TV gets a touch of class (warfare)

AMERICANS GENERALLY don’t resent the Donald Trumps and Kathy Hiltons of the world, in part because we wish to enjoy the same privileges when our ships come in — a hope that springs eternal, even when there’s no sail remotely visible on the horizon.

That’s why it’s a surprise to see sharply drawn class distinctions in primetime, both overt and somewhat indirectly, in several new series. Most notable are NBC’s just-introduced “I Want to Be a Hilton” and ABC’s upcoming “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” which shouldn’t obscure the politically loaded minimum-wage experiment in FX’s “30 Days” or the economically disadvantaged teens striving for financial support in ABC’s “The Scholar.”

Most telling are the first two programs, which both focus on haves and have-nots, or at least have-lesses. Moreover, there’s a palpable hunger among contestants, at least as presented, yearning for a much-needed windfall — not quite “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” but something less than completely benign.

Other reality competitions traffic in get-rich-quick elements, but these series differ by zeroing in on social divisions, teasing at the nonfiction “Beverly Hillbillies” conceit that in theory alone brought a storm of cow chips raining down on CBS. “I Want to Be a Hilton’s” modest allure comes entirely from watching barefoot Lil’ Abner types see if they can graduate to the Hiltons’ high society, mastering the finer points of charity balls and Chardonnay, not night-vision sexcapades.

In “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” which premieres next month, white conservative Christians in an upscale Texas cul-de-sac get to select their new neighbors, bestowing a house upon the winning family. Think of it as “Extreme Makeover: Compete for a Home Edition,” with “normal” families deciding who joins them in suburbia.

Most of the aspirants are minorities, and many speak of how victory would provide better lives for their kids. So it’s interesting to see the homeowners express disenchantment, say, with Mrs. Gonzalez, whom they perceive as trying too hard to gain their approval. Apparently, “Mi casa es su casa” only if you kiss our butts with greater subtlety.

TELEVISION PROGRAMS aren’t birthed in a vacuum, and a cynic might say these series highlight a political debate being more frequently couched in terms of class warfare. Bush administration tax cuts have fueled Democratic broadsides about the GOP catering to millionaire fat cats, along with the inevitable Republican retort about the rival party’s “soak the rich” attitude.

Underscoring how uncomfortable Americans traditionally are with class, the discord stems in part from basic disagreement over what “rich” means. Take the couples in ABC’s “Neighborhood,” who reside in Austin, not “Dallas,” occupying pristine homes resembling the classic Spielbergian vision of Americana. Such folks tend not to identify themselves as rich — unlike the super-rich, a historic source of fascination if not always admiration. Perhaps that’s because so many of the super-rich have been getting indicted lately.

Still, just as Mrs. Hilton’s daughter is famous merely for being famous, exalting wealth unrelated to accomplishment and subjecting the less privileged to indignities in exchange for possible club admission approaches some sort of threshold — not as brutal as the “They Shoot Horses” Depression-era dance marathon, but a distasteful variation on the theme.

How incongruous, too, that the elder Hilton makes her debut as NBC prepares a fall lineup whose linchpins include “My Name Is Earl,” a half-hour series about a low-life straight out of a Coen brothers comedy. To Earl, scratching a $100,000 lottery ticket evokes cries of “I’m rich!” — right before a car plows into him.

Then again, that’s how things often go regarding class warfare. The gentry don’t even notice the peasants are growing restless until a mob arrives carrying torches and pitchforks — or, in this case, their head shots.

SPIRITED NEWS: KCBS and KCAL broke ground Friday on a facility that will eventually contain the local news operations for Viacom’s L.A. TV station duopoly. Situated on the CBS lot in Studio City, the space previously housed the net’s unscripted endurance show “Big Brother.”

Not to be superstitious, but has anyone at CBS seen “Poltergeist” lately?

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