Reality TV Longs for a Simpler Life

There is a scene from The Simple Life that is forever (oven-)baked into my memory. Hotel heiress Paris Hilton had cooked her “famous” lasagna for the family of regular Americans she and troublesome sidekick Nicole Richie were playing house with. I remember, specifically, how unpolished the lasagna looked. It was like the anti-Instagram aesthetic: an ungodly amount of cheap-looking, pre-grated cheese. Red sauce seeping over the edges. I knew it would make Italians shudder, but secretly, I thought it looked delicious.

The Simple Life turns 20 years old this week. It might seem like a fundamentally silly reality show about two pioneering nepo babies being dragged out of their fancy lives to “work” alongside regular Americans—and it was. But The Simple Life also represents a societal shift: It transformed its leads from rich-kid socialites into A-list celebrities—a type of global fame previously reserved for actors, singers, or athletes with traditional “talent.” Now, the reality TV medium is maneuvering to try to recapture The Simple Life’s naivety. This year, long-running shows have purposefully gone “back to basics,” in an attempt to rediscover what fans first liked about them. There has also been a wave of early-2000s reboots, plus new shows that draw inspiration from an era when the medium felt lighter to consume. Can reality TV really reclaim its innocence?

In 2003, when The Simple Life premiered on Fox, we had already started to see how reality TV could turn ordinary people into celebrities. MTV’s The Real World—a show that, each season, followed a different group of young people living together in a city like San Francisco or New York—became an early reality TV phenomenon. In the United States, 50 million people watched the first season finale of Survivor, and in the U.K., early seasons of Big Brother also drew huge ratings. These shows were typical of early reality programming, in that they branded themselves as “social experiments.” What happens when people try to survive together on a remote island? Or are locked in a house with no contact with the outside world?

At that point, celebrities were becoming reality-TV-curious. MTV was already showing us stars’ homes on Cribs, and then there were The Osbournes and Newlyweds—a strangely addictive reality show starring divorced-couple-in-the-making Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson. The Simple Life was different, though. Masterminded by the same producers as The Real World, the show staged a clash between “regular” and filthy-rich people, to ask a question: What happens when you take away the credit cards from two heiresses and make them work for a living?

At the same time, it was first and foremost entertainment. Any notion of “social experiment” was surface-level and performed, from the over-the-top pink clothing and Chihuahuas, to the mountains of (probably empty) suitcases Hilton and Richie brought with them. The blonde duo would chase each other with animal feces and even auditioned men to date a young Kesha’s mother. Armed with Barbie-girl looks, a baby voice, and a catchphrase (“That’s hot”), Hilton created a character for herself: the airhead heiress.

The Simple Life was part reality, part sitcom. Hilton was the lead, and her name was in the theme music—“Miss Hilton, you must be worth a trillion bucks!” the lyrics sang. She played the role to perfection, and her ditzy persona transcended the show to become her brand: Paparazzi would photograph her driving around in a pink car, strutting out of nightclubs in oversize sunglasses, and shopping with her dog in her handbag (like Elle Woods, without the Harvard degree). “The whole world assumed that’s who I really was,” Hilton said earlier this year. There was a fascination with her model looks and wealth, but part of the allure was also working out what, if anything, was real about her. This is what professor June Deery, author of the 2015 book Reality TV, calls “staged actuality”: the tension between the real and the staged. Deery thinks this is at the core of why audiences are so enthralled by the reality medium.

Particularly for the first two of its five seasons, the innocence of The Simple Life was part of what made it fun. As Hilton and Richie got more famous, the show lost its footing, storylining a feud between the pair in the later seasons. The two women filmed separately before reconciling in a hilariously staged scene in which Hilton gifted Richie a pair of sunglasses. In a sense, this represented reality TV as a whole: It was becoming more conflict-centered and contrived.

The public reevaluations of the 2000s often make us wince today. (The shameful hounding of Britney Spears is the clearest example.) But the most brutal years of the reality TV medium actually came after The Simple Life. Much of the reality programming that defined the post-Hilton era—like MTV’s Teen Mom and bizarre dating shows like Flavor of Love and Playing It Straight—was clearly exploitative. I grew up in the U.K., where the TV schedule featured shows with names like Fat Families and You Are What You Eat. On the latter, contestants would be shown a giant table crammed with all the food they’d eaten in a week. After they had been berated for that, one of their poops would be shown on national television. (Google it if you don’t believe me!) The fifth season of the U.K.’s Big Brother, in 2004, professed to be purposefully “evil.” It was a far cry from the previous seasons, which focused on “back to basics” living, the contestants even keeping a coop of chickens. Instead, the show introduced twists to provoke (often drunken) arguments. (Police investigated after one incident, dubbed “fight night,” spun out of control.)

It seems like there is a nostalgia for the earliest years of reality TV, before conflict and animosity became so central. This year, Bravo aired Luann and Sonja: Welcome to Crappie Lake—a Real Housewives spin-off featuring the New York City series’ Luann de Lesseps and Sonja Morgan as they attempted to breathe new life into Benton, a town in rural Illinois. The Simple Life inspired a whole subgenre of (slightly sadistic) shows about taking celebrities out of their surroundings. But Crappie Lake felt so similar in format and tone to The Simple Life that, according to creator Jeff Jenkins, it was originally pitched to Hilton’s mother, Kathy, who turned it down because she didn’t want to “encroach on her daughter’s terrain.” In the U.K., Survivor and Big Brother were both rebooted in 2023, the latter firmly reestablished as a social experiment rather than a tabloid-focused controversy machine.

Some of reality TV’s other big shows returned to their origins this year, as well. After a wild period of FBI arrests and embezzlement scandals, the Housewives franchise has rediscovered its sweet spot: wealthy women arguing about petty, low-stakes stuff. The reboot of the The Real Housewives of New York City—which was totally recast to better reflect New York’s elite today—featured arguments about cheese plates, restaurant reservations, and party etiquette. Elsewhere, The Great British Baking Show also declared it was going “back to basics,” after fans complained it was becoming too mean and complex.

Part of this might be a desire for more lighthearted escapism, after national reckonings on race and politics made their way onto reality shows following the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020. It might also be a response to concerns about the welfare of reality stars themselves—it’s hard to be entertained by shows that feel overly dark and exploitative. Or it could be fatigue over huge newsworthy scandals—like the conviction of Real Housewives of Salt Lake City star Jen Shah, who was sentenced in January to six and a half years in prison for running a nationwide telemarketing scam. Whatever the reason, reality TV is channeling a time when being a viewer was less complicated.

There is a nostalgia for the earliest years of reality TV, before conflict and animosity became so central.

After The Simple Life ended, Hilton’s star began to fade in the early 2010s, as ratings for her solo reality projects faltered. (There are only so many times you can watch someone look for a “new BFF.”) But we’re currently living through a Hiltonaissance. It started with This Is Paris—a 2020 documentary that focused on her upbringing and rise to fame. In the film, Hilton revealed her experiences with emotional, verbal, and physical abuse while attending boarding schools as a teenager. The airhead heiress we first met was nowhere to be seen. She was offering something new.

Hilton’s rebrand suggests an awareness that her “That’s hot” persona probably wouldn’t work now. Viewers are more savvy, and social media has given us what feels like a more intimate connection with celebrities. (Plus, it’s much more aspirational to be a savvy #boss than an airhead.) In this era, the key to success on reality TV is sharing as many new things as possible, so Hilton’s TV character now feels more complex, and less distant—whether or not that’s actually the case. Most recently, fans watched the run-up to her wedding on Peacock reality show Paris in Love. The second season, which is currently airing, more closely resembles a Kardashians-style show, in which Hilton—no longer speaking in the baby voice that made her famous—shares how she juggles her business empire, motherhood, marriage, and fame.

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It was once enthralling to watch Hilton, who never seemed fully real, doing something as normal as baking a messy pasta dish. In 2021, she shared the recipe for her “famous” lasagna on Cooking With Paris—a slick Netflix series where celebrity besties like Kim Kardashian and Demi Lovato joined her in the kitchen. The end product was more polished than The Simple Life, but nowhere near as fun. (The show was canceled after one season, and apparently, her lasagna tastes “like a shoe.”)

Twenty years on from The Simple Life, reality TV is longing for a simpler time. But I’m not convinced the medium can recapture its innocence beyond surface-level nostalgia. Too much has changed. Eventually, the Kardashians would supersede Hilton. Led by the socialite’s former assistant and bestie Kim, the family took “talentless” reality TV fame to a whole new level, transcending the medium to create the modern-day influencer. Now, we rarely hear the phrase “famous for being famous” anymore, because it’s so widespread in our culture. I wonder if what we’re really nostalgic for is the time when this was an exception, rather than a cultural norm. When we could salivate over the old lasagna without knowing exactly how it was made, or that it didn’t taste as good as it looked.