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The unreality show

The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at scott.collins@latimes.com

TONIGHT’S return of “The Simple Life” on E! Entertainment briefly recaps the show’s fourth season, which was marred by a feud between its stars, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. The goal this season was to get the women back together again, so Paris is shown offering an olive branch by ringing Nicole to wish her a happy birthday. “I mean, I’m just like in shock right now that we’re even talking on the phone,” says Nicole, glimpsed lounging poolside somewhere above the Sunset Strip.

“The Simple Life” is allegedly a reality show, whatever that term means nowadays. But only a real-life hermit would fail to notice that the happy setup for Season 5 skips over a few inconvenient truths -- such as Nicole’s reported stay last fall at an “undisclosed private facility” for weight-related medical problems (she’s vehemently denied having an eating disorder) as well as Paris’ 45-day jail sentence, imposed by a court earlier this month, after she violated terms of her probation for a DUI arrest last fall (authorities later said she’d serve about 23 days, starting early next month).

Nicole’s problems in particular delayed production for months. Even when filming finally began in March, she suffered an illness that briefly landed her in the hospital -- two more bits of reality that went missing from tonight’s premiere. But then, facts are fungible on “The Simple Life.” The debut will include a disclaimer that the footage of Paris and Nicole’s telephone reconciliation was actually “re-created for dramatic purposes,” an E! spokeswoman says.

Life these days is getting less and less simple for the “Simple Life” gals, who are even attracting A-list political attention, albeit not of the friendly variety. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger airily dismissed Paris’ recent plea for a pardon; meanwhile, in his new book, “The Assault on Reason,” Al Gore slams the news media for giving short shrift to serious issues such as the Iraq war in favor of the attention-seeking Paris and Nicole, whom he cites by name as part of “a new pattern of serial obsessions that periodically take over the airwaves for weeks at a time.”

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At the risk of underscoring Gore’s complaint (well, this is the entertainment section, after all), now may be the appropriate time to ask: Has “The Simple Life” -- initially meant as a nonscripted goof on “Green Acres,” with a flaky blond debutante and her mean-girl sidekick who are forced to mix it up with regular folks -- moved past the point of funny to the general vicinity of sad? Paris and Nicole remain reality TV’s most notorious and recognizable duo, each of whom has used “The Simple Life” as a steppingstone for a wide range of business ventures -- in Paris’ case that includes a semi-successful pop album, branded perfumes and handbags. But the gap between the “reality” of the pair’s lives on the show and the reality of their actual lives as depicted in news accounts is becoming a bit too wide to bridge.

In the season premiere of “The Simple Life Goes to Camp” -- which plants the duo as guffawing and not particularly empathic counselors at, of all things, a weight-loss camp -- Nicole repeatedly complains about inaccuracies in news stories and tries to characterize reports about her rumored anorexia as a cultural lack of size acceptance, akin to the insults suffered by the obese.

Executive producer Jonathan Murray says that the show ignores the duo’s other real-life problems, though, because their magnitude wasn’t apparent during filming. “When we were shooting this, they really weren’t on the horizon,” Murray says of Paris’ legal woes. (Paris was arrested for suspected drunk driving in September and five months later was picked up for speeding and other moving violations, which authorities say broke her probation agreement. Paris’ personal publicist referred questions to her manager, who didn’t return a call seeking comment.)

Tellingly, tonight’s season premiere ends with a late-night scene in which Paris and Nicole attempt to break open a padlocked refrigerator by hitching it to the back of a car and driving recklessly at high speeds, laughing all the way.

Ted Harbert, the president of E! Entertainment, reiterated the notion that “reality TV” is a loose concept, particularly when you’re talking about celebrities as famous as Paris and Nicole. “Young women, in particular, are drawn to them,” he says. “The show doesn’t deal with anything else in their personal lives. It’s a comedy.”

There’s no question that Paris and Nicole have real fans. Paris in particular is a subject of intense fascination, whether or not Al Gore approves. Much of the interest stems, of course, from her famous last name and its associations with wealth and privilege. Then there’s her amateur sex tape that surfaced a few years back. Since then, she’s cultivated her own brand of celebrity crypto-inscrutability, making herself ubiquitous while revealing as little as possible of her personal credo and convictions, assuming she actually nurtures such things. Paris offers merely the outline of a persona; viewers are obliged to color in the rest by themselves.

“She’s like the quintessence of superficiality,” says USC professor Leo Braudy, author of “The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History.”

But the fame that Paris and Nicole enjoy is of the high-wire, deeply conflicted, could-be-over-at-any-moment sort.

For millions of Americans, Paris and Nicole are convenient targets of scorn and ridicule -- virtual shorthand for the idiotic celebrity culture that Gore laments. When Fox News Channel wanted to hand CNN’s Anderson Cooper the ultimate dis, it referred to him as “the Paris Hilton of TV news.” Last week, the Internet gambling site GottaBet.com hawked its own line of wagers surrounding Paris’ jail stay (“Will a prison sex tape be released?” “Will she have a moving violation within six months of exiting jail?”). And this summer, author Jerry Oppenheimer, a specialist in celebrity hatchet jobs, will unleash “House of Hilton: From Conrad to Paris: A Drama of Wealth, Power, and Privilege,” which, according to Publishers Weekly, will make readers “shudder to hear that such a privileged family could be so shockingly uneducated and uncouth.”

As Braudy says, “There’s always been disgust with certain forms of celebrity.” He compares Paris’ antics with those of heiresses Barbara Hutton, the “poor little rich girl” once married to Cary Grant, and Gloria Vanderbilt, the fashion designer who happens to be the mother of CNN’s Cooper.

Murray, for his part, compares Paris with another famous blond: Princess Diana. Like Diana, he says, Paris has a mysterious connection with ordinary people. And like Diana, she has suffered the slings and arrows of the tabloid press.

“You build anyone up, you also get people who try to tear you down,” Murray says.

Of course, Diana never starred in a prime-time reality series, let alone one that’s staggering into its fifth season as the personal lives of its stars risk implosion. But the TV industry, seemingly like Paris, isn’t big on regret, caution or introspection.

“I think these are some of the funniest episodes we’ve had,” Murray says. “I think the concept still works. Clearly these are not the same people they were when we started this. It’s fun to watch them, in a way, growing up.”


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