Tinsley Mortimer's reality show is like a hideously deformed Edith Wharton story.
Tinsley Mortimer, a socialite presenting a compelling study in contemporary vulgarity, comes to reality television by way of Lawrenceville, the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, the Bal du Bois, the Columbia University chapter of St. A's, Condé Nast Publications, and the master's program in decorative arts at the Cooper-Hewitt. This is the résumé of a woman who has demonstrated impressive drive, who has enjoyed access to some of the world's finest institutions of learning, who at some point had some breeding. Devoting her time and talents to a very special cause, Tinsley has leveraged old-school social prominence into postmodern celebutante eminence, with shots of her bottle-blond head now regularly appearing in grubby gossip pages, slick society rags, and downtown trend pamphlets alike. The lady has achieved great success as a fame whore.
Having a shallow understanding of Tinz—and perhaps there's no other kind—became a matter of cultural literacy with her split from her high-school sweetheart of a husband, Topper. The chronicle of their sundering transformed her celebrity into notoriety, a transformation catalyzed by her own refusal to comprehend the difference between those two distinctions. This happens every day, of course, but more often to people beneath Tinsley's class. Though at least an UHB, she is to be found, nightly, on red carpets at B-movie premieres and undistinguished boutique openings, batting her bulky eyelashes with a fury that is NOCD. It was rather poignant when Tinsley's suffering hubby shared with the paper of record his thoughts on his wife's clique "going out every night for the sake of self-promotion": "I mean, these are girls who went to good colleges. You would think they'd have something better to do."
Topper's rueful words echo advice dispensed by the divine Millicent Fenwick in Vogue's Book of Etiquette: "Publicity for its own sake is not always approved by good usage." Obviously, Fenwick, writing in 1948, had nothing to say to the class of person for whom personality is publicity and always a matter of business. Television, however, does have something to say: You need your own show. In Tinsley's case, that show is High Society (The CW, debuts Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. ET), which plays like a hideously deformed Edith Wharton story. Our well-born heroine is learning to navigate a single social life in the city. One early moment of self-degradation finds her curled atop her fluffy comforter sobbing elaborately over the dissolution of her 17-year relationship, wearing a really great scarf.
This stuff is seedy, a mood heightened because a conspicuous number of faces here are blurred or pixilated. Production values are cheap, perhaps deliberately, in the hope of creating a louche atmosphere. While Tinsley is shot through flattering filters, the supporting cast looks sickly and sticky under hard light. One yearns not just for the luscious cinematography of MTV's The City but also for its relatively close resemblance to real life. When the silly pretty people on The City go out to eat, they go to popular places at proper mealtimes; when Tinz and her gals get together to dish, they do so between the lunch and dinner shifts in otherwise empty restaurants, while busboys share bemused grins. The exploits of Tinsley's entourage of scenesters are so shoddily contrived that one imagines the producers harboring an insultingly low estimation of the audience's intelligence. But then any viewer who sticks with this program through two commercial breaks is proving their estimate correct.
Do not expect to see Tinz chilling at a ball at the Frick on High Society, no matter its title. Though she puts in some time at the very fabulous promotional event of Paris Fashion Week, she is more often found at run-of-the-mill promotional events, cocktail parties that nevertheless provide ideal conditions for the creeping weed of her fame to achieve photosynthesis. The free drinks supply H2O, and flashbulbs give light, and small groups of people emit carbon dioxide while saying things like, "Ohmigod—is that Tinsley? She's by herself!" When pressed, Tinsley can refer to herself in a case we might call the third-person branded: "Seeing Tinsley on a date is just weird."
I refuse to type the names of the two most boorish scenesters who appear on High Society, one of whom is identified as a "Page Six party boy," the other as a "trust-fund partier." The former brags that being accused of swiping someone's purse cemented his fame: "To be honest, that was like my Paris Hilton porno." The latter verbally abuses the help, describes a fondness for using "the N-word," and relishes slumming at bars where "blue-collar people" play beer pong. What a ninny. Beer pong, which originated at Dartmouth and achieved perfection at Williams, is, like most racquet sports, an elite pastime.
A most wonderful moment will transpire next week on this most grotesque show when Tinsley goes for a walk in Paris with a beau identified as a German prince. Tinsley wears Chuck Taylors during this lovers' stroll (a curious thing, given that she earlier wore Prada heels while unpacking moving boxes, mall-speaking, "I am never in flat shoes.") The prince wears a glower, and High Society goes meta as he abruptly puts his foot down and rebels against the show. The particulars are a bit vague, but it seems that he's only willing to say things on camera that he and Tinsley have discussed in advance. "Well, ya know what," steams Tinsley, "reality isn't discussed. I mean what do you expect?" He expects some basic decorum, I suppose—though it also seems possible that he's demanding to be shot only from the very most flattering angles. In any case, he flees the scene, leaving us to contemplate a post- Jane Holzer pop socialite who has yet to do anything so charming on camera as Baby Jane did, during a Warhol screen test, simply by brushing her teeth.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Still from High Society by Giovanni Rufino/The CW ©2009 The CW Network. All rights reserved.