MTV's ''PoweR Girls" is both a poorly made reality show and an American cultural tragedy. It's two, two, two grotesqueries in one.
On one level, it's a chaotic look at the world of PR flacks and how a team of Manhattan chippies gets press for rich customers such as Ja Rule and P. Diddy. And on another level, it's a troubling image makeover for PR princess Lizzie Grubman as well as a repulsive celebration of fame for fame's sake, featuring Paris Hilton as its vapidity divinity. The show, which premieres tonight at 10:30, worships the velvet ropes as if they were the gates to heaven.
Grubman, you may recall, served 37 days in jail for backing her SUV into a crowd at a Southampton, N.Y., nightclub in 2001. Her moment behind the wheel injured 16 bystanders, men and women who might beg to differ with the way ''PoweR Girls" elevates Grubman into the wise leader of four fawning protégés at her PR firm. In the sloppy narrative of the show, we see Grubman mentoring her young charges with advice about professionalism and romance. She has her petty moments, including some sniping about the fiancé of one of her assistants, but mostly she's portrayed as a brassy power girl par excellence.
Having done her time, Grubman shouldn't have to live her life in the shadow of her mistake. But still, rewarding her with a TV series is one of the medium's weaker messages, making crime into a sort of career move. While Martha Stewart and Bobbie Brown will soon have reality shows, they're ex-cons who'd be on TV with or without a record. Grubman has made it onto the small screen almost solely for having harmed innocent people.
The show puts Lizzie in the position Donald Trump holds in ''The Apprentice," in that she acts as the celebrity superego of her wannabes, judging their work and chastising them for mistakes. She oversees their PR projects, which include managing the opening of a Chelsea nightclub tonight and, next week, P. Diddy's July Fourth party in the Hamptons. Will Grubman's crew, including California girl Kelly and motivated Michigander Rachel, get the invitation lists in order? Will they draw the ''O.C." cast to the party? Will they make sure the tabloids publish juicy items the next morning? The show lamely tries to create drama around these questions, as Grubman frets over her kids. But the real heavy breathing in ''PoweR Girls" comes with the celebrity sightings, of which there are many.
Kelly is the most memorable pony in Lizzie's stable. A would-be actress and model who's most pleased with her new breast implants, she's working in PR in order to mix it up with the famous customers. Like the celebrities she's delivering to the press, she lives to be seen in all the right late-night club pictures. She longs to be one of today's bright young things, the Lindsay Lohans and Wilmer Valderramas and Mischa Bartons who make the party circuit spark. Like her muses, she's living in her own movie.
In next week's episode, Kelly abandons her fiancé and her professional responsibilities to chase her favorite role model, emptiness icon Paris Hilton. Successful in her skilled stalking efforts, Kelly finishes working P. Diddy's party by getting invited into the back of Hilton's fat white limousine.
At that point. the MTV cameras turn away. Presumably, the limo footage belongs exclusively to Hilton.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.