The Simple Life was not exactly lauded critically in its time. It had a larger viewership at the outset, sure, with thirteen million viewers tuning in to the first episode when it premiered on December 2, 2003, many apparently relishing the possibility of watching two spoiled rich girls from L.A. get their asses handed to them in the depths of Arkansas. And oh how Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie delivered on everyone’s expectations. Upon arriving at the Leding family’s humble abode in Altus, Arkansas, situated near the eastern corner of the state, just below Ozark National Forest, it was immediately evident that they would never thrive in this pastoral environment. But Paris and Nicole’s interests didn’t exactly lie in being at one with nature during their non-reprieve in Middle America. Unless by nature what is meant is “the birds and the bees,” with Richie in particular showcasing her boy craziness at every turn.
The pursuit of attractive men came first and foremost in between the attempts at working in such locations as a dairy farm and Sonic (where the infamous 1/2 Price Salty Anal Bugers sign was created). But more than a glimpse into the psychosis of a bored socialite, The Simple Life captured a very specific moment in U.S. history. As the height of anti-Bush sentiment began to pick up after Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney basically decided for Dubya to go to war in Iraq (in spite of Afghanistan alleged to be the primary target post-9/11), it became clear through Paris and Nicole’s interactions with Joe Public that the type of constituency supporting the Bush administration was America’s problem, not its solution (a familiar feeling in the present era). Side note: the letters they were changing on the Sonic marquee spelled out the cultish “United We Stand” sentiment adopted ad nauseum and infinitum in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and the decision to go to war in the Middle East.
But before the satire on Bush and his cronies reached a zenith in 2006 with Borat, in which Sacha Baron Cohen, disguised in the persona of one of his signature characters, Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev from Da Ali G Show, travels the United States in search of “C.J.” a.k.a. Pamela Anderson, Paris and Nicole were revealing to all of mainstream America just how skewed the perception of the “average” U.S. citizen is. And it wasn’t just in the blatant narrow-mindedness and misogyny of someone like Albert Leding, the patriarch of season one, insisting to them as they lounged in the living room, “You could be doing housework or something,” or even the gall of a Mississippian named James to continuously call Paris and Nicole stupid to the point where Nicole finally had to make him see that she would “fucking kill [him]” if he kept referring to them as such. It was that everyone they encountered–particularly on the road trip theme of season two–was unabashed in their ignorance.
And while, yes, Paris and Nicole were ignorant in their own ways to the world unto itself that is the Deep South, it was through their staunch commitment to their manner of existence being applicable to all towns throughout America that made their unintentional commentary so poignant. Expected to work thankless jobs for pay barely equating to minimum wage, Paris and Nicole dared to say, essentially, “No. This is ridiculous.” Signifying the one percent in more ways than just their bank account, Hilton and Richie took a stand for non-conformists everywhere, preferring to remain poverty-stricken in their temporary day-to-day than ever endure the plight of not having a good time or dressing like an eighty-year-old member of a quilting circle.
In contrast to the “commoner,” Paris and Nicole tended to draw negative attention for not taking anything seriously (least of all working), at one point getting yelled out of a local bar in Altus after Nicole, in a drunken rage, threw bleach on a pool table upon discovering her purse was missing. The term, “Go home rich bitch” from one patron wouldn’t be the first or last time the duo was called out for their socioeconomic standing, and, in this regard, The Simple Life signaled the gradual loss of cachet of being wealthy and Caucasian in popular media, building upon a thesis known as the plight of the white girl.
Even so, with the reign of Bush still in effect, The Simple Life soldiered on even after getting cancelled on Fox in the wake of season three, with E! picking up the show for its last two seasons, “‘Till Death Do Us Part” and “Goes to Camp.” The narrative didn’t cast quite as dark a pall on the anti-culture of Anywhere USA in these seasons, with the fourth one keeping them in L.A.. therefore never sans cell phones or credit cards as their everyday panacea. Appearances from Kim Kardashian and Kesha would also later vindicate The Simple Life for its star-making, trailblazing status.
Capturing the pervasiveness of tabloid culture when it came to it girls of the mid-00s, Paris balks, “I can’t believe Britney Spears is from here,” as they roll into the Creole territory of Louisiana in season two. This may very well have been the moment Paris got it into her mind that she would have to take Britney out for a proper night on the town at Guy’s Bar in West Hollywood to fully scrub the bumpkin out of her on that iconic night in November of ’06 during which Lindsay Lohan would also accompany them.
In their unapologetic and uncensored interactions with everyone whose lives they barrel through, Paris and Nicole unearth the dark side of the “American dream”: self-sufficiency, owning a home, having a family and “protecting” that family (generally via politically-motivated bellicism). While Borat was a more extreme and intentional comment on American society at the time of its release, with Borat’s jingoism and racism applauded at most every southern and Midwestern stop on his quest to get to Pamela Anderson in L.A., there can be no denying the genius of The Simple Life in highlighting the egregious us v. them disconnect in the places that lie between New York and Los Angeles.