Surreal Reality: TV's 'The Simple Life'

by N. Joseph Potts by N. Joseph Potts

On Tuesday evenings at 8:30, Fox Television airs a remarkable half-hour series evidently aimed at teenagers and young adults in the idiom of "reality TV" whose popularity has grown ever since its first appearance in televised wrestling matches. Its theme might have been found entertaining at certain other times in history such as the height of the Roman Empire, but the fact that it apparently entertains today is a comment not only on the times, but on the fruits and other byproducts of the successes of private enterprise.

This show focuses on the "experiences" of two real celebri-teens, Paris Hilton (heiress to the hotel fortune) and Nicole Richie, daughter of Rock Star Lionel Richie when these rich girls from the big city are transplanted as adoptive daughters to the Leding family of Altus (pop. 873), Arkansas. Altus is, of course, a farming community, and the Leding family is a farming family. In each episode, the girls are hired into one type or another of entry-level work – once flipping burgers at a fast-food restaurant, another time assisting in the operation of a cattle auction.

And the girls are temperamentally unable to produce. Their notionally hilarious incompetence at work arises not only from ineptitude and inexperience, but after a short time, from playfulness, flagrant irresponsibility, and eventually, outright larceny. Paris and Nicole, however modestly talented, are real actresses, but the best acting on the show is done by the working stiffs and rednecks who constitute the dramatic population of Altus and surrounding areas. While improbably taking the girls seriously, they at all times maintain a truly masterful deadpan that puts the work of the main performers to shame.

If you watch this show, as I did, with the wrong sort of attitude, you are first struck by what it reveals about all the difficult, perhaps even unnatural, feats that are required over and over with unrelenting exactitude by productive effort. Real production, this show brings home to me, requires an unbroken stream of care, skill, persistence, and integrity from every worker, the utter lack of which in our stars provides the show with its comic engine. In my admittedly un-hip eyes, the action repeatedly ennobles the very thing it makes fun of: the creation of value. Clearly not among the intended reactions, I'm sure.

But the work ethic – a consistent lode of boredom not only in the propaganda about it, but in real life as well – is not the only casualty of this estimable work of social commentary. Property rights and financial responsibility also are pilloried as uncool. Charge accounts and credit cards provide some of the brightest jewels in the girls' diadems of economic unfitness. While putting forth an ever-doomed effort to cut this financial umbilical cord from their parents, the girls in one recent installment happened to gain temporary access to their employer's charge account at an animal-feed store. Despite the low appeal of most of the inventory, they managed to identify purchases to pilfer anyway, demonstrating a perverse sort of economic ingenuity. Their behavior upon being gently confronted with their thefts included a half-hearted effort at restitution that leaves the show in no danger of being called a morality play.

A genuine irony is the fact that enough viewers apparently are rich enough, or expect to be rich enough, to enjoy, rather than resent, the antics of these rich girls transplanted to a very middle-brow family. Their freedom to behave this way is precisely the product of an economic system that has one way or another produced a vast cornucopia of comfort and plenty for hundreds of millions in this country alone. I doubt the show plays well among the fairly numerous genuinely unemployed. But presumably no such qualms are felt by those many who only draw unemployment benefits with no particular intention of taking on anything resembling real work. Why bother, when the local unemployment, or welfare, or other government dispensary of money taken from those who earned it refills the credit card week after week, month after month?

The program is surrounded, not to say shot through, by the advertisements of many private enterprises that appear to have somehow produced and now offer for sale a dazzling range of different products with which to woo whatever dollars – earned and otherwise – the viewers may happen to command from time to time.

But the crowning irony of this drama is actually redemptive: when the filming is over and the lights and cameras are turned off, everybody lines up to get paid for their work.

Including Paris and Nicole.