Was any of it real?
After six seasons of hooking up, breaking up and making up, The Hills saga has drawn to a close. The series, which followed a group of leggy Los Angeles women as they searched for love, went shopping, got yelled at by bosses and stared off into space, was the ultimate unreal reality TV show. The filming and awkward incoherence of speech suggested it wasreal life: the subtitles, present when the cast was gossiping at a loud night club, were helpful in simply trying to figure out what the characters actually meant.
But even the most naive viewer could tell that the situations and editing were as contrived as high theatre. Good girl Lauren Conrad, best-friend-turned-nemesis Heidi Montag and space-cadet Audrina Patridge essentially played versions of themselves, versions which had low-paying fashion internships (while they actually got paid millions by the show) and apparently had no qualms about their most private moments being filmed by MTV.
Dan Levy (handsome hipster son of Eugene) and Jessi Cruickshank built a career out of dissecting their lives on MTV Canada’s The Aftershow. Quaintly, as if they were Miss Manners, they would often focus on what one should do in a social situation: “What do we think, should Audrina tell Ryan about her ex?” The sycophantic panel would put in their two-cents (when they could get a word in edgewise) and the audience would cheer or boo according to the character’s likeability. Most bizarre was when one of the cast-members showed up and answered questions about supposedly-real events in their lives, always inarticulately.
“What was it like witnessing Brody and Kristin fight?”
“It was… weird…” the young woman would say, holding the microphone nervously like a bomb.
The Aftershow played a key role for fans of The Hills, beyond the comfort of having one’s guilty pleasure shared. Dan and Jessi were undeniably real and brought some much-needed Canadian self-deprecation. And they were much better role models than Lauren et al. “It was almost parenting, in a really fun, young, sort of way,” Levy told The Toronto Star recently. “Saying, ‘Hey kids, you can watch the show. We do, but let’s not be Heidi Montag. We can watch Heidi Montag, but let’s not be her.’ ”
In a fitting tribute, Dan and Jessi hosted a glitzy farewell special worthy of Oscar night at LA’s Roosevelt Hotel. Sitting by the pool on white couches, they re-introduced the ladies (who exclusively wore short dresses and high heels) and their much-scruffier men. True to form, the cast didn’t say much, beyond weak plugs for future TV/movie/fashion line careers.
The big scoop of the night was the return of Lauren Conrad, who had been the heart and soul of the show. Along with her classic All American prettiness (not ruined even by her famed mascara-streaked tears) she was the only character with any kind of wit, and the series plummeted when she left after the fifth season. Like a cruel joke, producers cast Lauren’s enemy from Laguna Beach as her replacement, the phenomenally unlikeable Kristin Cavaralli. She was introduced as the archetypal bitch until, in true surreal The Hills fashion, she suddenly became everyone’s best friend. The limp series finale centred on her decision to move somewhere unspecified in Europe because everybody had a boyfriend except her, and hunky Brody Jenner’s lacklustre attempts to get her to stay, as though she was Carrie leaving for Paris and he was Mr. Big.
In an article about the ‘American Dream’ for Vanity Fair, David Kamp described the “existential ennui of the well-off, attractive, solipsistic kids” of The Hills as the “the curdling of the whole Southern California wish-fulfillment genre on television”. “Here were affluent beach-community teens enriching themselves further not even by acting or working in any real sense, but by allowing themselves to be filmed as they sat by campfires maundering on about, like, how much their lives suck.”
And this “curdling” is viewed all around the world. We have found the perfect export for post-modern America: a television show, essentially an advertisement for stores, clubs and magazines, which not only glamourizes the shopping-bag-swinging-swagger of America’s young elite as they pound the pavement of palm-lined-boulevards, but implies it is completely acceptable to live one’s life on camera, even if it is not one’s real life. No wonder the new generation has no problem posting pictures of themselves in bikinis on facebook, or confessing the most private details to billions on youtube.
But if Lauren Conrad represents the obvious lesson of The Hills (that you too can dominate every area of media, even the New York Times bestseller list, if you are pretty and sunny and shameless), the series also demonstrated the dark side of celebrity, not by who was present on The Aftershow but by who was not (and completely absent from the series finale as well): that two-headed hydra, Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag.
Heidi had been Lauren’s best friend until meeting Spencer and, through back-stabbing gossip, became the show’s central villain, albeit a clueless one with no self-awareness. The couple quickly alienated everyone, but as their friendships declined their fame rose. They went on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! and ‘wrote’ ‘books’ about how to become famous (befriend famous people, it turns out). Like true villains, they supported John McCain. Spencer dabbled in the world of white-boy rap and Heidi got an insane amount of plastic surgery (including eight procedures in one day, which could have killed her), turning her looks from those of an attractive 25-year-old into those of a well-preserved 45-year-old.
They had, simply put, become Hollywood monsters.
In the show’s final season, they had become too dramatic even for The Hills, as Heidi disowned her mother after a teary fight over her surgery (again, with The Hills, we have no idea what’s genuine) and Spencer grew a beard, began believing in the power of crystals and yelled at everyone, all the time. Now, it is rumoured that they are getting a divorce, but it all could be a scheme to build hype for a series of their own.
Neither were present at The Aftershow special, but, presumably out of family loyalty, Spencer’s sister Stephanie and Heidi’s sister Holly showed up, only to inform the hosts that they had not spoken to the couple in months. Holly had to sit through a montage of vintage clips of Heidi and her old face, and broke down in (real?) tears. “She’s the best person in the world,” she gushed. “And I have complete faith that we will be reunited.”
Only later did we learn that Spencer, due to his erratic behaviour, had actually been banned from the special, but had shown up outside the hotel creepily wearing a grey beard and old-man make-up (I guess as a disguise to help sneak in). “I feel like I’ve been hated a lot on this show,” he ranted, “and I came here for some closure!”
The actual ending of the series was far more interesting and self-aware than I would ever expect from the creators. Brody said goodbye to Kristin as her car drove off, presumably to the airport on her way to “Europe”. But just when you expect the credits to begin, the scene of a leafy LA neighbourhood behind Brody becomes a paper backdrop, and is taken down to reveal an urban alleyway. Cameras, microphones and a film crew enter and Brody, breaking character, congratulates them. As the shot pulls away we see that we’re on the back lot of a studio, and Kristin jumps out of her car and runs back to Brody for a hug.
This brilliant ending suggests that the entire thing was an act, that nothing we watched over the last six years was real. Brody admitted as much to Dan and Jessi when he said, “Kristin and I might not even be friends… you don’t know what’s real, it was a TV show.”
While the makers of The Hills left fans questioning the authenticity of the entire saga, they unintentionally, through the real real lives of Spencer and Heidi, provided a cautionary tale of where being addicted to fame can lead.