BEACH SHENANIGANS: MTV's "Jersey Shore" exposes self-absorption… (Scott Gries / MTV )
Jane Austen was hardly anticipating the reality-TV phenomenon two centuries in her future when she wrote, in her 1815 novel "Emma," "Vanity working on a weak head, produces every sort of mischief." But it's difficult to imagine so succinctly insightful a description of what results from the genre's lurid fascination with attractive and monumentally self-absorbed young women.
It has become a ubiquitous formula: Round up a gaggle of pert and perky gals who haven't spent much time considering the world around them and who don't play well with others, and follow their antics with camera crews. Invariably, they'll say things that betray a hilariously stunted worldview. Invariably, they'll offend anyone with a modicum of decorum. Often, they'll provoke physical confrontations.
And they won't seem to care whether the audience is laughing with them or at them.
Joel McHale, who routinely mocks the denizens of these programs on his E! series "The Soup," says he and his show's colleagues have "gotten a little too used to bad behavior."
He offers some unprintable examples from "Flavor of Love" and "A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila."
"You get to a point where you stop thinking about what's shocking."
Clearly, participants are encouraged to ratchet up their behavior to create jaw-dropping TV.
Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, who emerged as one of reality's most elegantly withering antagonists on the first season of Donald Trump's "The Apprentice," admits: "Anyone who says, 'I created this [persona] on my own' is being ridiculous.
"The format of reality TV is that there are six or seven line producers, and what helps put the narrative together is the on-the-fly interviews, where they've been watching what you've been doing and ask you questions to help you tell your story."
Manigault-Stallworth, who will reunite with Trump for "Omarosa's Ultimate Merger" on TV One next year, added: "I would not have been that competitive in real life, but being surrounded by 15 Type A cast mates made me more edgy."
Bravo's "Real Housewives" franchise reveals that vapid, materialistic and self-smitten women seeking easy stardom cannot be contained to any geographical location.
Each of its four iterations has trucked in scandal, be it nude photos, sex tapes or dodgy background checks (a New Jersey housewife's past involves cocaine and an escort service, while the Atlanta housewives aren't as affluent as they claim, with several in debt).
Story lines invariably climax with calamitous confrontations -- a restaurant poleaxed here, a chokehold there.
And the planned "Real Housewives" of Washington, D.C., has already provoked controversy: Michaele and Tareq Salahi, who are vying to get on the series, recently crashed a White House state dinner.
"We've always had people famous simply for being famous," says Karen Sternheimer, professor of sociology at USC. "But now there are more avenues to access fame. The Salahis are when the floodgates broke. There's economic and social value when someone's interested in what we're doing."
Omarosa defends the Salahis: "Actors have done far worse to get on a movie. Let's not be too dramatic about what extent people would go to to be famous."
Besides "Real Housewives," a number of these shows are "about excessive consumption," Sternheimer adds.
"If you have lots of stuff, you have license to behave badly. It reflects our ambivalences about being a hyper-consumptive society. We see what it's like to spend a lot of money, but our Puritan side comes out too -- these shows suggest they don't deserve what they have."
Mark Andrejevic, a communications studies professor at the University of Iowa and the author of "Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched," says: "Reality TV is a leveling genre. It takes the rich and famous down a peg and shows us that they're just like us. At the same time, it itself is a kind of lottery. Whoever it picks can be turned into a celebrity. It invokes the randomness of the economic machinery."
The pinnacle -- or, perhaps, nadir -- of the genre could very well be Oxygen's "Bad Girls Club," which recently returned to its highest ratings to date, teasing a brutal catfight that would come later in the season. The show otherwise plays out as a string of confrontations between rowdy, raunchy women who lay waste to a mansion during the course of the shoot.
Early episodes included a rage-aholic ejected from a bar for throwing a drink at a bartender after insisting, "I run L.A."; another woman introducing herself by declaring, "I lost my virginity in my church" and later salaciously munching a hot dog off the business portion of a male-torso sculpture; plus heated showdowns over petty grievances and enough nudity that the person in charge of pixelating the show's images no doubt clocked some serious overtime.