Last night, I came full circle.
I’d watched The Hills from the first season 1 episode all the way back through to the original three season 3 episodes I first watched last month. And now, looking back and looking forward, I can truly say that The Hills is one of the most important television shows of the decade. Here’s why.
1. Reality TV might not be real, but it partly exists in reality.
One reason reality shows are easy to produce is because their stars are, for all intents and purposes, people in the world. People have lives, go to the grocery store, have dinner out, see movies, take vacations with their friends and families. They’re endlessly different from characters on fictional shows because when, for example, Betty Suarez steps off the set of Ugly Betty, she turns into classy young actress America Ferrera, whose life and foibles are generally the complete opposite of her counterpart.
“Betty” can’t be out in the world grabbing headlines from US Weekly and the like, and for the most part, even America Ferrera can’t either. So the fact that the four very special ladies of The Hills have dominated that particular rag for weeks on end is something to note. Their lives keep happening when the show stops filming. And the “journalism” doesn’t stop either.
2. Wait—is The Hills even real?
A common question, but it doesn’t matter.
Scenario 1: The Hills really is a reality show.
If so, then it’s the most slickly produced, most watchable, most post-written show in the history of reality television. It bests The Real World by leaps and bounds and takes the conventions of traditional narrative television (woman arrives in the big city with big dreams, then sets about achieving them) and does not veer from the show’s primary arc.
Real lives don’t have these arcs or, if they do, they require a master editor and several hours in the cutting room. But The Hills convinces us that Lauren’s life really does surround Teen Vogue (and now People’s Revolution), the Hollywood club scene, her apartment with Audrina, and that feud with Heidi & Spencer. Lauren doesn’t pee, she doesn’t shop for her own groceries, and she doesn’t do laundry. But she is always comfortable, well-fed, and well-dressed.
The show really is worthwhile based on its production value alone, which gives LA a sort of gauzy, dreamy glow. It’s gorgeously filmed and will make you want to move to the West Coast.
Scenario 2: The Hills is one of the most elaborate televised hoaxes in broadcast history.
There are two possibilities here: either the show is completely fictional, or it is highly manipulated by the producers and cast. It’s hard to tell which.
On the one hand, because the events that occur on the show do so closely stick to the primary arc, it would be amazing if the producers were not completely orchestrating the surprise Lauren/Heidi run-ins, or encouraging Heidi to drop in on Audrina, or telling Lo to snub Audrina, or even telling Teen Vogue editor Lisa Love that Lauren has to go to Paris during season 2. Everything is so seamless, so clean, it feels like it must be structured that way.
But I often lead toward this being a fictional show in which the cast play characters named after themselves, who are given specific scene goals (“Heidi, in this scene you have to get Spencer to admit he cheated on you. Ready, action!”) and then ad-lib their dialogue.
In any case, it’s either brilliantly produced or brilliantly constructed. And now, I’m officially obsessed: last night I even watched an old airing of the live after show.
Narratively, I think the show is really good at keeping you sympathetic toward all the characters except Spencer, the Svengali to Heidi Montag and ultimate destroyer of everything nice about her life. Although the press (and Lauren) often villainize Heidi, in the show, she seems ultimately well-intentioned and misunderstood, genuinely confused why her friends won’t speak to her, all while enabling Spencer’s hostile take over of her life. It’s actually a bit heartbreaking to witness, particularly in just a few sittings.