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To have and have not, per Fox

June 14, 2004|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

This week, as part of its complete summer season, Fox adds two variations to the thriving, ever-popular upstairs/downstairs, rich man/poor man entertainment genus.

On Monday and Wednesday, respectively, "North Shore" and "The Simple Life 2: Road Trip" pitch their lawn chairs by the intersection of the very rich and the not-at-all and, keeping a safe distance from the less-cute realities of financial inequality, sit back to watch worlds collide.

Of course, neither "The Simple Life 2: Road Trip," in which the shiny hotel heiress Paris Hilton and sidekick Nicole (daughter of Lionel) Richie travel across the American South, nor "North Shore," in which glossy actors impersonate the wealthy guests and beleaguered staff of a deluxe Hawaiian resort, is designed to stir up the hoi polloi. This being Fox, the shows are as polemical as newborn kittens. Whether it's in a warmed-over melodrama or a trumped-up documentary, the difference between the haves and the have-nots is played strictly for comfort and/or laughs.

"The Simple Life" had a smash of a first season, as 13 million viewers tuned in to watch Hilton and Richie toil on an Arkansas farm. This time, the network let them loose on an entire region. For "Road Trip," the pair flew to Miami to relax and shop, then climbed aboard a tricked-out Airstream hitched to a pink GMC pickup. Over four weeks, they drove across the South, staying only in trailer parks and stopping to work in Biloxi, Miss.; Lafayette, La.; Kissimmee, Fla.; and Austin, Texas.

As it turns out, Hilton and Richie may be the funniest, most ingeniously disingenuous pair of girlfriends to hit TV since Lucy and Ethel. Hilton breezily copped to exaggerating her klutziness and ignorance of the working world for comic effect since last season. Whether Hilton really knows what "grounds for termination" means is unimportant. What is important is the look on a hotel maid's face when she asks.

In "Road Trip," they're up to their old tricks. Stranded cashless at a tollbooth outside Miami (at the start, the two are required to hand over their credit cards, cash and cellphones, though they get them back for Sunday furloughs), Richie resorts to panhandling. Thrilled to discover this latent talent, she continues to ask every stranger she comes across for money. It's amazing to see people hand over bills with a smile to the beneficiary of smash '80s hits such as "All Night Long" and "Hello." The only thing more surreal would be to watch them hand over money to Hilton.

Ridiculous as the "celebutante"-model-girlfriend of pop star (she's dating Nick Carter) is, Hilton is undeniably mesmerizing. Something about her recalls the heiresses of screwball comedies, whose sworn duty it was to be scandalous, promiscuous and eccentric.

Hilton is as close to a Marchesa Luisa Casati, an "It" girl from the early days of "It," as the MTV era is likely to enjoy. Casati had a pet boa constrictor and walked her cheetahs on leashes wearing nothing but fur. Hilton has a Chihuahua and requires a digital blur on her rear end.

But we live in far more timid times. (By 1930, Casati notably had racked up about $25 million in debt. Given the way Hilton shops, it's not impossible that she could accomplish a similar feat.)

In episode one of "The Simple Life 2," Hilton and Richie stop to work at a rodeo ranch near Tampa, where they charm an old cowboy named J.O. ("Like J. Lo," Hilton observes), who has mirrors mounted on the wooden canopy above his bed. The girls persuade him to model his tightest chaps for them minus the "britches." Later, after Hilton is bucked off a horse and airlifted to the nearest trauma ward, J.O. takes them consolation shopping.

It's shocking and a little painful to watch the old guy fork over $150 for a pile of trinkets and souvenirs. But it also makes sense. You don't get to be where Hilton is without lots of enablers.

On the other side of redeeming value or interest is "North Shore," a sort of early man's "The O.C." Jason Matthews (Kristoffer Polaha) is the general manager of the five-star Grand Waimea Hotel, an idyllic spot for the (lying, bitter, hypocritical, sad, fraudulent) super-rich to throw ugly tantrums and mistreat the (cute, creative, friendly, noble, chill) help.

The owner of this snaky paradise is Vincent Colville (James Remar). In the pilot, Vincent hires Jason's ex-girlfriend Nicole Booth (Brooke Burns) to be director of guest relations, causing him and his loyal underlings some immediate discomfort. Nicole is the daughter of another hotel magnate, but she has chosen to work for Vincent so that others might see her as, in the memorable words of Tori Spelling, "a self-made woman."

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