Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Upon the Occasion of An Ill-Advised Foray Into Reality TV

It's not easy to scandalize an east coast liberal elitest. Not only am I more or less numb to offense in virtue of the thick skin I developed coming of age in New Jersey, I'm also -- or so I am told -- a moral relativist. I'm also vaguely preoccupied with Paris Hilton's perennial bralessness. And so it was that I found myself celebrating a theretofore productive evening by taking Dinner Part Deux (Spaghetti, Godloveit) in front of the Simple Life, a show that's never held my attention for more than a few minutes at a time.

This season's premise, I'm sure, is familiar at least in broad strokes: Nicole Richie (I so don't care enough whether I spelled that right to look it up) and Paris Hilton travel the country by Greyhound bus stopping in various towns along the way. In each town they stay with a host family and serve as interns in some random work environment, where they are given tasks that they inevitably and deliberately fail to perform. In addition, they typically terrorize their host family, which always seems to feature at least one beefsteak teenager son who mugs and flexes and shrugs and generally pretends not to be quavering and staring and fantasizing, one hand always jammed deep into the pocket of his hopelessly unhip pants. These men slip from time to time and shrink away, reduced to quivering adolescence by the imminence of women who at any given moment are cavorting through the fantasies of thousands of men around the world. And the girls torture them, actually one of the shows more entertaining motifs.

Everybody plays along. FOX gets another low-overhead semi-hit by which to line Rupert's pockets. Two poor little rich girls get paid money they don't need to feign crocodile stupidity (Nicole asks: "Is New Jersey a city or a state?" as though rich girls don't get high school diplomas from good schools) and occupy time that might otherwise be spent idly. Or rather, they are served on a platter an excuse to spend idle time in the presence of awe-struck awkward strangers on national TV instead of beside their Beverly Hills pools with their coordinated little rat dogs dutifully panting in the shade of overpriced pool furniture. Harmless fun, right?

Not tonight. Not by a long shot. In tonight's 9 o'clock episode, the girls found themselves in a Maryland suburb, staying with a very tolerant and seemingly very cool family with what seemed like a litter of tolerant and seemingly very cool children. Their jobs involved some sort of circuit board manufactury, which provided lots of toys to break (the toll tonight included a vat of tinning solder, a metric ton of bubble wrap, and some million-dollar circuit board clearner) and lots of middle-aged men to reduce to tongue-lolling children and women to irritate to no end.

And none of this is worth my comment, but it sets the scene for the one thing that is: the repugnant disdain, the uncomprehending pity, Paris couldn't stop vomiting all over the assemblyline workers. Three, perhaps four or five, times Paris blurted out, a propos nothing in particular, sentiments along the line of "Aren't they bored?"

The first time came off as the sort of tactless banter that is the signature staple of the show's humor. Harmless, as far as it goes. But the repetition of the sentiment, the revulsion on Paris's face each time she returned to the topic (categorically different than the disgust I saw, the only other time I really watched, when she was forced to observe liposuction in connection with the girls' plastic surgeon internship), reflected something perhaps prevalent among her few peers but repugnant just the same: an utter lack of appreciation for the lives most people lead.

Before you stop me by noting that it is precisely this dissonance that feeds the show, understand that I know this. I'm not commenting on the conceit in general. In other instances, the girls' blithe indifference to the contours of the lives of working stiffs seems to embarrass them more than it does the objects of their horror. Their fatuousness, affected or authentic, is the most unappealing fate portrayed on the screen. I would choose my own workaday, hand-to-mouth existence, and many others far meaner, in the bat of a perfectly curled eyelash if presented with the alternative of being rich and ignorant.

But the stuff that I saw tonight, on a national broadcast no less, is irrevocably cancerous. It's ugly, plain and simple. And -- what's worse -- its principal audience consists of the very children and young adults who are surrounded by and fated to the very existence the girls' failed to acknowledge as a dignified, and utterly essential contribution to their own absurd wealth.

I interrogate myself: am I projecting? I won't kid myself, not with you watching: I taunted myself with the specter of the very life I now would defend so stridently to motivate myself to excellence, to resist the urge to drop out, buy a motorcycle and tour the country. A thousand times I have thought about walking away. I still do. But it's the prospect of a life of monotony, of stagnation, of, for example, gluing transistors to a circuit board nine hours a day, that has made itself known whenever I have contemplated dropping out of the upper middle class go-go dance. It's a much easier routine to stay in than it is to leave and return to; the evidence of that is manifest every time someone says, "I was planning to go back to school but . . . ." I may not live a life of leisure, but all I've ever demanded is variety, and that requires options and means at least to a modest extent.

But what does it say that a show like this succeeds, runs three seasons, continues to garner significant ratings? Do people not see themselves being mocked, their lives belittled as diversions from the real, if futile, task of aspiring to a decadent life borne of runaway success? Is this our royalty, come down from their palaces to mingle with the laity, these bumbling morons of no greater distinction than that conferred by a household name and a body to die for?

Of course the assemblyline workers are bored, or at least many of them are. Of course, given a significant degree of choice, many of them would choose something else -- many, indeed, would choose to while away their days next to a Beverly Hills pool. But it's no accident that so many working class lottery winners keep working. And in any event that's the nature of the beast, and it's at the heart of why the Paris Hiltons and Nicole Richies of the world (yes, plural; they could be traded in for any number of idle rich girls without an appreciable difference) have something to do other than linger by their pools.

Deep down, the kicked dogs still can't resist the impulse to cozy back up to the only master they've known. Worship doesn't fade in the face of abuse; it requires it as vindication. Celebrity is a peculiarly American breed of faith, an observation long since validated by people smarter than I will ever be. But it's unseemly to think of the staying power of this inescapable obsequy, to the point of masochism, to some diaphonous ideal in which you, too, could fail to understand on the poor who sign your paychecks, such as they are.

Is it any wonder that wingnut pundits and politicians enjoy substantial success in part for their castigation of all things Hollywood? And yet . . . and yet . . . their message on this point would have no cachet if their constituents weren't tuning in on a regular basis.

Truly, the whole symbiotic thing is appalling. And if it wasn't for Paris's breasts, I would have turned it off much sooner.


Blogger Zulieka said...

I haven't watched The Simple Life, but I watched David Letterman just to see Paris interviewed, and this is why she fascinates me: I think she is a bonafide android. What was captivating about Marilyn Monroe was that she was her own invention. Paris is someone else's invention, right down to her calibrated shrug. We're jarred by seeing a creation so pretty yet devoid of soul. And that's hot.

1:47 AM  
Blogger Moon said...

I've been struggling with your comment, Zulieka, and I've decided you're closer to capturing the Paris phenomenon than most anyone else who's tried.

The difference is subtle but important: the people I have in mind most often refer to her as an "alien." While I'm sympathetic to that view, "android" is far more apt. It's okay to desire an android -- our entertainment is rife with that anti-fantasy, in movies like Blade Runner, AI, the Stepford Wives -- but of course it's considerably more problematic to want an alien.

I'm not sure I agree, however, either that Marilyn was her own creation or that Paris isn't to some extent her own. I guess it's the first half of the proposition that concerns me most; I've always imagined Marilyn a sort of show biz martyr, who may have brought with her a certain willingness but was ultimately defined by outside influences. But I should be clear that it's my imagination; I don't know nearly enough to speak authoritatively.

8:12 AM  

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