The context of pop-culture events changes so rapidly that it sometimes seems to morph human images right in front of your eyes. One day I’m looking at a review tape of The Simple Life, delighting in Fox’s prankish premise of plunking two privileged L.A. brats, hotel heiress Paris Hilton and Lionel Richie heiress Nicole Richie, into the household of an Arkansas farm family. A week later, Nicole is better known as Michael Jackson’s goddaughter, and Paris is the star of a sex tape funneled into our lives via the Internet, bootlegs, and torrents of press coverage. I dare say the Paris Hilton-Rick Salomon tape received more print and television coverage in a week than the run-up to ”The Simple Life” received in the months since its premiere was announced. We in the media have become Paris-ites.
So let’s divvy up this review: pre- and post-scandals. ”The Simple Life” is from the producers of MTV’s ”The Real World,” so you know right away that the ”reality” has been monkeyed with. The first episode makes a big deal about Paris and Nicole relinquishing their cash, credit cards, and cell phones before they’re dispatched to the care of the Leding family in Altus, Ark., population 817. But the girls are allowed to bring huge amounts of their expensive wardrobes, the better to stand out among the bib-overall-clad country folk.
The producers know precisely what tone to take. It’s the Ledings, with their forthright manner and guileless faces, who come off as the heroes. Paris and Nicole, whose expressions range only from too-cool blankness to ”ewww, gross! horse manure!” disgust, are the carefully edited butts of jokes about their ignorance of poverty (Nicole: ”What does that mean, soup kitchen?”). Paris and Nicole have to take jobs to earn their keep, so they go to a dairy farm, where they shriek at touching cow udders and laugh over literal spilled milk.
Meanwhile, the locals get away with referring to a wheelbarrow as ”a Polish pickup” (if Paris or Nicole did this, the PC police would be on their waggling tails) and dubbing the duo ”little snotty bitches.” A scene in which the dolled-up, rail-thin Paris vamps out of the Ledings’ house to meet a group of well-fed farm boys is cut to emphasize Paris tripping in her expensive high heels. Coming attractions, however, make it look as though Paris and Nicole will give as good as they get (dressed as fast-food-chain mascots, they give passing motorists the finger) — if the show were just about two piranhas out of water, ”The Simple Life” would be too simpleminded to engage us.
Okay, now: the Post-Scandal Era. I’m watching the show on a different, inescapable level; like me, you’ll be more attuned to fresh ironies and the way controversies leak out into this show and others. On their first ”Simple Life” night, Paris and Nicole sit talking about how ”sweet” one of the Ledings’ teenage sons is. Nicole says, ”We should have a threesome with him,” and she and Paris crack up laughing. Post-sex tape, the comment is even more casually decadent than it seemed just days ago.
No one is immune to the lure of scandal, of capitalizing on others’ awkward, unscripted moments. New father David Letterman beseeched Paris to reconsider canceling her scheduled appearance on the ”Late Show” by saying paternally to the camera, ”You are being led down the wrong path.” One clear subtext: I’ll beat Leno if I get Paris! This could be my Hugh Grant tipping-point moment! Letterman’s rare resort to begging, sarcastic or not, is understandable after losing week in and week out to Leno lameness. Nonetheless, even Dave had been infected with the sex-tape virus.
With Nicole, the fact that she’s Michael Jackson’s goddaughter suddenly means that she now gets more airtime on ”Access Hollywood” for defending the pop singer than she does for starring in her own television show. Again, irony takes over: In the second episode, Nicole informs her new farm neighbors that back in L.A., she’s ”about to record an album.” And a new album from her godfather — a greatest-hits collection — is precisely what got pushed into obscurity with his molestation rap. It seems ”The Simple Life” takes on a heightened reality — and an intensified interest — when Complicated Life takes over.