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by Walter Chaw As sociology goes, "The Simple Life" is not without cleverness. I'm not referring to the predictable meltdown of sticking Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton in the middle of the Ozarks, but rather the way in which our own prejudices about the extremes of class are manipulated with calculated cruelty. Every episode is preceded by the kind of narration that opens "The Dukes of Hazzard"--the show hates Nicole and Paris on the one hand because they represent absolutely every single evil quality that humans are capable of, and it hates the fine people of Altus, AR on the other hand because they're "simple." It's not a true test as reality shows go: after all, there are no stakes for the retarded heiresses asked to spend five weeks living the titular life who don't treat the stunt as an opportunity to improve themselves but as one to mess around at the expense of people for whom there is something at stake--like livelihood. The series would be a lot better if Nicole and Paris were threatened with being cut off from their inheritances should they act like crass, directionless, shiftless morons.
As we watch Nicole and Paris sashay their way through the working class with the sort of insulting indifference that minimizes the 99% of people in the world who have to work for a living, the overriding feeling of the piece (and here we include other reality programs about idiots like Jessica Simpson and Todd Santos) is one of disbelief and mistrust. The camera set-ups, the editing, the lighting for God's sake, all suggest a significant degree of meddling, enough so that it's nigh impossible to take any of it seriously. If Paris has never been inside of a Wal-Mart, that's no surprise, but that Paris would claim to not even know what Wal-Mart is after spending her misspent life in the same stratosphere as Sam Walton's heirs really stretches credulity.
It's a sitcom about how genuinely unsuitable for life Paris and Nicole are, essentially, creatures that wouldn't last thirty seconds in the wild without a trust fund or a camera crew. Who's to say the world wouldn't be better for their full graves? The only possible things that either could contribute to society are bad record albums, embarrassing cameos in terrible movies, night-vision sex tapes, and the belief that it's not worth it to be rich if it means rubbing elbows with people like this. The show works in the sense that it makes poor time-clock punching slobs like you and me proud of who we are. And yet, that five weeks in the Ozarks with Paris and Nicole produced only 150 minutes of salacious material nags: for as irritating and offensive as these girls are (and the mutually tearful goodbyes reinforce this idea), there's the strong possibility that there might be hope for these two--but only if they stay down and out in the backwoods for the rest of their lives.
Thing that's interesting about "The Simple Life" is that it's as worthless and worthy of derision as Nicole and Paris, products, both, of a fast, facile culture that favours beautiful people so vacuous that as soon as the wind shifts, the destruction of them is brought to pass with zero effort in zero time. (The fallout around Hilton post-sex tape scandal was enough to inspire the party girl to swear off her bad girl image for a whole couple of weeks until the lure of Sundance called with its cameras and karaoke clubs.) The fact of the matter is that "The Simple Life", like the bulk of reality programming, indulges in the basest, laziest, most prurient interests of mankind--and the fact that this show is a hit suggests just how much we're all degraded by having this conversation. That Hilton and Richie are foul, worthless meat-bags is something we probably suspected and probably didn't need confirmed--that "The Simple Life" makes us complicit in an active hatred of them (and that so many of us indulged) says something depressing about how strong is the desire to see others, no matter how vapid, humiliate themselves in as garish a way as possible. The girls can't help it; we can.
All seven episodes of the first (shudder) season of "The Simple Life" find themselves on a flipper from Fox DVD, with five treasures on the first side and the last two dulcet baubles on the other. Picture quality is extremely high, and though the commensurately booming Dolby Surround audio stream doesn't give the rear channels much of a workout, it reproduces all the bitchy shenanigans with a fulsome fidelity. Because there's never enough of a good thing and always too much of a bad, the presentation boasts of a few special features, including a promotional reel and a series of outtakes that demonstrate exactly how boring these people are and how skillfully unflattering the editing for the series is. I don't know that I'm stupider for having spent two-and-a-half hours with these two women, but I'm a lot sadder. Originally published: January 25, 2004.