[30 April 2009]
Now beginning its fifth season, MTV’s The Hills continues to draw viewers with its “real” stories of rich kids in Los Angeles. Spinning off from Laguna Beach, it follows Lauren Conrad and her friends as they work and live through imaginary drama. The very brief episodes seem perfect for weekend hangover viewings by MTV’s target audience.
Before continuing, I must confess my complete lack of knowledge about The Hills. This season was my first experience with the show apart from a few silly clips on The Soup. I didn’t always understand why certain characters hated each other, but I gave it my best shot.
This ensemble series employs a loose structure of strangely unrelated stories. The scenes are designed to resemble actual events, but everything feels staged and purposely awkward. The cast separates well into the following groups of key figures and oddball supporting players.
The story’s lead player is Conrad, who gives obvious voiceover comments and receives major screen time. But she frequently shares the spotlight with roommate Audrina Patridge and former pal Heidi Montag. Hanging out with rich “punk” types, Patridge might seem out of place in glitzy L.A., but the slim, dark-haired girl brings plenty of silly drama. In the premiere, she rudely tells her other roommate Lauren “Lo” Bosworth that they’ll “never be friends.” She also has a tumultuous relationship with Justin, who everyone rightly believes is a jerk. Patridge’s storylines are usually the dullest moments in each episode.
Montag spends most of the season apart from the others with her oafish boyfriend Spencer Pratt. Once a close friend of Conrad, she wants them to reconcile and even writes her a heartfelt letter. But the obstacle to this and many other plans is Pratt, who warrants a separate section. Montag actually seems pretty down to earth but spends way too much time following the lead of her boyfriend. She loses her job, has strained relations with family and has few friends because of his constant influence.
The Clueless Doofus
This brings us to Pratt, who warrants an entire article to document his daily chaos. Working at home in a mystery job, this guy has absolutely no tact and sits atop a throne of self-righteousness. Sporting a blond, wolf-like beard, Pratt can’t deliver enough trouble to Montag and others. He loves the drama and compares the rift with Conrad to the conflict between Iran and Israel. In another instance, he describes bad treatment from Montag’s family with “they bombed me like Pearl Harbor.”
Pratt treats nearly everyone terribly and is one of the few lively characters on the screen. His standard practice is to say pretty much the worst thing during any conversation. He may even be right sometimes, but the social graces don’t exist. No one understands why Montag’s with him, and I’m still baffled after 20 episodes. Pratt’s best moment involves one of his many reconciliations with his sister Stephanie. Her peace offering is The Secret History of the CIA, and he’s thrilled more than in any other scene. This gift is strange on its own, but his inexplicable response creates a new level of hilarity that perfectly embodies this ridiculous guy.
The Exposition Helpers
The Hills’ basic structure contains a few key moments, then countless scenes with people recounting those events. Several girls have the sad task of asking the stars about each mundane activity. The least developed is Chiara Kramer, who works with Audrina at Epic Records. Her sole purpose is to ask questions so the audience can hear about the latest scoop on Justin, Lauren and others.
Whitney Port also plays this role, though she does get a few episodes to hang out in New York. These events don’t relate much to the other stories, but they make sense because Port has moved to the spin-off The City. She was a favorite early on, but her callous treatment of a friendly guy ended that run. The other helper is Bosworth, though her underplayed demeanor makes these scenes less awkward.
The Shallow Guys
With the exception of Pratt, the boys mostly appear at parties and trips to Vegas and Cabo. These guys are rich, frat boy types who all wear sunglasses indoors and try to act smooth. They travel on private jets and even fly in a horde of pretty girls to Mexico for a birthday event. Brody Jenner, host of the reality series Bromance, definitely thinks he’s the coolest man alive.
His buddy Doug Reinhardt has a brief relationship with Conrad, but she kicks him the curb pretty quickly. Their conversations are so dull that I’m glad she realized it should end. He appears periodically to provide some drama but never becomes interesting. Reinhardt is currently dating Paris Hilton, which actually seems like a perfect match. These characters all follow the expected male stereotype of hanging out and acting dumb. Nice guys do appear periodically, but they can’t compete with these idiots and disappear quickly.
The Drama Sisters
Our final group involves two unrelated sisters who seem to inspire conflict whenever they appear. Stephanie Pratt has connections with Conrad and Montag, which creates all types of drama. She also dates Reinhardt briefly, which leads to one of the show’s biggest arguments. The ridiculous part about Stephanie is her unrealistic facial expressions, involving blank stares and constant awkward smiles. Her acting skills just aren’t on par with her brother’s.
An even duller figure is Holly Montag, who uses Heidi’s pity to crash at her apartment with Spencer. After they kick her out, Holly switches gears and starts hanging with Conrad too, which has the expected bad results. I’m not sure what she does apart from creating drama, but I doubt it’s mentally challenging.
Is The Hills Real?
Anyone who’s watched even a few episodes of The Hills has to wonder what’s actually real. The stars and producers love to dance around the question during interviews, which creates more viewer intrigue. The conversations seem almost purposely awkward, so I doubt they’re scripted, but that doesn’t mean the interactions aren’t fabricated.
When you’re casting “friends” for the stars, it’s impossible to create a true-life experience. Many examples of fake moments have been documented online, which raises questions about the entire production. Port’s new job and move to New York seems created solely to deliver another spin-off series. The drama feels manufactured way too often and the camera’s predictably around for the “big” conversations.
The extra features contain interviews with the four leads, but they provide almost no information about behind-the-scenes events. Instead, they simply recount the season’s key moments and describe the obvious emotions they felt. Another major section presents “Lessons in Love” from the stars, which are silly and ridiculous. They’ve been blatantly added to sell the book, The Hills: Lessons in Love, that hit stores in January. This brings me to the show’s product placement, which is frequently obvious. It’s hard to make the argument that the story’s real when it appears so designed to sell.
Who’s the Audience
I’ll try not to overstate the obvious point, but MTV started as a fun, rebellious station that actually played music videos. Things started to change with the success of The Real World, which spawned Road Rules and many other cheesy shows. The end result is The Hills, which makes the network’s early reality series feel like serious documentaries. It provides easily digestible moments and virtually no complexity. When a relationship starts with “he plays a guitar and has a cool accent!” it’s never a good sign.
So who regularly watches this show? The ratings are major for a cable series, with about three million viewers each week. It’s obviously a very young audience, but I suspect there are some adults tuning in frequently. Real or not, the episodes are easily digestible and require almost no focus from viewers. They’re also extremely short and only last about 18-minutes without commercials. While these aren’t compelling reasons for the popularity, they definitely play a strong role.
The other factor is the social one, with friends asking “Can you believe Spencer said that?” to each other and bonding. It’s not intelligent television, but the popularity is gained cleverly.
What’s with the Editing?
My biggest problem with The Hills is the sloppy editing, which incorporates brief conversations with music interludes offering aerial shots of L.A. These breaks happen constantly and feel designed to stretch out full episodes where little happens. The songs are generic, boring tunes that offer us little but a chance to get up and get a drink from the kitchen. Another peculiar method employed is ending many discussions with characters giving awkward facial expressions. Is this supposed to make the stories seem real?
Far too many conversations seem unnecessary and just recount what’s already happened. The bonus features include a huge selection of 16 deleted scenes, but they’re on the same dull level. The set has a good amount of extras, though I’d suggest them for fans only. It’s a telling sign when the cut moments add little to the already stretched final product. There’s just not enough story here to deliver an engaging season.