Back in the ’80s, loudmouthed Brit Robin Leach hosted a little show called “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” The show—which ushered in the new era of celebrity worship—was a pioneer in the reality TV field. If nothing else, it served to make us all vaguely jealous of our economic betters, what with their “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.” Since that naive era of Reaganomical yuppie dominance, reality TV has taken over the airwaves, making the “rich and famous” as commonplace as a Burger King ad.
It’s hard to imagine a time, however, when we were genuinely envious of dwellers in the 90210 zip code. Perhaps it’s that we’ve grown as a nation of 99 percenters. Or perhaps it’s that television today insists on portraying the rich and famous as horrible, no-talent hobgoblins intent on acting as useless and overprivileged as possible. How else to describe Lifetime’s new show “Million Dollar Shoppers”? It is, after all, a show about people who are so insanely rich and so terribly busy (doing what, I can’t possible imagine) that they don’t have the time to spend their millions. And so they hire obsequious peons to buy them stuff and absorb their subsequent abuse with kowtowing good humor.
The cast of “Million Dollar Shoppers” consists of several professional shoppers, all of whom fall into the heroin-chic anorexic and scary category. Most emblematic of this group are Gregg Asher and Tayler Carson Sandvick, a pair of freakish, identical twin, Christian Dior scarecrows with a taste for sequined hot pants, Muppet-skin jackets and other incomprehensibly edgy fashion choices. Their clients are the usual roster of horrendous, orange-skinned monsters whose faces are stretched and inflated like beach balls and whose houses represent the ne plus ultra in gold-covered tackiness. Of course we’re taught not to judge a book by its cover. ... So it’s comforting to realize that, deep down, they’re all a bunch of horrible, tasteless, unbelievably snotty people—the kind of multimillionaires who “refuse to pay retail,” the sort of snobby fashionistas who think vintage Chanel couture is “gross” because it’s “old and used.”
So why would we possibly be interested in watching “Million Dollar Shoppers”? I have no idea. It’s not that I don’t understand the concept of guilty pleasures. I get all the shameful joy I need from “COPS.” But for me, “COPS” has a reassuring moral certainty: Act like an idiot and you will be punished for it. The “plot” of “COPS”—repeated with comforting regularity—is that if you commit a crime and run away from the police, they will chase you down, handcuff you and throw you in jail. Shows like “COPS” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and just about anything with the words “Redneck” or “Hillbilly” or “World’s Dumbest” in the title make us viewers feel superior. Hey, we’re sitting on the couch eating Cheddar Jalapeño Cheetos and watching reality TV ... but at least we’re not those people.
What purpose do shows like “Million Dollar Shoppers,” “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and “Real Housewives of Wherever” serve? Proof that it’s OK to be an awful person so long as you’ve got a big bank account? Once upon a time, we may have been interested in seeing how the other half lives. But we’ve been ogling it for decades. And frankly, they can keep their leopard-print Ferraris, $120 “Hip Hop T-shirts” and Botox-filled faces. Me, I’ll get my schadenfreude from “Teen Mom.”