Friday, 20 February 2009

Want to feel better about your life? Watch this

Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend, Thursdays, 9pm, ITV 2 (helpfully repeated on Sundays and Tuesdays), sponsored by Skinny Cow Hot Chocolate - "a girl's new best friend"

It’s February. Two months into the new year, the hope of new possibilities and new jobs brought by new year’s resolutions is already wearing off. It’s cold outside, and grey. The weather is hovering between rain and dryness in a sort of damp nothingness, much like the uncertainty of life itself. Most of us are in need of a bit of cheering up.

Usually, the last place I would suggest is the television, let alone a reality TV programme. I can’t remember the last time I watched ITV1, let alone ITV2, until a chance encounter with American socialite or, in her words, "heiress, businesswoman and international celebrity", Paris Hilton’s new series.

A group - overwhelmingly female, with a token homosexual male - has been placed in a mansion to compete for the position of being Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend.

The twelve hopefuls are judged on how well they deals with certain tasks such as designing Paris a new dress. An early victim is traumatised by hair extensions gained as part of a makeover, and is promptly sent packing - after all, Paris’s potential friends must look the part, glossy and high maintenance.

The contestants are also tested on more conventional attributes of friendship, like their loyalty, through the planting of fake stories such as the suggestion that Paris has considered having a boob job (later, as we can see her nipples through her dress, she reassures “I love my boobs”, in case we got the impression that the socialite, celebrity lifestyle breeds insecurity and low self esteem.)

The group is also tested on how well they fit into the bored little rich girl lifestyle of partying and shopping. After all, that’s what we women are suppose to aspire to, isn’t it? Everyone knows that if we didn’t have day jobs, our only ambitions would be to spend the day searching for the perfect pair of shoes.

The contestants rise to the challenge, a strange mix of saps and shameless exhibitionists who never tire of the sound of their own voices and constantly offer psychoanalysis of the actions and motivations of the other housemates. Gratingly irritating Chrissie does a victory dance after staying up all night to prove she can party to Paris’s standards.

These people, who in civilian life describe themselves as ‘models’, ‘dancers’ and ‘bloggers’, seem to live in a different world, one which most certainly hasn’t been near reality.

They even have their own language. British Best Friend is perkily abbreviated to BBF, and as one contestant walks out in a surely orchestrated moment of drama, Hilton drawls “TTYN - talk to you never”. In excitable telephone interchanges, Hilton and the girls address each other as "hon", "babe" and "gorgeous".

You have to wonder what kind of void these people have in their lives that’s led them to audition to become an accessory to someone who is famous for being famous. The girls are battling for the chance to hover around someone who isn’t very interesting herself, and bask in whatever dubious reflected glory Paris brings. One girl describes her ambition to become Hilton’s best friend as being a way to “validate my existence”. Although it’s best to hope these lines are being fed to the girls by the producers, soundbites such as “It’s such an honour to be able to browse your clothes, Paris” sound worryingly sincere.

Woe and betide anyone who displays any sign of weakness in the backstabbing environment, where it’s a survival of the fittest based around the concept of each friend for themselves. Anyone who is seen to be “in the house for the wrong reasons” is placed “up for discussion”, and then voted out by their peers, amid accusations of being ‘fake’ or “not putting the interests of Paris first”.

One girl takes offence at the slightest suggestion she might be fake. She points out "the only thing fake about me is my boobs", but is eventually voted out for fear her chest might overshadow Paris and get in the way of the attention Paris deserves.

Hilton presides over these meetings from a throne whilst the girls get more and more hysterical. As heartrendingly earnest accusations such as “She doesn’t really want to be your friend” fly around, her mask barely registers any interest. She’s so plastic you can see the light gleaming off her lips and skin.

We only really get to know Paris in one on one sessions on a couch in which Paris drawls down that long nose about being “hurt” in the past and having to learn how to “trust”. Even at such moments, when Paris confides how “confused” she is, she still manages to look lifeless. Reassuringly, though, she confides "I'm, like, a human", just in case any of us had any doubts.

It’s like being back in school, except most of us grow out of it. There’s even an updated version of the teacher’s pet. Servile girls fawn in ‘honour’ at being chosen to be Hilton’s pet. Their duties? To report back on the other girls, to be her “eyes and ears” in the house.

An outing to a farmyard provides one of the most interesting insights into the whole show. On finding out one of the girls is less than delighted to be spending the day in the company of animals, Paris responds "oh my God, how can you hate sheep?!". Her informant agrees "yeah, sheep are cool", as if the irony is totally lost on her.

Paris is like the most popular girl in school, the girl those who are less admired dream of emulating. What makes it annoying is the level of devotion her followers show towards someone who isn’t discernibly talented, interesting, nice or even conventionally pretty.

In fact, Paris is probably the least interesting character in the programme. For all their hysterics and tantrums, at least the contestants actually show some emotion and spirit. Hilton merely simpers her way through a few voiceovers and minces away from group meetings in ridiculous outfits.

Many of the contestants are bullying, and completely devoid of any likeable features. The only likeable one, sweet Lydia, is totally out of her depth. She’s criticised for fading into the background. Shyness is chastised. Showing a concern for your fellow housemates is met with suspicion and hostility.

It might sound gruesome, but Paris’s British Best Friend is so farcical it actually provides laughs a minute. You have to laugh, because otherwise you might cry. This show isn’t going to build any lasting friendships. If you’ve ever had a dream or a passion, the most valuable lesson to take from Paris’s British Best Friend is it is that it’s better to have your ambitions shattered than to never have ambitions at all. It’s better to have a seemingly impossible dream than be completely devoid of dreams like this unimaginative group of lackeys.

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