Like practically everyone else in her orbit at the time, the rising star Jessica Simpson was just trying to stick to her Atkins diet. With cameras for an MTV reality series rolling inside her living room in 2003, Simpson snuggled into an enormous sofa, eyed the television, and picked at a big bowl of low-carb, high-protein … something. “Is this chicken, what I have,” she asked her then-husband, the singer Nick Lachey, “or is this fish?” She seemed to get that it was a silly question, but not why. “I know it’s tuna,” she clarified as Lachey scoffed, “but it says chicken, by the sea. Is that stupid?”
More than a decade and a half later, in her dishy 2020 memoir Open Book, Simpson answered her own question. “The resounding answer across America,” she wrote, self-deprecating but also truthful about the reaction to her inquiry, “was yes.” When Simpson’s words first aired on MTV, “chicken by the sea” quickly became the phrase that launched a thousand quips. Newsweek called Simpson “a successful TV airhead”; Justin Timberlake mocked her about it on Saturday Night Live. MTV executives, however, saw things a little bit differently. To them, there were no stupid questions.
“I remember watching a rough cut, and going, ‘She’s joking, right?’” Rod Aissa, an executive producer on the series, told me. “‘That’s got to be a joke she’s playing on everyone.’ And when I realized it wasn’t, I thought it was so genius. So genius.” When Newlyweds premiered in August 2003, “Chicken by the Sea” was the title of the very first episode. MTV producers knew the goods when they saw them. Simpson did, too: Not long after the episode aired, she happily traveled to San Diego to the Chicken of the Sea corporate headquarters to warble its jingle with employees, raise her profile, and profit.
In three seasons of Newlyweds, a few of the other 40 episodes also wound up named for the Simpson malapropisms, mispronunciations, or misunderstandings contained within. (“Buffalo Wings” being one of them.) But none of the other “Jessica moments,” as Simpson described them in Open Book, took flight in quite the same way as her remarks about ocean-adjacent poultry. Simpson’s canned tuna confusion would change the trajectory of her life, for better and for worse. It would come to define Newlyweds’ legacy, which feels right: Both the scene and the series seemed frivolous, but they were also influencing major cultural shifts. As it turns out, the same thing really can be both stupid and genius all at once.
As an early-aughts time capsule, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica is an anthropological triumph. The series may have aired for only a year and a half, but in that short while it sure did showcase the quirks, looks, and brands of its small, mighty era with precision. (Oh, the bootcuts!) On Newlyweds, characters miss exits while fumbling with multipage Mapquest printouts in the front seat of a car. Simpson repeatedly attempts to put the battery back in her flip phone. Lachey wears knee-length mesh shorts and visors at seemingly all times, while Simpson has more range: Occasionally she sheds her velour Juicy suits to experiment with low-rise capri cargo pants, a frilly tube top, and pointy-toed strappy heels.
When the couple attempts to go camping, Simpson brings, as her gear, one of those rainbow-colored Murakami-for–Louis Vuitton satchels that all the It Girls were into.
A November 2003 Rolling Stone cover pictured Simpson not with her dear husband but rather holding a Swiffer WetJet—a product that with hindsight feels timeless but that was, at the actual time, a novel invention that had been on the market for only two life-changing years. So it is fitting that Newlyweds’ popularity was, in a way, derived from the faddish Atkins diet that Simpson, her mom, and her husband were all attempting to stick to when she ate her canned tuna.
The show’s very existence was at the forefront of another trend that was just taking off in the early 2000s. Having aired Real World since the mid-’90s, MTV had established its pop-docuseries credentials. But as the turn of the millennium approached, the network started to plumb the lives of stars the way it previously had with civilians. As with Swiffer WetJets, reality TV now feels as though it’s been with us forever, particularly the shows in which midtier celebrities loll around in a poorly appointed Calabasas starter McManse. When Newlyweds first aired, though, only a handful of such shows were in production at all.
MTV Cribs debuted in 2000, and in early March 2002, after seeing the success of one of that show’s most popular episodes—featuring aging rocker Ozzy Osbourne, his wacky wife, and their teenaged kids—the network unveiled The Osbournes. With its domestic-bliss scenes of the Black Sabbath frontman stepping in tiny piles of dog shit, The Osbournes was a smash hit.
“We were in a different building than the MTV executives,” Sue Kolinsky, a producer who worked on The Osbournes and, later, Newlyweds, told me. “So basically we did whatever we wanted. It was a brand-new genre.”
Across popular culture, the lines between person and persona were beginning to further blur in a broad and lasting way. The Osbournes aired a few weeks before the March premiere of a fun new show on another network called The Bachelor. In April of that year, Us Weekly launched an iconic recurring photo feature called “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” that showed celebrities taking out the garbage, applying sunscreen, and balancing their keys with their Starbucks. That June, another promising new show aired on network TV: American Idol.
Every television executive was hoping to find the next hit. One morning more than a decade and a half ago, Aissa’s boss called him to say she was scheduled to meet with the president of the network and could use some big-idea pitches. Aissa had been planning to play hooky from work that morning, and was unprepared, but “I happened to find myself in front of a newsstand on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard,” he recalls, “and one of those teen magazines had Nick and Jessica on the cover. It was so random, right? I looked over at it and I saw them and I was like, they could be like Lucy and Ricky.”
Maybe Nick and Jessica were like Lucy and Ricky, but they were also like Beavis and Butt-Head: constantly parked on the couch, surrounded by food and low-level bickering, offering up comments on snippets of commercially unsuccessful new music. (Usually Lachey’s.) That’s what they were in the middle of doing when Simpson wondered aloud what exactly it was that she was eating. Newlyweds stood out then for its exploration of the sloppy celebrity space, its commitment to broadcasting their slovenly truths. This stands out even more in our current age of influencers and social media, where even the messes have proud curated #ShabbyChic or #ImperfectlyPerfect sort of vibes. A quick dose of Newlyweds is a thrilling change of pace: moldy food in the fridge, entire rooms that are furnished only with heaps of clothes on the floor.
Before Kolinsky worked on Newlyweds, she hadn’t really known of Simpson and had only vaguely heard of 98 Degrees. She had come to MTV to work on The Osbournes and was given the option to pick up additional work on either of two new network reality shows: Newlyweds, or another program called Rich Girls that followed around Tommy Hilfiger’s daughter. Sometimes, when interacting with the Rich Girls staffers with whom she shared an office, Kolinsky would wonder whether she’d chosen wisely. “And then the footage came out,” she says. “Is it chicken or fish? And I said, I’m definitely on the right show.”
Reality television nowadays is slicker than it was at that time, but there’s also more snake oil being sold. Modern reality narratives are crisp and engaging, but can be pretty contrived. It’s not unusual to stage reshoots to draw out certain lines or reactions, nor is it rare to have only a few days to capture footage with a very specific agenda. Newlyweds, in contrast, was filmed more like a nature show, surveilling its subjects endlessly, sifting through whatever resulted, however mundane. In a Larry King Live interview in 2003, Lachey told fill-in host Ryan Seacrest that the network’s film crews were typically around for 10 hours a day, six days a week. Kolinsky estimates that for every minute of footage that was used on the show, there were 499 other minutes that went unaired.
“It’s a complete 180 from what is reality TV today,” Kolinsky says. “You had the freedom to be able to just shoot without really having so much of a game plan.” Rewatching old Newlyweds episodes is like viewing long-ago footage from a sport that traffics in progression and escalation, like skateboarding: All the old tricks may look primitive, but that doesn’t make them less radical. Kolinsky says she once asked an editor to try to put together clips of Simpson’s growing dirty clothes pile as if it were The Blob. “I wanted to give that feeling like it’s kind of a horror movie,” she says, “because she was so afraid of laundry, because she didn’t know how to do it.” Stars, they’re just like us!
Harvesting her own cartoonishness along the way, Simpson used this daffy reputation to distinguish her brand in a crowded field. It worked, in a curled monkey paw’s way. Simpson’s 2003 single, “With You,” became a Top 40 hit. (Its music video included both chicken and buffalo jokes.) In 2005, she played Daisy in a Dukes of Hazzard feature film remake (and was constantly pictured in the tabloids out and about with her also-married costar, Johnny Knoxville). An early iteration of the Jessica Simpson Collection, her merchandise line, was launched in 2006. (Simpson sold her majority stake in the business in 2016 for $170 million.)
But the spoils of the Newlyweds era also included the kind of intrusive, relentless level of celebrity known to ruin lives as it enriches them. Simpson was one of reality TV’s early success stories, which is to say that, like so many other greats of the genre, she is at once an aspirational and cautionary tale.
“Twenty-three is old,” insisted Simpson in one Newlyweds episode. “It’s almost 25, which is almost mid-20s.” Tell someone this was a Yogi Berra bon mot and they’d probably find it profound, but out of the mouth of this babe it was just considered one more dumb blond remark. At any rate, watching it at the time Newlyweds aired, just a flighty college kid myself, I kinda agreed with Simpson: 23 did seem old. But as a whole early generation of reality TV nears its own 20s, it’s fascinating, and jarring, to look at it through my new personal lens.
When I went back to rewatch some old Newlyweds episodes recently, they sure did hit a bit differently at age 36 than they did at age 20. (It felt a lot like watching Reese Witherspoon in Fear a few decades apart.) No longer did I see Simpson as a mockable composite of every gorgeous, vacant girl I’d ever envied. (I had certainly lost the right, in the intervening years, to judge moldy food in anyone else’s fridge.) Instead I couldn’t get over what a relative baby she was, fixated on the weird, warped existence she’d lived.
Even after her marriage, Simpson’s premarital virginity was a topic of national conversation, one that had publications referencing the “purity ring” given to her at 12 by her creepy manager/pastor dad. She was married at 22 to an underminer seven years her senior who struggled to hide his low-grade loathing for not only his wife’s worst moments, but sometimes also for her best ones. The tuna fish and the laundry blob made me think about another story involving canned goods and a talented young fool: the 1999 Sports Illustrated profile of Peyton Manning in which it was revealed that the quarterback didn’t know how to heat up a can of soup or even operate a can opener. But unlike Simpson, he never got called dumb in an AdWeek piece as a result.
I also knew that even the biggest Simpson faux pas on Newlyweds was small potatoes in comparison to all the cringe yet to come for her in her life. When she and Lachey divorced in 2006, an occasionally tearful Lachey sat for a Rolling Stone tell-all interview in which the writer described Simpson, almost wistfully, as “the fuckable ditz.” There was the time, also in 2006, when Simpson’s on-again-off-again-on-again-off-again emotional tormentor John Mayer broke up with her over the phone minutes before she was due to perform the song “9-to-5” in a Dolly Parton tribute show at the Kennedy Center. Simpson self-medicated, forgot the words, froze on stage, and was saved only by Parton’s amazing grace afterward. (“I wrote that damn song and I don’t even remember the words,” Parton reassured her that night, according to Simpson’s memoir.) In 2007, while Simpson was dating quarterback Tony Romo, she and her grandparents went to a Dallas Cowboys game and were serenaded by “Send Jessica Home!” chants when Romo and the team faltered. (Even George W. Bush got in on this bit, joking that he wanted to send Simpson to the Democratic National Convention as a jinx.)
This is already the stuff that anxiety dreams are made of, but it was about to get worse. Over the years, Simpson’s substance misuse issues mounted, culminating in a brutal and humiliating drunken appearance on Ellen in May 2017 that would ultimately jolt the singer back to a healthier path. It’s no wonder that in July of that year, when news came out that Whole Foods had recalled some chicken salad of theirs that accidentally contained tuna, Simpson was eager to put a spotlight back on that comparatively wholesome time in her life. “It happens to the best of us @wholefoods,” she posted.
But just as her reality show once differentiated her from her celebrity peers, Simpson’s new memoir stands out among her contemporaries for its open heart and frank candor, same as ever. “The show allowed you to see, like, oh my god, she’s also a girl who belches and clogs up the toilet,” Aissa says. “You know, by the way, you’ve probably done that too at some point. So it kind of demystified some of the, you know, the putting celebrities up on pedestals and just leaving them there. I feel like the show allowed you to take her down, and put her back up.”
There were probably more of those takedowns involved than there really should have been, but things always look different from the future. At least Simpson seems to have developed a healthy perspective to go along with her husband, three children, and newly serene lifestyle. In the foreword to Open Book, she writes that one of her friends suggested she name the memoir after her “breakout moment,” that chicken-by-the-sea incident. Simpson decided she’d much rather just keep moving on.