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Tying pop culture to economy is a leap

Linking life and art can boarder on the absurd

COLUMNISTS AND COMMENTATORS have an annoying way of overreaching to connect pop culture with political trends. Take the New York Times’ Frank Rich, who in his most recent opus suggested that public revulsion toward “gaping income inequality” helps explain why “Slumdog Millionaire” “has become America’s movie of the year.”

Based on that squishy logic, far more Americans would endorse unleashing a caped vigilante to fight crime — a suggestion proffered by conservatives, equally absurdly, in attempting to transform “The Dark Knight’s” popularity into an endorsement of George W. Bush’s war against terrorism.

Comforting as these hypotheses might be, drawing such direct parallels is clearly an imperfect, easily bastardized science — a Rorschach test, really, allowing us to imprint our biases onto any situation. Yet the temptation persists, especially amid woeful economic news, to link what we’re watching with how we’re collectively feeling.

The problem is that rampant audience fragmentation and simple human nature defy this process — fostering images of a public that must be a mess emotionally speaking, consuming all sorts of disparate messages. Nor does the long-established guilty pleasure of observing the filthy rich really merit having any deep-seated psychological motivations ascribed to it.

BRAVO, of course, has become the poster network for the fabulous life, a place where a guy on “The Millionaire Matchmaker” happily brags about his net worth. Then again, reality TV usually requires a shaker of salt, so when a man appears overly eager to advertise the size of his assets (or anything else), one suspects the packaging functions as a magnifying glass.

Yet if Bravo at times seems to exist mostly to rub our noses in the wealth of others, the channel’s glitz-laden lineup simultaneously lets us look down on these shallow, materialistic boobs (and in the case of the “Real Housewives” franchise — which has spread from Orange County to New York and Atlanta — big fake ones as well).

Lauren Zalaznick, president of NBC Universal’s Women and Lifestyle Entertainment Networks — which includes Bravo and Oxygen — has become such a maven for aspirational programming that she coined her own term (“affluencers”) to describe the channel’s enviable profile among upscale viewers. Not surprisingly, she took umbrage at another Rich column, in which he labeled real-estate shows on Bravo and other cable nets “creepy” and “Subprime Pornography.”

Zalaznick countered by noting that the urban, high-income demographic watching Bravo represents “the last people reading the New York Times” and that regarding the audience that enjoys such shows, “you can’t yell at them for liking what they like” or dismiss programming you don’t understand as “dumb.”

AS A CRITIC I reserve the right to occasionally do the latter, but Zalaznick is onto something about the fallacy in assuming that high-end lifestyle programming somehow can’t be reconciled with our financial woes.

“Good times and bad times economically are not what the shows are about. Good characters are what the shows are about,” Zalaznick said. “We’re speaking to a couple of million people who want to see, for a variety of reasons, the situations in which these characters put themselves.”

As for whether the pendulum has swung against such shows’ participants — perhaps holding them up to greater ridicule — Zalaznick added, “You have to address the same range of emotions in good times and bad. You may have a different reaction to them, which is totally appropriate.”

Not to be a hypocrite, I admit to deriding Bravo’s travel-agent-for-the-super-rich series “First Class All the Way” for sounding tone-deaf in the current environment, promoting “caviar dreams to a nation in the throes of 401(k) nightmares.”

The bigger picture, though, is considerably more nuanced than that, thwarting efforts to psychoanalyze our various means of escape. Because however amusing it is to try diagnosing the “Slumdog” phenomenon or Bravo fans, we do the work and ourselves a disservice by seizing on facile answers. Indeed, to cite one example underscoring the latter group’s complexity, Zalaznick points out how differently the twenty-something and teen audience view privacy standards.

In short, our personal forms of recreation are no less significant simply because they’re not as widely shared anymore. As Zalaznick put it, “The measure of impact is no longer the ‘MASH’ finale.”

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