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Reality shows highlight the ritzy, glitzy, and comically ditzy

Clueless, wealthy young women emerge as new prime-time stars

Girls just wanna have fun? Nope. Girls just wanna be dumb.

Or at least that's how it appears on a TV screen near you, which is featuring a very visible posse of young women flaunting string bean-lean bodies, pea brains, and fat wallets. For this pack of TV figurines, which includes Jessica Simpson, Paris Hilton, and the hot heirs in MTV's "Rich Girls," the most fashionable accoutrement of the moment isn't a Prada bag or a pink Cosmo; it's a dunce cap.

The new dumb bunnies of reality TV are a prime-time mini-spectacle of self-involvement, vapidity, and social unawareness. They're the opposites of the empowered young women of fictional series such as "Alias" and the late "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," whose heroine was both a Valley Gal and an emotional, physical, and intellectual force. The most empowerment these reality chicks project is in their ability to put on their blinders and whip out the plastic.

Yes, OK, watching unadulterated idiocy does have comic overtones, as filthy rich 22-year-olds Hilton and Nicole Richie get just plain filthy in the Arkansas backwash on Fox's "The Simple Life." The reality show, which begins on Tuesday night at 8:30, reveals the peroxided pair -- in full-court makeup and designer overalls -- screwing up a day's work at a dairy farm like lip-glossed Lucy Ricardos. Standing in the dirt, they're as humorously discordant as, say, Donatella Versace on "Hee Haw." "The Simple Life" is funny in the same ironic way Simpson's endless whining on MTV's "Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica" is funny; the sheer cluelessness and shamelessness is a wonder to behold.

The press has already capitalized on the comedy of stupidity chic, immortalizing a collection of so-dumb-you-have-to-laugh lines from these shows. Simpson notoriously turned down Buffalo wings by saying, "No thanks, I don't eat buffalo," and she wondered about Chicken of the Sea brand tuna, "Is this chicken, what I have, or is this fish?" The speedy word-of-mouth by which these comments have spread through pop culture inspired ABC to give Simpson a sitcom deal, and now the singer is making a point of playing dumb -- "doing a Jessica," as Internet culture puts it -- when she appears in public. It has become her calling card as she tries to climb from the C to the B list.

A few ironically comical one-liners have also emerged from MTV's popular reality show "Rich Girls," which scales the heights of the shallowness of two nouveau riche New York teens, Ally Hilfiger (designer Tommy's daughter) and Jaime Gleicher (a luggage heiress). Amid manicures, pedicures, and limo-driven shopping sprees, the pair philosophize airhead-style about their good fortune, with Gleicher wondering if she was Muhammad Ali in another life. (Note: Ali is still alive.) Gleicher also observes that Benjamin Franklin "invented the lightbulb." No Hillary Rodham Clinton, she. If there were a laugh track accompanying "Rich Girls," most of the time it would be set on snicker. Meanwhile, even before "The Simple Life" premiere, Hilton's Wal-Mart query -- "Do they sell wall stuff?" -- has already become the show's buzz phrase.

But there's more than a hint of pathos to all the ditziness on these shows, particularly in light of the public shaming of Hilton now that a sexually explicit video she made with former boyfriend Rick Salomon has surfaced on the Internet. Saying she feels "embarrassed and humiliated," the party girl has canceled her scheduled "Simple Life" promotional appearances. Not even a public plea from David Letterman has changed her mind: "We'll talk about anything you want to talk about," he said on the air last week. "If you have pets, we'll talk about your pets." After years of baiting the paparazzi by behaving trashily with her sister, Nicky, she has to be feeling truly awful to be turning her back on the cameras now. Some of her flightiness on "The Simple Life" may be as fake as her ever-present tan -- reality players always know how to amp up the camp -- but her pain is probably real.

Meanwhile, Richie's superficiality has a painful side, too, as she faced heroin-possession charges before the filming of "The Simple Life" and rehab afterward. When the two friends giddily sneak out of their Arkansas host's home to a local bar at the end of episode two, real life exerts a pall over "The Simple Life." It's the same pall that seems to keep Hilton from allowing a single ray of sunniness to enter into her deadened eyes.

The pathos extends to all of these young reality stars, as they repeatedly reveal their disconnection to reality. Forget about MTV's 1990s efforts to bring social consciousness to their target audience; these featured up-and-comers are painfully entitled and out of touch with the world. They're not nearly as different as they should be from the contestants on Howard Stern's dumbest-stripper contests.

Gleicher, who appears to be in a state of perpetual anxiety, wonders, "People pay money for clothes, OK, but shouldn't it be like a free necessity like water, because you need it?" Simpson, meanwhile, is unwittingly paying $746 for three pieces of underwear and berating husband Nick Lachey for doing work around the house instead of letting a designer do it. Their rarefied surroundings and the realism of Simpson's brattiness make them pretty hard to sympathize with.

On "The Simple Life," Hilton is contemptuous of her working-class hosts, the Leding family, even telling them straight out, "I couldn't imagine living here. I would die." She gets into an old pickup truck saying, "This is so ghetto," and she admits she has never worked a day in her life. Richie, who is singer Lionel Richie's daughter, is relegated to the role of sidekick. But she manages to get in a few little zings, at one point eyeing the Ledings' innocently awkward teenage son and saying "We should have a threesome with him!"

The specter of Anna Nicole Smith -- the grotesque icon of TV dopiness -- hangs over all of these young women. Unlike the stylized ditzhood of "dumb blondes" from Marilyn Monroe to Goldie Hawn to Lisa Kudrow on "Friends," their cluelessness can be chilling and sad. Of course, for reality filmmakers looking to exploit lost souls for our bemusement, they're a no brainer.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

RELATED LINKS
Paris Hilton, left, and Nicole Richie on "The Simple Life," Paris Hilton, left, and Nicole Richie pose with Tinkerbelle in this undated publicity photo. The Fox reality series "The Simple Life," debuting 8:30 p.m. EST Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2003.
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