Remembrance of Things Past: Looking Back at MTV's 'The Hills'
Was the hit TV show an edgy postmodern commentary on the nature of reality—or just really, really boring?
For a long time, I went to bed watching MTV. I thought the summer before sixth grade could be spent in study, how to be cool; at some point I had been embarrassed when I failed to recognize a music video a few of my classmates were talking about, I think in the cafeteria, and after that I vowed to never be pop culture ignorant again. At the time, and for a while after, MTV was important and common knowledge to everyone I might have interacted with, so I began a strict regimen: TRL every day, sometimes twice. I quickly felt like I was learning to be the person I wanted to be--a person never embarrassed--so as the channel's music videos and shows about music videos bled into shows about people who had dreamed only of making music videos for their entire lives bled into shows about entire lives that had nothing to do with music, I watched it all, on the 13-inch VCR-combination television that still sits squat in my childhood bedroom.
I recently revisited this period of my life when I watched every episode of MTV's hit reality show The Hills in about six weeks. My editors would say they "forced" me to watch it for this article; I would say they asked me to write "a very serious, LRB-style critique of The Hills," and I agreed. In actuality it was probably more like they tricked me: They know I love the LRB. In the weeks leading up to the assignment, my oppressors had also been talking about how the show was "soooo good," asserting that various scenes, which they seemed to remember in vivid detail, were "iconic." I should have known that by "soooo good" they meant mostly that it is "soooo bad" in a particular way: very dated, to the first time period for which we can claim legitimate nostalgia, a time period we can actually remember. I again instated a regimen, but I was not nearly as disciplined with it this time around. (The person I want to be now is a person who can get through an entire issue of the LRB.) More importantly, the show is incredibly boring. If uniqueness is the chief requirement of an icon, The Hills probably does qualify--there has likely never been a reality television show so uneventful in plot, character development, or dialogue before or since.
And yet, for some reason, through six seasons, 102 episodes, two narrators, at least 12 plastic surgeries, and countless salads eaten on patios--one of which is described as "like a party"--people watched it. A chronicle of the romantic, platonic, and professional lives of a group of young women in Hollywood's eponymous hills, the show mainly consists of casually rich people in their late teens and early 20s talking to other casually rich people in their late teens and early 20s about other casually rich people in their late teens and early 20s, in various but not that various contexts: at restaurants in LA, at nightclubs in LA, in apartments in LA, in hotels in Las Vegas and Mexico. Producers were piggybacking off the success of MTV's younger, beachier high school reality show Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, its name a passive aggressive acknowledgment of the fact that it too was piggybacking, off not-MTV's better, beachier high school soap opera,
When The Hills ran originally, from 2006-2010, I was at most a casual viewer, catching it when and because "it was on," yet when I started my marathon, I found I already knew everything that happened. I was so familiar with the story and the characters that tuning in again was almost relaxing, a sharp contrast to the frothy tabloid frenzy I remembered the show's four-year run to be. Everyone was constantly talking about The Hills, speculating on whether it was "real" or scripted, though where you came down on that debate didn't seem to affect whether you watched it--you did. To watch it was not to watch it in the traditional sense, by sitting in front of a TV, but to absorb its narrative and characters, as, say, a Hollister sweatshirt absorbs smoke from a bonfire. It came at you from many directions, tabloids and talk shows and what your friends were saying about it. When I told my boyfriend, a very indie guy who takes pleasure in disdain, that I was writing about the show, he replied, "Oh! There was that guy with two names!" When a Danish friend visiting from Berlin came back to my apartment one night to find me cramming season four: "Oh, I think I remember this episode. She's dating the guy with two names, right?"
The narrative premise of The Hills is this: After graduating from high school, one of the main characters on Laguna Beach--LC--moves to Los Angeles to embark on a career "in fashion," whatever that means. She starts going by her given name, Lauren (the C is for Conrad); moves into an apartment with her best friend Heidi Montag, who later becomes her worst enemy; meets Audrina Patridge, the show's only principal brunette and the most monotone and unexpressive in a group of monotone and unexpressive people; and voila! A spin-off show was born of their admin jobs, lunch dates, and boy "drama."
Oh, the ambivalent yank of frenzied "drama." Although there are a couple of legitimate tensions in the show, some of the most dramatic scenes on The Hills are the ones in which characters say they don't want anything of the sort. The rift between Lauren and Heidi is the driving conflict, instigated by Heidi's ongoing romance with the mesmerizingly psychotic Spencer Pratt; Lauren thinks he's bad for Heidi (he is), and the final nail in the coffin comes in season three, when Lauren finds out Spencer spread rumors that she made a sex tape with her then-boyfriend Jason Wahler, who starts out with very bad facial hair (chin strap) but gets better. Spencer denies it; Heidi is torn. When she ultimately doesn't leave him, Lauren feels it is grounds for officially ending their friendship. Heidi slowly loses the rest of her friends and perspective; Spencer's facial hair slowly gets worse.
This sounds very exciting, but somehow it is not. Most of The Hills's narrative momentum takes place through gossip; we rarely see anyone doing what we see them telling people they've done, though we often see multiple scenes of them telling people they've done whatever it is they've done. A favorite strategy of the MTV crew is to layer audio over a shot of a closed bathroom door at a nightclub, as if we're listening to the conversation going on within.
And that was the point: to create the illusion that we were listening in on other people's lives. Or was the point to create the illusion that MTV was creating the illusion that we were listening in on other people's lives? The show is so fake that it's hard to believe its heavy-handedness was not intentional, a postmodern commentary on reality or Hollywood or television or fame, the sadly mainstream MTV's last gasp of edge. Indeed, that some portion of The Hills was not real--or scripted, or massaged, or "soft-scripted"--has been proven: by numerous interviews in which the stars have, sounding in varying degrees of fed up, declared as much; by MTV's statement that "maybe the term 'reality TV' didn't perfectly apply to The Hills"; and by the fact that there were two alternate series finales, both of which pander, aggressively, like the shots of the closed bathroom doors with gossip voiced over. The original is explicitly telling: A camera pans out to reveal that the scenic sunny street and Hollywood sign backgrounding an emotional goodbye between Kristin Cavallari and Brody Jenner are, actually, part of a set; a crew begins to break it down. MTV told us we had all been fooled, though no one was quite sure how that was possible, since we knew we were being fooled all along. Everyone knew it was fake and no one knew what was fake, and that was riveting.
Even though what was fake doesn't really matter: The Hills was still entertainment, ingested two-dimensionally and for all intents and purposes fictional, since it wasn't happening to us or anywhere close to us, though it seemed like it could. Most viewers would have known a version of the lifestyle portrayed on the show, sort of, and that was a key facet of whichever illusion MTV was producing. Lots of people go to restaurants--just not so relentlessly. Lots of people live in apartments with ugly couches and trite aphorisms framed on the walls--just not paid for by their parents and in desirable parts of Los Angeles. Lots of people have relationship problems--just not with notorious playboys who drive Range Rovers and who allegedly choose their partners based on how likely it is that the relationship can get them cast (cast?) in a reality show. The network might have descended upon any one of our high schools to elevate our mundane teenage crises to the stuff of orchestrated television, setting the stage (literally?) for our long careers in nebulous arenas of the entertainment industry.
No, the unattainability of The Hills lifestyle is subtle, easily missed, until it is no longer subtle or easily missed, and the point at which that shift takes place is maddening one to try to spot. Time doesn't seem to pass in southern California; the weather is the same when Jason gives Lauren a Chanel bag for Christmas as when, six months later, in one of the tensest moments of the series--aided by more cheesy, obvious, yet nevertheless suspenseful cinematography--Lauren decides to forgo a very good opportunity to spend the summer working in Paris working and shacks up with him in a beach house instead. (Lots of people must choose between their careers and their love lives!) There is also something to be said here about plastic surgery, the specter of which loomed low over my rewatching of the series. Originally, I watched without knowing that the cute teenager dropping out of college in season one would go on to have ten plastic surgeries in a single day at the start of season six; this time, I watched as if her title card read, "Heidi Montag: Future Person Who Gets Dangerous Excess of Plastic Surgery." (On the show, the surgeries are also introduced with phoned-in suspense that feels absurd--audiences knew what Heidi had done long before the "reveal" episode aired. Three months prior, People Magazine featured Montag on the cover with the headline "ADDICTED TO PLASTIC SURGERY: 10 PROCEDURES IN 1 DAY.")
Perhaps the reason the show struck the lazy television balance between being gripping and tedious was that, until the plastic surgeries, the problems the characters experienced did not exist in the "reality" where class and gender and race create discriminations that must be fought against, but their issues nevertheless felt "real" (because they were so boring). No one is anything but white (well, very tan). (There is the minor character Frankie Delgado, but his race never has anything to do with anything.) Even sexism is kind of circumvented; Lauren works almost exclusively for and around women, with two female bosses in a row. While some viewers might scoff that the women only talk about boys, that's also not totally true; they also talk about their career goals and each other and, frequently, growing up, the weirdness of the passage of time. "I feel like I don't really get older; time just keeps passing by," Heidi says in a teary confrontation with Lauren during the season four finale. "And I'm like, wait: two years ago, three years ago, seems like five minutes ago so much, you know?" It could easily be argued that the entire six-season narrative is about a boy, yes, but it's about a boy who is believed to be destroying a girl's professional and social lives. As for sex itself, usually one of the biggest conflicts in life as well as television, it rarely comes up. When, in season four, Audrina gets into the pool with the guy with two names and takes off her bikini top, it's totally shocking--it's the first display or indeed mention of overt sexuality on the show.
It's hard to imagine TV like this doing well today. If one of the main appeals of The Hills was that it allowed you to think you were listening in on boring rich girls' lives, then Instagram and Twitter and Facebook and Periscope have completely replaced television in that respect. Of course, social media narratives are "massaged" as well--lives lived in brunches and fire-emoji outfits of the day are just as "real" as The Hills was. The show capitalized on the end of a time when television was watched on a fixed schedule and physical set rather than streamed whenever you wanted. The proliferation of entertainment options offered by the internet--and our growing awareness of them, also offered by the internet--has since required our reality TV to veer towards the absurd and inaccessibly other, depicting--or saying it's depicting--people with extraordinary lives, catastrophe, drunken screaming matches, and SEO. The distance between you and Lauren Conrad seemed to be merely a matter of learning to expertly apply liquid eyeliner; the distance between you and a Kardashian/Jenner is clearly paved with unfathomable wealth and bizarrely obtained notoriety.
Some aspect of that narrative is "real," too, but it's increasingly seeming like not even the Kardashian/Jenners know what "real" means in the context of reality TV anymore. In a recent profile in GQ, a reporter repeatedly tries to ask Kendall Jenner--who is described as a "product" in the accompanying photo spread--whether Keeping Up with the Kardashians is fake. First he wonders if Jenner "ever felt like she was playing a character" on the show. She answers, "No, not at all." Disbelieving, he rephrases: "But there are story lines, right? The producers shape the raw footage into narratives." Again Jenner says no. "Because it's all our real life," she says. "It's all real, so when there's a story line, it's all done after the fact that we've filmed, because that's obviously how it makes sense, because that's just how it actually happened." The idea that there could be a difference between a dramatized version of her everyday life and her everyday life doesn't compute.
As time went on, a similar thing happened to the cast of The Hills. The stars got more famous--the number of viewers peaked at 4.8 million (plus another 1.8 million online) during the third season--and they became more relaxed on camera, losing the stilted, smiling passive aggression that characterized their personas in the earlier seasons and arrived at emotional range. They either became more comfortable living real lives mediated by televised audiences or better at acting. Or the blurry distinction between what was "real" and what was acting got blurrier, and acting became so natural that the cast stopped realizing they were doing it. Their real world became the one in which they were being filmed--though until the cheap thrill of that original series finale, the realities of making a television show were never featured on screen.
We would like to believe there's a huge distinction between the reality within the narrative we are consuming and the reality of creating the narrative we are consuming, between "this is what it was like" and "we made a reality TV show and this is what it was like." The fact that there's probably not that much of a difference is unsettling; we still can't get through an interview with a novelist without asking which parts of his books are autobiographical. (And when he says all parts of his books are autobiographical, we want to know how much.) We need to sense that we stand on steady ground to make moral judgments about people--otherwise, how will we know we're better off?
These questions weighty and difficult, the narrative so unimportant it was almost soothing, I found the best way to watch The Hills was how I had experienced it the first time: at night, in bed, during the hour when I would ordinarily be reading or, more realistically, scrolling through Instagram hating myself. As I would drift into sleep, my 13-inch Macbook sliding slowly sideways off my chest, my thoughts would run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of the reality show I was watching moments before: a nightclub, a birthday party, the rivalry between Lauren and Heidi.