To paraphrase Robert F. Kennedy, some see old sitcoms as they are and say “Why?” Fox reality whiz Mike Darnell views them and dreams, “Why can’t that be a stupid reality show?” Enter this “Green Acres”-inspired contribution to class warfare, made palatable and watchable because the primary objects of derision are heiress/party girls Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. Neatly packaged in a half-hour format, this easy-to-promote concept plays like a light-hearted romp, where mercifully (two episodes in, at least) nobody has learned much of anything. Just pray no one starts getting teary-eyed about their “amazing journey” in Episode 3.
Unlike CBS’ flirtation with a reality-based version of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “The Simple Life” should avoid any peals of protest, principally because its targets are the idle (and not accidentally, beautiful) rich. Of course, everyone around them is stereotyped as toothless bumpkins, but that’s not the focus.
You certainly have to hand it to famous-for-being-famous Paris Hilton, what with her widely circulated “sex tape” functioning as the show’s electronic press kit.
A more cynical sort might even suspect Fox orchestrated its release, but given that this is the same outfit that couldn’t uncover would-be bridegroom Rick Rockwell’s restraining order or “Temptation Island” duo Taheed and Ytossie’s child, how likely is that?
Fox has gone into this exercise with its eyes wide open, meaning any further revelations will only add to the show’s marketing efforts. For once, enough embarrassing disclosures came before the premiere that it’ll be unnecessary for anyone to feign surprise after.
(A critical aside here on said video: While it’s easy to admire the hand-held camerawork under difficult conditions and a modest budget, the night-vision photography is off-putting and obscures too much of the action.)
Deftly packaged by “The Real World’s” Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray into a half-hour format, “Simple Life” eschews the wholesale padding characteristic of most hourlong reality shows and plays like a comedy.
It also helps enormously that Hilton and Richie (the “notorious” daughter, per the intro, of Lionel Richie) provide their own hilarious dialogue, saying things like “What does ‘generic’ mean?” and pondering what happens at Wal-Mart. In the don’t-know-much-about dept., the pair give fellow reality pinatas Jessica Simpson and Anna Nicole Smith a run for their money.
The title clearly describes the premise, plucking these two spoiled twentysomething brats from their posh Beverly Hills surroundings and asking them to spend a month with the Leding family in Altus, Ark., population 817.
After we see them helicopter in to a farewell party and Paris air-kiss her mom goodbye, they face the rigors of driving a pickup truck, milking cows, getting asked to pluck chickens (uh, no wa-ay), and being told their foster dad Albert won’t tolerate “cussing or bad language.”
Albert’s rules present a special hardship to potty-mouthed Nicole, while Hilton’s wardrobe appears to run afoul not only of community mores but Fox standards (who knew?).
At one point, the producers go to the trouble of blurring her butt crack in post-production — escaping as it is from low-hanging jeans. Though she has never worked a day in her life, this suggests some vocational potential as a refrigerator repairman.
That minor bit of visual editing is about as subtle as things get here, from the strains of “Dueling Banjos” to the corn-pone narrator, who sounds like something out of those old “Wonderful World of Disney” wildlife specials. You keep waiting for him to make like Jed Clampett and yell out “Whee, doggie!”
“They’ve officially gone from fur collar to blue collar,” he drawls, giving new meaning to the term “unscripted.”
In fact, this is a highly staged affair, even including thought balloons to illustrate Paris’ discomfort eating the chickens she saw walking around earlier. Rest assured, if they were real thought balloons, they’d be a lot smaller and the picture would be fuzzier.
Even for those who dislike the genre, however, the show contains humor and a certain charm, down to the awkward silences between the girls and the Ledings. Perhaps that’s because Paris and Nicole are so willfully snotty, and (even if it’s a bit put on) utterly uncomprehending that anyone could survive without a trust fund, much less on a farm.
With at best tepid comedy competition in its timeslot as “Whoopi” shifts to 8:30 and “I’m With Her” just sort of sits there, the door seems open for “Life” to exhibit some Nielsen legs. The only question will be whether people find the girls quirkily endearing or simply annoying — a fair appraisal in either case.
Although the producers would clearly like to fuel a bit of suspense as to whether the two hang on the full 30 days, the show’s joys reside in its small moments. It’s hard not to laugh, for example, when Nicole observes that one of the teenage sons is very sweet before cheerfully adding, “We should have a threesome with him.”
Whee doggie, indeed.