Rich and rural meet in new TV show

Posted: Thursday, November 27, 2003

LOS ANGELES Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie carry a lot of baggage in ''The Simple Life,'' and we're not just talking Louis Vuitton.

There's Hilton's reputation as a party girl and her starring role in a sex tape that went from intimate to Internet. Richie, daughter of pop star Lionel Richie, had a legal run-in involving drugs.

''The Simple Life'' itself sounds like a bit of mischief. The Fox reality series, debuting 8:30 p.m. EST Tuesday drops longtime pals Hilton and Richie into the lap of a Southern farm family.

CBS generated protests merely by proposing a reality series akin to ''The Beverly Hillbillies,'' with a country family's adjustment to upscale urban life as a source of amusement.

Fox's twist on ''Green Acres,'' the 1965-71 Eva Gabor-Eddie Albert sitcom in which a New York socialite reluctantly moves to the country with her husband, had similar potential for insulting rural America.

But the series, unlike its stars, need not worry about its reputation: It's nothing but delicious fun.

What could have been a mean-spirited attack on homespun values turns out to be a lighthearted mockery of the rich. What red-blooded, average American with a mortgage could complain about that?

Watch Nicole and Paris jet to Altus, Ark., after a last-ditch shopping spree that includes a $1,500 designer dog carrier. Watch their faces fall as they realize they're staying in a modest country home that doesn't have room service or private bath. And that's no chocolate mint on the bed it's a tick! (Cue horrified looks from Paris and Nicole.)

See the young ladies traipse around the countryside in wildly inappropriate outfits. Watch Paris ponder the meaning of the following: Wal-Mart ("Is that where they sell wall stuff?''); a shopping list calling for ''generic water'' and the phrase ''soup kitchen.''

The rich, it seems, really are different from the rest of us.

Or maybe Hilton and Richie are engaged in a most contemporary form of noblesse oblige, embarrassing themselves on television to make the rest of us feel better. (And the Emmy for self-abasing rich kid goes to ...) Speculation aside, in this class warfare skirmish the children of privilege don't stand a chance. Their hosts, the Leding family, have on their side common sense, a work ethic and stability.

Paris and Nicole are armed only with winning smiles and Paris' well-dressed dog, Tinkerbell. But while ''The Simple Life'' doesn't cut the pair much slack it's edited to get the most laughs out of their gaffes its producers insist it's not cruel.

''There's a heart to it,'' said Jonathan Murray, executive producer along with Mary-Ellis Bunim. The pair are well-established in the reality genre with series including ''The Real World'' and ''Road Rules.''

Their latest show began as a suggestion from their agent, Mark Itkin, who asked them to consider a reality twist on ''Green Acres.'' Turned out Fox had been weighing a similar concept, and ''The Simple Life'' was born.

''Everyone realized for Fox (with its young audience) the best person to send would be Paris Hilton. She seems to be everywhere,'' Murray said. ''She certainly is the 'It Girl,' along with her sister, Nicky.'''

Richie was selected because of her chemistry with her longtime friend, while the Leding family made the cut for other reasons.

''We wanted a completely functional family, so much the contrast of what a lot of us have here in Los Angeles,'' Murray said, with a small chuckle. ''They measured up in every way.''

Besides parents Janet and Albert Leding, the household includes three boys (a fourth is in the military) and grandparents. Watching grandmom try to coax Hilton and Richie into plucking a chicken is worth the price of admission.

The Ledings insisted that they be allowed to maintain control of their home during filming but were tolerant toward the high-flying young women, Murray said.

Richie's arrest shortly before filming was to start did not deter the family. She faced charges of drug possession and driving with a suspended license and was later ordered into a rehab program.

''The Ledings are incredibly fair-minded people,'' Murray said. ''They wanted to make judgments on Nicole for themselves, not on what was in the papers.''

The much-discussed Hilton video (showing her with a former boyfriend) didn't hit until after the series finished filming. For Hilton, the show's debut comes uncomfortably close to the scandal.

''It's put her a little on edge about the whole thing,'' Murray said.

But watching several episodes reassured her, he said.

And could ''The Simple Life'' bring the upper and lower classes closer together?

Don't count on it.

''This is an effort to make America laugh. There is no pro-social goal here,'' Murray said. ''This is entertainment television.''

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EDITOR'S NOTE Lynn Elber can be reached at lelber''at''

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