Most reality series revolve around the idea of making fools out of regular folk who’ll do anything to win love or money. It was only a matter of time before producers figured out that it might be even more fun to abase the affluent. Enter The Simple Life and Rich Girls, a ratings duel between East Coast and West Coast princesses. Supremely watchable, these shows nevertheless make for ambivalent entertainment: I’m not sure if I’m supposed to laugh at the girls, envy them, or guillotine them.
The premise of Rich Girls is straightforward: We spy on two wealthy teenagers, Ally Hilfiger (daughter of designer Tommy) and Jaime Gleicher (daughter of some rich noncelebrity), going about their ordinary lives. Of course, as with the Osbournes, ordinary life is fairly extraordinary for these nouveau riche Manhattan mini-socialites—they swan from boutique to salon to party, and from one Hilfiger mansion to the next. Highlights include Ally vomiting off the side of her yacht and Jaime’s failed scheme to lose her virginity before prom night (amped up on coffee, her date gets so nervous he throws up). Just like Sharon Osbourne, the show’s teenage stars have producer credits, which makes it even more puzzling why they’d open themselves up to this kind of self-exposure and ridicule.
Stuck in the role of dumpy sidekick, Jaime lopes around with a scowl permanently etched on her face; at 18, she already exudes the aura of a disappointed middle-aged matron. She spreads adolescent angst over every available surface—whether it’s pining for a teenage cad who chooses a younger, prettier girl over her, or guilt-tripping over her wealth. Listening to the girls discuss class and justify their prosperity is one of the more revelatory aspects of Rich Girls. During a heart-to-heart talk at Ally’s Caribbean mansion, Jaime suggests that although they’ve never lifted a finger, maybe they earned their luck in a past life: “We must have done something really good for us to have the privileges that we do. Benjamin Franklin was born on my birthday, Muhammad Ali was born on my birthday—like, maybe I was one of them.” That doesn’t mean they’re beyond noblesse oblige traditions like fundraising. Their current cause is Ethiopians; as Ally points out, “They’re so malnutritional.” The couple decide to ask their friends to contribute money to charity instead of buying $400 Manolos. “What is more important,” Ally asks passionately, “a pair of stupid shoes or a life?”
Ally and Jamie at least have some inkling of their good fortune. The stars of The Simple Life—hotel heiress Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, daughter of Lionel—exude nothing beyond a monstrous sense of entitlement. After watching the first two episodes, I felt like calling for Hilton’s fake-tanned head on a stick—but as anyone who has seen the sex tape knows, her body already is a stick. At one point in The Simple Life, the camera goes blurry to conceal her butt crack, because her denim hip-huggers have slipped off her nonexistent hips. As Ally would say, she’s downright malnutritional.
The concept of The Simple Life sounded like Punk’d for debutantes: two Beverly Hills publicity ‘hos banished to a small farm in Altus, Arkansas, for 30 days. Who wouldn’t want to see these fashionistas shoveling cow dung, flipping burgers, and suffering from spa-withdrawal pangs? The debut episode pushes all the right buttons as the young women meet their salt-of-the-earth host family, the Ledings. The expected culture clash ensues. Grandma Curly Leding (whose tall hair resembles a graying meringue) grumbles about the duo’s risqué clothing. The girls immediately shirk their chores, refusing to help pluck the freshly slaughtered chickens that Curly’s preparing for dinner. “I-swear-I’ll-puke,” Paris threatens. Although they claim they want to experience “how the other half lives,” the duo spends most of the two episodes I’ve seen doing anything but that. They ignore the Leding’s house rules and get fired from their first ever job—at a dairy farm—after just one day. They’re also consistently condescending and sometimes plain rude to their hosts: “I couldn’t imagine living here. I would die,” Paris tells the family on their first night.
Yet it becomes obvious as you watch The Simple Life that Hilton and Richie are not the butt of the joke—they’re in on it. Paris acts like she’s never heard of Wal-Mart (“Do they sell stuff for walls?”), but later admits she was camping it up. Nicole’s dumb-blonde act has a chilling, artificial edge to it: When the duo runs up a supermarket bill larger than what the Ledings budget, Nicole emits a vacuous giggle and asks the cashier, “Can we just have it?” The producers—The Real World creators Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jon Murray—set the show up to mock the girls’ decadent ways, but they also egged them on to be outrageous. Take the terrible twosome’s brief stint as minimum-wage workers at the dairy farm. Clad in designer combat gear and fluorescent trucker caps, they spill half the milk they’re squirting into bottles, cheat by diluting the milk with water, then start hiding bottles to make it look like they’ve finished. It’s a madcap scene that could’ve come straight out of I Love Lucy. Which is more or less what they were briefed to replicate, judging by this Hollywood Reporter quote from producer Jon Murray: “From the beginning, I told Paris and Nicole, ‘This is Lucy and Ethel.’ . . . We went into it thinking of it as a comedy.”
It’s a peculiarly uncomfortable kind of comedy, though, as we watch Paris and Nicole more or less run roughshod over their hosts and their working-class community. Like The Cat in the Hat‘s Thing One and Thing Two, they are greedy gremlins devoted to pleasure at any cost. Sitting on the porch gossiping about the family’s teenage son Justin, the girls concede that he’s very sweet. “Yeah,” Nicole continues with a gale of vixenish laughter, “we should have a threesome with him!” The next night they break Mr. Leding’s curfew and sneak off to a local bar looking for some hot hick action. Considering Paris’s current sex tape scandal and Nicole’s arrest for heroin possession (she was busted and let out on bail just before the series was filmed), these Miss Things might do well to learn some lessons in simplicity.
For an altogether more real strand of reality, look for To Live Is Better Than to Die airing on Cinemax after a much lauded appearance at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. This may be the most harrowing hour I’ve spent before the television all year—a remarkably unsentimental and unsanitized documentary about China’s AIDS epidemic, made intimate by its focus on one rural family gripped by the disease. Chinese independent filmmaker Weijun Chen snuck into the village of Wenlou to film a year in the life of Ma Shengyi, his wife, and their young children. Like many poor Chinese, Ma Shengyi contracted the virus after selling his blood for cash. Now he no longer has the strength to work on his farm. As his once pretty wife lies in a wheelbarrow, weakening before our eyes, he takes care of his three children (the youngest two of whom are also HIV-positive). And he does so with infinite gentleness and devotion, looking on as his baby son lurches around their tiny home learning to walk, and presenting his eldest daughter with a new book bag when she does well at school. He retains both practicality and hope: Even after his wife dies, Ma Shengyi is thinking about who will raise his kids when he’s gone and considering marrying a local widow.