The defining image of Ashlee Simpson is of her awkwardly skidding off the Saturday Night Live stage performing an embarrassing jig as her backing track failed, exposing her lip synching to the unforgiving vultures of pop culture. Simpson's performance became the gold standard of humiliation, something that overshadowed anything she subsequently attempted to do. It didn't help that her MTV reality series, the bizarrely addictive Ashlee Simpson Show, documented her every mishap close up.
Long before the Kardashians used their show as damage limitation or to exploit their latest dramas, Simpson's series was the accompanying narrative to the Star and US Weekly headlines. A true catalogue of disasters, almost every episode featured some kind of misfortune whether it was changing the lyrics to a song which Ashlee couldn't manage to get right, or worries about Simpson's voice, with her repeatedly getting her throat examined, chatting with doctors about those ever present "nodules" or her acid-reflux.
Sullenly slumped over chairs dressed in skull motif clothing, a black and white scarf twisted around her neck like a shop-soiled Avril Lavigne, the starlet was forever complaining about her father to her porcupine-haired boyfriend Ryan Cabrera or obsessing about the shape of her nose.
Underneath its lighthearted surface, the show (and Simpson's career) felt cursed. Ashlee was promoted as a brash alternative to her older sister, Jessica – the blonde balladeer who became America's ditzy sweetheart with her endearing antics on the docu-series Newlyweds.
Even though the youngest Simpson was successful in her own right, the Ashlee Simpson Show cast her as an "also ran" – it was the biography of an insecure sibling clutching at her sister's coattails waiting for her to trip up. What makes it all the more strange is that it, like Newlyweds, was masterminded by her father, the fascinating Joe Simpson, a preacher turned talent manager determined to sell his children to America – a prospector of pop as ruthless and darkly disturbing as Daniel Plainview.
Now, after almost a decade of low-profile peace, Simpson has made the curious decision to return to the glare of reality TV with her new show Ashlee + Evan. Her second bite of the reality cherry sees her as a young mother and divorcee, moving on from private and public failure with her second marriage (to Diana Ross's son Evan). She may have been embraced by pop royalty in the shape of the Ross dynasty but she is risking this happiness by putting her relationship on screen to be dissected.
The series works off the same premise as the Ashlee Simpson Show which was used as crass cross-promotion for her burgeoning singing career, the soundtrack to Ashlee + Evan is littered with cloying duets and ditties written by the couple, which are available to buy after every episode, naturally. Apart from advertising their music, they are also selling a lifestyle, cloistered in their cosy boho abode filled with personal artwork and chic bric-a-brac, it is an attainable glamour that couldn't be further away from the anonymous, identikit McMansions of Newlyweds or Simpson's previous show.
The series concentrates on their fuzzily filtered domestic bliss. The couple establish that they are “the real deal” by being heavily tactile and talking openly about their sex life, from dry-humping at parties to showering together and Ross stripping off on camera before jumping into their hot tub. In the first episode, in a breathtaking display of egotism, Simpson even throws a party for Evan’s return from a film set where everyone (even her young children) must dress as their own interpretation of her husband’s style.
Luckily this saccharine smugness is seasoned by the sharpness of the couple's friends and family with the formidable Momma D making an iconic cameo – sitting in a recording studio swathed in an array of velvet and furs – and the irrepressible Jaz, whose interview segments about his KFC addiction and spray tans serve as much-needed comic relief. If the Ashlee Simpson Show was her self-conscious teen diaries, then Ashlee + Evan is her perfectly polished, airbrushed wedding album, free from embarrassment but sadly lacking in personality.