[8 October 2009]
PopMatters Associate Interviews Editor
You’ve got to hand it to the people at MTV. They really know how to take a successful product which appears to have an appeal which will only fade with time, and keep it going as a money-maker for years longer than anyone would have expected. At least that has been the case with The Hills, the Laguna Beach spin-off which has been a bulwark of the networks prime-time programming since its premiere in 2006.
After the astounding buzz surrounding the first installment of Laguna Beach—a show which based its popularity on its reality-show examination of rich, beautiful kids during that magical time at the end of the high school when teenagers start to become young adults—the show’s producers were able to keep the franchise running for a further two seasons. When enthusiasm for the newer kids appeared lukewarm, MTV simply left Laguna and followed first season hero Lauren Conrad to the Hollywood Hills, where they examined the life of a rich, beautiful kid during that magical time after high-school when teenagers go to fashion school and get lucrative internships with internationally dominant fashion magazines.
And it hasn’t stopped with The Hills. Conrad’s colleague, Whitney Port, moved to New York and got her own camera crew to film The City, while another Hills regular Audrina Partridge is currently filming a Los Angeles-based MTV show of her own.
But The Hills is still the biggest grape in the bunch, the one place where fans can tune in to see all their favorite castmembers like Audrina, Brody Jenner, the infamous ‘Speidi’, and, of course Lauren Conrad, party and gossip their way through Hollywood. The show has always been contrived—I mean, even millionaire reality-show stars must occasionally be to busy to meet up for $20 lattes and discuss ‘what’s up’ with the lives of an itemized list of their fellow cast-members—and mostly upfront about it, but Season Five (part one), now available on DVD, is the one that faced the most attacks on its good name as a “reality show”.
Events on other TV shows, like Brody’s quest for a new best friend on quasi-dating game Bromance and Spencer and Heidi Pratt’s appearance on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Outta Here! revealed just how far these people are willing to go for a few more minutes of fame, while daily reports on the cast members in the tabloids and on gossip sites exposed faked situations and ruined the season’s biggest cliffhangers (“I know TMZ has an actual photo of Lauren at ‘Speidi’s’ wedding, but will she really show up to support her one-time friend?). And MTV itself became disturbingly self-aware when it started airing a Hills After-Show, on which two sarcastic hipsters snarked about the cast members, the ‘drama’, and the three-word-sentence-filled conversations that make up the average episode.
But searching hard for insights into life’s meaning or getting a detailed glimpse of a different but existent “reality” has never been the key to The Hills. At the end of the day it’s all about the bodies, the cars and the clothes, as well as the incredible things that occasionally come out of the cast-members’ mouths. And with all the usual suspects sticking around this season, these aspects that the fans so adore are available in abundance.
Lauren’s old friend Audrina gets more face-time this season, which only makes sense as the producers are hoping to keep fans around for her own upcoming show. Although she still has trouble expressing normal human emotions - at least with her cherubic, ever-blank face - she is beginning to figure out that it is time for some changes in her life. On-and-off love interest Justin Bobby, for example, is losing the hold over her that his homeless-man-like good looks and bad-boy attitude have given him for so long, and she is starting to develop feelings for Brody, the clean-cut, platonic male-friendship-seeking party boy who used to date Lauren. Unfortunately, Brody has finally decided to give up his philandering ways and settle down in a serious relationship with the 2008 Playboy Playmate of the Year, and so when Audrina decides to spend a night in his bed, serious drama inevitably ensues.
Spencer and Heidi, on the other hand, are forced to construct their own drama to get screen-time this season. The idea that these two won’t get married is probably ridiculous even to Stone-Age technology posessing indigenous tribespeople in Papua New Guinea at this point, but ‘Speidi’ doesn’t let that stop them from erecting a few roadblocks on their own road to marital bliss.
First, Spencer starts flirting with a sexy young bartender he meets on a guys-night-out, and—whether its because of his creepy billy-goat’s beard or the chance to appear on the television - the bartender flirts back, leading Heidi to force Spencer to go to couples-counseling. Spencer is initially resistant, but then suddenly has a change of heart.
Determined to give Heidi the wedding she wants, he tries to mend bridges with former friends like Brody and Lauren, reaches out to Heidi’s Spencer-hating mom, and bonds over a constantly avowed love of firearms with Heidi’s biological father. Along the way he also finds time to heckle Heidi’s high school sweetheart over his abstinent lifestyle, and punch his sister’s ex-boyfriend in the face in front of an entire crowd of MTV extras.
It may have become nauseating to see him so often in so many media outlets over the past year or two, but Spencer is still an incredible human being to watch onscreen, and moments like his ‘heartfelt’ apology to Brody (‘You’re lying,” replies a nonplussed Brody, sipping on a PBR), are what make this show half-way watchable. As for Heidi, well…she sure looks pretty after all that surgery! (as her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend points out, “You look really different!”)
And then there is Lauren. She’s been the center of this franchise ever since she narrated the first season of Laguna Beach, but this season is her last as fulltime cast member. She’s always seemed like the most ‘normal’ person amongst a group of attention-starved kids looking for fame. Despite being the show’s marquee star, she’s always been a little more down-to-earth, intelligent and driven by goals other than reality-TV stardom than her castmates, and even though she’s exceedingly wealthy and obviously attractive, she’s always provoked sympathy from the viewers rather than envy, largely thanks to her constantly rocky love-life.
But she doesn’t have a lot to do this season. There are no burgeoning romances to observe (she apparently has a serious boyfriend who didn’t want to appear on the show), and so she mainly acts as fulcrum for the other characters to gather around, although she still occasionally has something to say about Audrina’s idiotic relationship decisions or Spencer and Heidi’s upcoming marriage.
She is now working at People’s Revolution, which gives that company’s founder Kelly Cutrone an exuse to be a more demeaning and less charismatic Anna Wintour onscreen, and experiences a little bit of ‘drama’ when she hires Spencer’s basket-case sister, Stephanie into the firm.But Lauren’s clearly ready to move on to new things, and if she occcasionally seems a little bitchy (she often seems a little bitchy), it does the viewer well to remember that this is a girl who has spent most of her adult life on camera, and is surrounded by people who more often than not are looking to use her friendship to find a little fame of their own, a subtext the show refuses to dwell upon in its storylines.
But the show will go on, as the new season has already premiered, replacing Lauren with her high-school nemesis Kristin Cavallari and giving Spencer’s character a new facet by adding an oversized cowboy hat. And yet Lauren’s departure really does feel like the end of a particular era of the 2000s, one in which viewers flocked to their TVs every week to see a nice, slightly chubby high-school girl grow into a beautiful, cynical fashion mogul.
That alone will make The Hills: Season Five a must-buy DVD collection for longtime afficianados of the show, many of whom are as much fans of Lauren Conrad as they are of the franchise itself. And The Hills is certainly made to be watched on DVD on a shiny new television, with all its gorgeous shots of beautiful streets and expensive coture lit by the sparkling California sunshine (just don’t waste to much time wondering how the crew of a ‘reality show’ was able to get all those camera angles and that perfect lighting).
The DVD set also comes with a few special features, like a behind-the-scenes look at ‘Speidi’s’ wedding and Lauren’s final After Show, that hate-watchers won’t care about but fans who truly adore everything about The Hills will no doubt find fascinating.