One of my guilty pleasures is reality TV. And the more ridiculous the better. Now I don't mean badly done "ridiculous" as in transparently scripted reality TV like "Lizard Lick Towing" or "Operation Repo" both of which are so unreally real that they wrap around the mobius strip of reality in an infinite loop that makes you dumber the longer you watch. This Infinite Stupidity Loop is powered from an exponential vector developed by the boys at CERN and applied by the programming Overlords at Bravo and Tru TV. No, the reality TV I'm talking about is the plausible, well edited but still ridiculous fare offered by three reality shows in particular. These shows constitute what could basically be called soap operas on the cheap and are indeed the descendents of that hoary, well-worn, well-loved TV programming warhorse from back in the day.
"The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" (RHOBH as it's known in the fan-o-sphere) is offered by the current king of reality TV, the Bravo channel, which used to show lots of opera, Coldplay concerts, and art documentaries until the guys wearing the green visors in the front office came up with a way to actually make money. Namely, having a camera crew follow a bunch of rich, entitled, good looking housewives around as they made their way through their rich, entitled existence. This was the premise for the first series in the franchise, "The Real Housewives of Orange County" which was a smashing success. TV being TV, they proceeded to replicate the brand using the same formula but changing the location. There are "The Real Housewives of New York", "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" and "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" along with my favorite, the aforementioned, "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills". It's my favorite because the women on this show are so rich that even the "poor" ones amongst the group still have more money than countries like Chad, Honduras and even maybe Lichtenstein. Okay, I might be exaggerating a little, nevertheless, there is serious money here - the kind that has a life of its own that just keeps coming no matter what the general economic climate is. It's this existence unfettered by money worries that I find fascinating to watch.( Collapse )
After watching RHOBH for two seasons now, I've come to the conclusion that not having to worry about money and bills and eating or any of that stuff causes you to turn into a seventh grader with shaky self esteem and an inability to deal rationally with anything life may throw at you. Time and again the show's producers show us how these women deal or spectacularly fail to deal with problems that money just can't solve. And therein lies the hook that the show sinks into your work be-numbed brain crying out for effortless snark and delicious schadenfreude. And of course there is the extra added bonus of the cast living in the glittering bubble that is the entertainment/entitlement capital of the world, Hollywood. This only serves to ratchet up the social stakes while completely dismissing as insignificant, mundane life problems like husbands committing suicide or husbands banging a string of mistresses while you are eight months pregnant. The show is a paean to surface and money. It is a world I don't think I could survive even if I had the juice to pay the cover; I just don't have the right mind set. I don't have the social tools.
The women routinely undergo plastic surgeries for flaws that even the High Definition cameras have a hard time picking up. They spend every waking second examining how they look both dressed and undressed. Getting old is the ultimate sin unless you are fortunate enough to carry it off with the right combination of genetics, surgery and gym time. A couple of the ladies meet this criteria. One became the breakout star of the series and had a spin off show debut this season.
Lisa Vanderpump (yes, Vanderpump) amassed an 85 million dollar fortune with her husband Ken who possesses a particularly Midas-like talent for creating and running restaurants and nightclubs. Ken, as evidenced during the show, is content to lounge around on his entrepreneurial laurels at their hilltop Beverly Hills manse puttering around with a pack of purse dogs while Lisa "manages" the Hollywood celebrity hotspot Sur. The title of the show that documents what goes on at Sur is called "Vanderpump Rules", which is a bit of a misnomer. Lisa Vanderpump is a 51 percent owner in a restaurant staffed by the most beautiful. photogenic and self absorbed people I have ever seen in foodservice, but it's to be expected, this is Hollywood and these are all actor/models only posing as waitstaff. Sur is like a modern day Brown Derby or Chasen's where the elite of Hollywood meet and greet. That said, even the Brown Derby had enough of a working class vibe to it that a tourist or regular person would feel perfectly comfortable reserving a table for lunch to nibble at a Cobb Salad whilst gazing at whatever Hollywood royalty that happened to blow in the door. This is not true for Sur where you get the distinct impression that if you are not some simulacrum of a Perfect Human you will likely stick out like a hobo dipped in pig shit amongst what looks like the best the Ford Modeling Agency has to offer. The show makes me feel like an ugly troll just watching it. The staff is beautiful. Lisa is beautiful. The restaurant is like the garden of Eden. Even the bar backs and bus boys are so good looking I'd consider getting a tuggy from the ugliest amongst them even though I'm about as hetero as they come. It's just that intimidating. And mesmerizing.
The breakout stars from the show are an aging (by Hollywood and modeling standards) male model named Jax (real name Jason) and his on again, off again, girlfriend and self proclaimed princess, Stassi. Not Stacey. Stassi. Pronounced STAAH-ZZI; like the East German secret police for you aficionados of Cold War history.
Jax is 33 and going through a mid-good looking crisis. He has run head first into the reality of aging in Hollywood i.e. old is irrelevant and not for hire unless you have some useful talent. Jax's talent is that he can bartend okay, he looks great in sweaters, and he can fuck random vaginas like nobody's biz. He's got a puppy-like infatuation for Stassi whom he both cherishes as his One True Love and shits on by fucking a random bottle service girl in Vegas, getting her pregnant and then lying about the whole thing. Yeah, this is how things go in the land of the Beautiful People where the only thing that matters is what stares back from the mirror, and no one is who they say they are.
Meanwhile, Lisa is portrayed as a blending of the Mother to All combined with Ring Master of the Circus of the Beautiful yet Flawed. She offers sage advice to her charges like "Be on time.", " I'm running a business here, don't you see?" and "You can't keep doing this over and over." In any other restaurant management situation she would be completely out of line with her meddling in her staff's lives, but somehow this approach works with all of her impossibly good looking bartenders, waitresses and waiters. I'm reminded of the film "Boogie Nights" where Burt Reynold's character spends a lot of time stroking the egos of his employees and friends with empty compliments, false interest and transparent glad-handing. I realize by watching "Vanderpump Rules" I am viewing a live action, reality version of Paul Thomas Anderson's iconic film brought forward from it's 70's setting to modern times and that what has always been true of Hollywood is still true today. The place can be a pit of disposable empty lives.
The need to huddle in empty compliments and flimsy relationships to survive in LA is boldly evident in an unlikely niche reality TV program about the scions of Iranian ex-pats and political refugees called "The Shahs of Sunset". The subjects of this program are a tight-knit group of friends within a narrow community in LA of Iranian descendents who prefer to be called Persian because as, one of the group explains, "the name just rolls off the tongue". Not to mention that trumpeting your Iranian heritage in America these days is not exactly going to get you a lot of cheers and attaboys.
"Shahs" is on its second season and has its own star in the openly gay real estate agent Reza Farahan who has become the narrator and driver of most of the program's story lines. Reza is shown reconciling with his father and grandmother after years of estrangement, Reza struggles to balance his long time relationship with his partying philandering ways, Reza is shown playing games with his circle of friends by pitting them against each other for his favor and friendship, we see Reza pushing his office partner Mercedes (MJ) Javid out in favor of the more ambitious and reliable Mike Shouhed. The core circle of seven friends is split up between those that work in real estate or those that are almost totally supported by their parents. The ones without jobs are not lacking in ambition though. One, Golnesa (GG), has a burgeoning hair extension business who counts retired porn star Jenna Jameson as a celebrity client. Another, Asa Rhomati, is a musician and self proclaimed "Persian Pop Priestess" who owes no small part of her niche musical success to her boyfriend, Jermaine Jackson III (yes, THAT Jackson). She also has started a bottled water business featuring water that has been "blessed" by the power of diamonds, Diamond Water.
As with any reality show the crux of a lot of the action and conflict comes from the dysfunctional members of the cast and "Shahs" has a couple of doozies in the persons of Mercedes (MJ) and Golnesa(GG). MJ is forty, unmarried, probably alcoholic and unabashedly proud of her plump figure and her ability to out-party her hard partying Persian friends. MJ is one of those arrested development train wrecks who is at the stage of life where she finds herself with a monkey on her back and any attractiveness she ever had quickly disappearing. Combine this with a mother who is a bit of a selfish monster along with a father who is doting, clueless and frail and you can't help but sympathize with MJ as we watch her "Days of Wine and Roses" moment play out. The circle of friends are her only life line. She is trying to help herself by going to therapy, but the therapist isn't addressing the partying, drinking or drug abuse (alleged) preferring to stick with MJs mommy issues instead.
Golnesa (GG) is 35 and has never had a job. She is the princess of her family and her father pays for everything. The hair extension business is really her sister's and Golnesa only tries to horn in on that when daddy suggests that her gravy train is going to end very soon. Golnesa has an enormous anger management problem and is continually flying off the handle. Her hair trigger temper comes along with a real verbal skill at spewing death threats and insults. She gets physically violent at the drop of a hat and her preferred weapon of choice is a knife. In one episode, Golnesa attacked her friend Asa at a party because Asa had complimented Golnesa's boyfriend on the fact that he had not opted to change his distinctive large nose with plastic surgery. Even saying nice, complimentary things can earn you the wrath of GG. Golnesa is going to therapy also, but so far it's not working. If things keep going this way Golnesa's dad won't be supporting her, the state of California will. The second season ended with her being estranged from the circle of friends and broken up with her boyfriend because she ended up brandishing a knife at a dinner party meant to be a peace conference between antagonists.
The overall dynamic of the circle of friends isn't the attraction for me in "Shahs". What I like is the little glimpses of immigrant back story you occasionally get, and the blatant, over-the-top materialism of their culture. Reza has made a lot of money in real estate as have MJ and Mike, but you never see them sell anything and if I were a customer and saw this show, I'd think twice about plunking down that 5 mil for a one bedroom condo in the Hills. Fortunately, their customer base of traditional Iranian, sorry, Persian immigrants and the Arab community in general don't tend to watch reality TV.
From what I can put together, the parents of everyone in the group were all refugees from the time of the Shah of Iran's downfall and the coming of the Ayatollah. I get the impression that mommy and daddy skipped out of the country with as many bags of money they could transfer into Switzerland and this was the nut they had when they landed in sunny LA all those years ago. True, some of the parents had to leave quickly with relatively little. The operative word here is "relatively" and in this case it is relative as compared to what the Shah managed to haul out of Iran before the clerics took over. So even the folks who left with little, weren't exactly having to live in a tent city in the desert outside LA. As open and detailed as all the friends are about most anything else; money or rather the exact source of it is a taboo subject. This taboo isn't restricted just to this program; nobody discusses money on any of these shows even though it's the flaunting of this wealth that's the main draw.. The wealth is just there and talking about how it got there is considered bad form. And in that way, the refusal to acknowledge the wealth as earned or unearned upholds the Beverly Hills code which has as its foundation that old saw from F. Scott Fitzgerald who said all those years ago, "The rich are different from you and me". Gaze in wonder at me but mind your own fucking business.