Weren't we all recently asked to take a moment of silent reflection to ponder Paris Hilton's persona of the Aughts and how we all treated her like a dumb blonde and vilified her for being what was, in fact, a character she was playing on TV? This was essentially the thrust of the 2020 YouTube Originals documentary This Is Paris, the one that made all those headlines for the revelation that the baby-whisper voice that we'd come to recognize as the signature Paris Hilton intonation was really just a put-on and that her real voice is that of a regular human entrepreneur.
One short year later, that Paris Hilton persona of old is back in front of the cameras, slathered in enough knowing irony to ice the most indulgent cupcake, in the Netflix pseudo-cooking show Cooking with Paris. In six episodes of 24-ish minute length, the heiress/mogul/DJ/reality-TV-pioneer invites us into her home to watch her attempt to prepare home-cooked versions of her favorite foods. There are not enough ironic quotation marks in the world to sufficiently punctuate that sentence to reflect the experience of watching this show.
Much like the lasagna that Paris says is one of her go-to dishes, the layers of fakery and knowing irony on Cooking with Paris are plentiful, rich, and somewhat sloppily rendered. Each episode kicks off with that baby-whisper voiceover teeing up that episode's menu and guest. Sometimes (though not always) we're treated to scenes of Paris shopping for ingredients among what must be the world's most weary Whole Foods employees. Recorded during COVID times, there's Paris Hilton in her bejeweled face mask, playing up her dumb-little-rich-girl character from the 2000s, inquiring about the prosciutto or what tomatillos are.
Coming on the heels of This Is Paris, this U-turn back into the Simple Life-era persona feels like whiplash, and it's hard to understand how Hilton wants to come across. The ditzy, helpless, tragically fabulous persona is applied so heavily that it's impossible not to recognize it as comedy; clearly when the fringe from Paris's leather jacket gets dredged through cupcake batter, this is meant to evoke campy obliviousness. But the strings are way too visible on this performance, and, to borrow a food metaphor, the expiration date has long since passed.
The tone gets even more muddled when her celebrity friends arrive. The guests in general come across very well, volleying back and forth with this rich-girl burlesque that Paris is delivering while themselves seeming authentic and funny. It's incredibly unmooring to have Kim Kardashian serve as an oasis of normalcy and competence in the kitchen, as she is in the first episode, but here we are. Subsequent guests include hip-hop artist Saweetie, comedian Nikki Glaser, pop star Demi Lovato, and, in a season finale that will probably draw the most curious eyeballs, Paris's mom, Kathy, who is currently enjoying a breakout debut season on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
As a cooking show, Cooking with Paris takes some cues from Netflix's very successful Nailed It!, which proves that it can be fun to watch inept home cooks futz around the kitchen, throwing sprinkles and cotton candy into their recipes because they feel like it. Paris's dishes end up looking a lot better than the Nailed It! confections, but given the army of assistants, interns, and producers we see on the periphery of the show (they're the ones decorating the dining room to fit that week's theme or telling Paris from off-camera to turn on the overhead fan to dissipate the smoke emanating from the charred veggies in the oven), it's hard not to at least strongly suspect that a lot of these dishes get fixed off-camera.
But the cooking itself takes a distant back seat to the true purpose of Cooking with Paris, which is clearly to play with the "Paris Hilton" persona and see how it fits in the 2021 reality TV landscape. The answer is … awkwardly. Even if we suspected in the back of our minds that the Paris Hilton we saw on The Simple Life was playing things up for the camera, having Paris refer to her old persona as a full character in This Is Paris pulled the curtain completely down. It's hard to just pull it back up again and enjoy things the same way. For as much as claims to authenticity on television are a lie we all tell ourselves, it's a lie we at least need to plausibly believe lest we end up existing fully in the realm of fiction.
Cooking with Paris tries to have a foot in both worlds, and it doesn't work. There's too much awareness of brand-building happening at all times; Hilton recently coined the term "sliving" (it's a combination of "slaying" and "living your best life"), and she uses it upwards of ten times per episode in a clear attempt to (not to myself call upon an Aughts cultural touchstone) make "fetch" happen. It feels effortful. And the frequent repetitions of old catch phrases like "loves it" only make these new grifts stand out all the more.
Look, good on Paris Hilton for wanting to get back in the reality TV game, I suppose. And an at-home cooking show certainly seems to demand less of her time and privacy like the shows of old did. But Cooking with Paris ends up asking a lot of its audience when it comes to finding its way through the layers of irony and the winking nods to its star's branding savvy when there are other 20-minute cooking shows we could actually relax in front of. Unfortunately this one falls just short of "loves it."
Cooking with Paris debuts Wednesday August 4th on Netflix.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.