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'Road Trip' wrecks

The difference might not seem like much. In The Simple Life last year, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie - stripped of credit cards, cell phones and cash - left Beverly Hills to live with a farm family in Arkansas. It was supposed to be The Beverly Hillbillies in reverse, or Green Acres gone blond.

In The Simple Life 2: Road Trip, which premieres tonight on Fox, Hilton and Richie travel from Miami Beach to Beverly Hills (again without credit cards, cell phones or cash), living with several families along the way. It's supposed to be a screwball Thelma & Louise without social conscience or feminist politics.

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As Hilton put it in a telephone press conference last week: "This one is just so much better, so much funnier. Nicole and me this time are not stuck with one family in Arkansas. We go from family to family, state to state, and all the trouble we get into is really hilarious."

Not exactly. In fact, it's staggering to see how wrong things have gone with this highly successful series from Season 1 to Season 2 - so wrong that one wonders whether executive producer Jonathan Murray (The Real World) ever understood what made The Simple Life a winner in the first place.

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There is nothing wrong with the idea of putting Richie and Hilton on a road trip. From the Beat Generation's On the Road to MTV's Road Rules, it is hard to think of a narrative more basic to American popular culture than the road trip. It seems that each generation comes of age using the road trip to test itself against what is left of the frontier.

And, just as there is heroism in measuring up, there is also great comic potential in seeing the pretenders laid low. In their pink pickup truck with an Airstream trailer in tow, the two definitely seem like pretenders.

Their first stop tonight is at a ranch, and Hilton is indeed laid low when her horse throws her. There is, however, nothing amusing about the scene as she is rushed to a nearby shock trauma center.

While it turns out that Hilton is only bruised, the producer's handling of the incident is deadly to the program. Viewers are shown how the press reacted to the incident that occurred three months ago when the series was being taped. Maybe the producers felt they needed to include scenes of Hilton talking to reporters as she left the hospital because there was so much news coverage. But, in the context of tonight's program, the time shift utterly shatters the conceit that one is witnessing a journey, the outcome of which is unknown.

The other major problem with The Simple Life 2 involves a subtle but crucial shift in point of view from that of the first season. As exploitative and cheesy as The Simple Life could be, what made it work so well is the way it exploited social class. The series positioned the audience of mostly middle-class viewers to feel superior both to the hapless socialites and the decidedly downscale folks with whom they stayed.

But, in Simple Life 2, Richie and Hilton seem to be winking at the camera, as it were - exhibiting a self-consciousness about their on-screen personae that was not there last season. As a result, the joke in Simple Life: 2 Road Trip is no longer on the celebutantes. It is only on the rubes with whom they stay - and those of us foolish enough to watch the reality charade.

On TV

What: The Simple Life 2

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When: Tonight at 8 and 9

Where: WBFF (Channel 45)

In brief: The Simple Life takes to the road, and loses its way.


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