You have probably heard about Jessica Simpson’s tangle with canned tuna. It happened during the premiere episode of MTV’s “Newlyweds,” a reality show chronicling the early days of pop semi-diva Simpson’s marriage to Nick Lachey, late of the boy band 98 Degrees. As Jessica pondered the meal she was enjoying in front of the TV, she asked her husband, “Is this chicken, what I have, or is this fish?” As it turned out, she was confused by the label that read, as she recalled it, “Chicken by the Sea.”
Jessica's apparent stupidity has now spawned a secondary phenomenon: the armchair analysis of whether it’s possible that she — or anyone — is as dumb as she looks. She recently showed up on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” admitting to being a ditz but chalking it up to a brand of appeal she tried to sell as reminiscent of Lucille Ball. Her father was likewise recently quoted in the press suggesting that she isn’t dumb, she’s just “playing into” her role as a stereotypical empty-headed blonde.
Clearly, this is not the case. It’s not as if tuna is the only food to trip her up. She once declined an order of Buffalo wings with the fairly grave statement that she doesn’t eat buffalo. As a friend of hers pointed out, it had apparently never occurred to her to wonder, given her understanding of the etymology, where on a buffalo you would find the wings to begin with.
Other life essentials like clothing tax her as well. She flitted out of a lingerie store without realizing that she had just dropped over $750 on two bras and two pairs of underwear. As she stood on the sidewalk outside the store and realized what she had done, she made a panicked, guilty, utterly pitiful phone call to Nick, who suggested that she look at the price tags next time.
WHY THE FASCINATION?
By now, the point is not so much whether Jessica is dumb as it is why her particular brand of dumb is so mesmerizing. After all, she is hardly the first person on reality television not in line for a genius grant.
Regular viewers of the genre have seen people who can’t follow the simplest of instructions, people whose poor grasp of language certainly rivals Jessica’s mistaken belief that there was an animal called a “platy-ma-pus,” and people whose raging egos blind them entirely to how they are perceived by others.
Moreover, it isn’t as if she flies so high that a chink in her armor should be all that newsworthy. She and Nick are B-list pop stars at the moment. Both have hits in their pasts, but her most recent CD, “In This Skin,” peaked at tenth place on the Billboard chart. After six weeks, she’s parked at number 78 — just behind the Steve Miller Band. Her book-signing featured on “Newlyweds” looked like it attracted barely enough fans to field a football team. Nick, having left his band, is now trying his luck as a solo artist. His impact has yet to be felt.
So their show isn’t exactly a look at the hopelessly washed-up in the tradition of “The Surreal Life,” but it’s hardly a “Don’t Look Back”-style documentary about people who are actually accomplished, either. No, Nick and Jessica are somewhere in between, living the sunny, bland, cash-soaked existence of the lame duck celebrity.
Past successes have earned them a certain term during which fans — mostly girls, in both of their cases — will continue to ask for autographs now and then. There’s limited interest in their new projects, though, because their successors have already been elected.
The public places they visit are sure to greet them noisily (“Welcome, Nick & Jessica!” proclaims the sign at Cincinnati’s King’s Island amusement park on the day they drop by), tacitly acknowledging that at least some people know who they are, but very few will notice them without being given a friendly nudge in the right direction.
For one thing, she actually inspires the occasional flash of sympathy, or at least pity, if only because she’s trying so hard in a world-of-her-own kind of way. Jessica is no callous, punishing vixen — at least not on purpose.
She cares enormously about what Nick thinks of her. She pleads with him not to make fun of her, frequently quizzes him about whether he thinks she’s sexy, and yells for his help when she doesn’t know what to do.
Nick — who seems like a surprisingly normal guy at least some of the time, even moving his own stuff in a U-Haul truck from his condo to their enormous new house — often seems utterly baffled by her. It’s hard to imagine how this can be, given that they had a lengthy courtship and it seems likely that she acted the same way before they were married. The qualities that drive him crazy now are too integrated into her personality to be either manufactured or recently acquired.
Sometimes, in fact, watching Nick choke on his frustration is as entertaining as watching Jessica herself. When they were moving Nick’s things into the house, Nick and his brother Drew carted a particularly unwieldy piece of furniture up the wide, winding stairs, sweating and struggling all the way.
Jessica, for reasons known only to herself, pitched in by complaining about the decision to move the thing upstairs in the first place. As Nick heaved it up a few more inches, he muttered to Drew that at times like this, he was glad he didn’t have a gun, because if he had one, he might shoot himself. Drew paused, chuckled, and asked, “Why would you shoot yourself?”
RAISED BY POODLES
Tired of having to hang up her own towels, she asks a friend whether there are special “maids for celebrities.” Called upon to empty a vase of dead flowers into the trash, she falls apart. She can’t imagine hanging pictures on the wall of her own home without the help of a designer.
In fact, when Nick does a little low-key decorating in the new house while she’s away, Jessica is irritated primarily because she is unable to figure out whether she likes it or not. She takes the position that she and Nick are unqualified to decide what should go where. They don’t know what looks good, she argues. She returns to her mantra, which she repeats over and over in a variety of situations: “Can’t we hire someone?”
It’s true that reality television is often little more than an opportunity to watch a fool act like a fool, and Jessica is no exception. Still, this kind of entertainment is never as tempting as when it indulgently hints to us that we are right about everything. Yes, the nice person does often finish last. Yes, if you don’t scam your fellow man, he will scam you first. Yes, some people will do anything for a buck. Yes, the nice guy does often get dumped for the creep.
And in the case of “Newlyweds,” we are reassured that celebrity is not a meritocracy. That fame at 16, had we experienced it, might have twisted us into freakish balloon animals until we couldn’t so much as buy groceries without a personal assistant. That it’s just as well we never hit it big.
Jessica’s level of semi-fame is perfect for this purpose. If she were living the very high life of a very successful person, she might be having so much fun that it would be hard not to envy her. If she drops much lower on the totem pole, it will be hard not to feel sorry for her, given her obvious lack of preparation for any role in life other than the one she has now.
For the time being, it is just right to watch her bubble through her daily life, not very bright but also not very relevant. We just knew we didn’t really want to be rich and famous.
The “Newlyweds” first-season finale airs on MTV at 10:30 p.m. ET Oct. 21.Linda Holmes is a freelance writer in Bloomington, Minn.