If The New York Times has discovered The Only Way Is Essex, then so should you.
The most talked-about British television show of the last year is now freely available in the United States — not that you’d know it. Previously visible only to those with all-region DVD or media players, “The Only Way Is Essex” has made its American premiere not on television but online at Hulu.com, a victory for Internet video in its guerrilla war against the TV industry.
Not that everyone would see the show’s arrival here — a kind of homecoming, given its roots in MTV reality spectacles like “The Hills” and “Jersey Shore” — as a cultural milestone. “The Only Way Is Essex” (a play on the show’s theme song, Yazz’s 1988 dance anthem “The Only Way Is Up”) has been reviled in Britain as a pestilent example of depraved New World values and a leading indicator of the apocalypse.
Which didn’t stop its second season this spring from exploding in “Jersey Shore” fashion, nearly doubling its audience on the ITV2 channel and reaching close to 1.9 million for the season finale in May. Apply a population-conversion factor (multiply by five), and that’s better than any episode of Snooki & Company, which has topped out so far at 8.9 million.
The people also spoke at this year’s British Academy Television Awards, the Baftas, where “TOWIE” (as the show is abbreviated) was not nominated in a single category but won the YouTube Audience Award over more respectable peers like “Downton Abbey,” “Sherlock” and “The Killing.”
So what is this monster, 26 episodes of which can now be streamed at Hulu? (A third season began in Britain in September.) In concept it’s totally familiar: a reality show about a group of young party promoters, club managers, beauticians and “glamour models” in the wealthy, suburban precincts of southwestern Essex County, bordering London.
These blond Essex girls and their clean-cut boyfriends bear no resemblance to the goombah caricatures of “Jersey Shore.” They’re more akin to the publicists and interns of “The Hills” and “The City,” except that some of them appear to have actual jobs. Yet they engage in the same Theater of Superficiality. Episode 1 features a woman being spray tanned; Episode 26 opens with a man being waxed. Cosmetics, tattoos, jewelry, clothes, cars and Champagne are the show’s oxygen.
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