Girls return their separate ways in ‘The Simple Life’ on E!

The Simpletons are back.

If you think anything new is better than a rerun, E! cable is serving up the start of the fourth season of "The Simple Life" at 10 p.m. Sunday. It stars Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, those two pretty pop stars who have become the tube’s most famous flunkies.

This time they’ll do a version of "Wife Swap" as they substitute for women who really must be desperate housewives to let these two into their homes.

They’re back all right, but the question for a lot of people may be why? The answer, as in all things television, is ratings.

More than 11 million people tuned in their first season on Fox in 2003. The audience dropped to 9 million for the second edition, but that was still pretty hot stuff for summertime. At one point in the third go-around the twit twins hit a high of 13 million before their house of catty comments collapsed.

The co-stars and pals stopped speaking to each other. "Nicole knows what she did, and that’s all I’m going to say about it," said hotel heiress Hilton. What Richie reportedly did was show a copy of an X-rated tape, made by one of Hilton’s ex-boyfriends, at a party.

So the whole show went kaboom, since it’s hard to have a series where the co-stars aren’t speaking. But after each of the "girls," as they appropriately call themselves, got engaged, Fox thought it had found a way out of the muddled mess.

It would just follow their separate lives as brides-to-be because, after all, the show’s big audience was teenage girls and maybe some guys who wanted to ogle the "girls." Then each woman broke her engagement, and Fox executives threw up their hands.

But 9 million viewers is a huge audience when it comes to feast. If the "girls" could somehow draw that many fans to E! the numbers would be in the "Sopranos" range, which is as good as it gets on cable.

The question, of course, is can they? When shows go to cable they lose people in the shuffle, in part, because not everybody has cable or satellite. There are also so many cable channels that people don’t know where to find things or can’t remember when they’re on.

There’s another problem for E! Can dumb and dumber be as effective with each doing her own thing as they were together? Or would it be like Dean Martin without Jerry Lewis or cereal without milk — dry and hard to swallow?

Faithful followers will have to wait and see. E! didn’t send out review copies to everybody, but critics who have seen it say it’s lost that certain something that made it a stupid classic of sorts.

The two do sort of run into each other in a Hollywood restaurant, according to the New York Daily News. And E!’s camera crews just happened to be there. Nicole sent a cookie over to Paris’ table with a naughty note written in icing. Anyone who thinks all this isn’t being staged to hype the show probably still believes in the Tooth Fairy.

The series has been turned into a contest with each of the two "girls" getting half the show. Sunday they fill in for a couple with a small daughter and a child on the way. The two pop tarts are never seen together and have different film crews, so their paths don’t cross. Calling them "girls" really is fitting because they get to act like third-graders having a fight on the playground.

They take turns caring for the child, which sounds pretty scary, and doing hard chores like filling the dishwasher.

Oh yeah, they "take care" of the hubby too. Richie makes jokes about sleeping with him since she’s supposed to be the surrogate wife. The real wife is shocked. Absolutely shocked! Everybody wants to be an actress. Next, Nicole takes him to a strip joint and calls home to let the wife know where they are.

How naughty can they get? Still, it sounds as if they’re maintaining the program’s high standards of low-brow humor. Please don’t tell us that their lines weren’t written for them or that the producers didn’t set up stuff like the strip club. This isn’t "Candid Camera."

Of course, nobody can be this stupid, even though their off-camera lives seem to support the idea that these two are pretty brainless. This is show business, folks. It’s all acting for your benefit and to provide the fodder that the gossip columns live for.

The most shocking thing for viewers Sunday may be how thin Richie is. She says she doesn’t know how much she weighs, but her weight loss has the gossip magazines buzzing about anorexia, which is something teenage viewers don’t need to see.

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