described as a reality-TV version of CBS' Green Acres, the 1965 sitcom about a Manhattan attorney (Eddie Albert) and his socialite wife (Eva Gabor) who move to a ramshackle farm outside the fictional town of Hooterville.

Or it could be viewed as yet another reality TV series featuring whacked-out celebrities such as The Osbournes or The Anna Nicole Show.

But neither description does justice to the show's complexities. The real story here - the source of energy responsible for much of the buzz this series has generated - is one of social class, and location, location, location. In this regard, despite its cheesy outward appearance, The Simple Life is a savvy and precisely calculated production.

Producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray (The Real World) skillfully manipulate their viewers, exploiting middle-class anxieties while offering a pleasurable - if slightly mean-spirited - television experience.

The show begins with the two 22-year-old pop princesses - Hilton, the flashy-trashy hotel heiress infamous these days for an Internet sex video, and Richie, the party-hearty daughter of singer Lionel Richie - being yanked from their Beverly Hills mansions and dropped into the muck and mire of life on a family farm in Altus, Ark. (pop. 817). Then upper- and lower-middle-classes are pitted against each other in a culture clash that speaks more directly to middle-class insecurities than anything else on television today.

Historically, network television has dealt poorly with social class. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, there was a flurry of sitcoms about ethnic, working-class families: Life with Luigi (CBS), The Life of Riley (NBC), The Honeymooners (CBS) and Mama (CBS). But by 1954, once the network founders and Madison Avenue came to understand what a marvelous machine the medium could be for selling upward mobility, such class-based comedy and drama disappeared in favor of the white-picket-fence pastorals of Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best.

There have been a handful of exceptions since, such as All in the Family (CBS ) in 1971 and Roseanne (ABC) in 1988. But, though both were located in a blue-collar milieu, neither regularly took on differences in lifestyle and quality of life across class lines.

The Simple Life, on the other hand, doesn't waste a second before highlighting the divide. The pilot opens with an overexcited narrator's voice saying, "Meet Paris Hilton - model, jet-setter, target of the tabloids and heir to the $360 million Hilton fortune." In case anyone misses the point, the words "$360 million" fill the screen as the cahhhh-ching of a cash register sounds.

After a similarly tabloid-style introduction for Richie, the two women are shown reveling in the good life: Standing in the doorway of the Hilton mansion. Walking down Rodeo Drive with their arms full of purchases. Sunning themselves in bikinis beside a fabulous blue pool.

"What do these friends have in common besides fame, fortune and white-hot sex appeal?" the narrator asks as images of wealth and tanned young flesh flash across the screen. "They are giving up their plush lifestyle to live on a farm."

With the word "farm," the image of the Hilton mansion is replaced by that of a dilapidated shed surrounded by weeds - part of the Leding family farm to which the two are headed.

"Thirty days. No money, no luxury and no clue," the narrator says. "They've challenged themselves to live the simple life. But will they make it?"

"Listen," Hilton says, "everyone thinks that Nicole and I are these two girls that never worked a day in our lives and can't do anything. And we're doing this to prove everyone wrong."

The impending clash between the two worlds is brought into sharper focus as Hilton's parents throw a lavish sendoff party complete with celebrities and champagne. After a four-hour flight, the women land in an abandoned airfield where a banged-up, rusty pickup truck awaits. A note inside the truck spells out directions to the Leding farm. As Paris struggles to shift the automatic transmission into gear, the theme from Deliverance can be heard. Welcome to Altus.

The `ewwwww' factor

During the first two episodes, (the only two released for preview) viewers are allowed to feel superior to both the princesses and the common folk. Hilton and Richie spend most of their time turning up their noses at everything in Altus, repeatedly saying, "ewwww, ewwww, ewwww." Richie also frequently uses a somewhat stronger four-letter word. The two women clearly are incapable of productive labor (in Episode 2, they are fired after one day from a neighboring dairy farm). And Hilton seems especially out of it when she asks if Wal-Mart is a place where they sell walls.

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