“This is my chance to make it all happen,” Lauren Conrad says in her first voice-over in the first episode of The Hills, a glossy MTV reality show focusing on then-19-year-old Conrad, and most notable for its skewed relationship to the real. On-screen, Conrad packs a pink suitcase into the back of her BMW convertible, preparing to move from her hometown of Laguna Beach to her new home in Hollywood — which her voice-over describes as “the one city where they say dreams come true.” Cut to a credit sequence that, like the show to follow, is both seductive and unintentionally risible in its embarrassment of California cliché — all sparkling coastline, wind-whipped golden hair and hilariously fetishistic shots of the Hollywood sign dissolving into sprays of blinding divine light.
That this sequence plays to a song called “Unwritten” is either a phenomenal joke or a stupid mistake, considering the evidence, circulated in celeb rags and blogs, that the drama on The Hills is manipulated by producers, if not explicitly scripted. Not that such allegations matter to those under its spell. Compared by The New York Times to the work of Italian neorealist Michelangelo Antonioni, praised by Bret Easton Ellis as “a modern masterpiece,” “more beautiful” than any film, The Hills intrigues by maintaining hazy ambiguities between naturalism and calculation, emphasizing visual pleasure over narrative continuity in a manner that seems alternately artful and dangerously deceptive.
Written or unwritten, The Hills is impossible to write off. Over five years, this show has redefined the very new-Hollywood paradigm of reality TV, while at the same time recharging one of Hollywood's oldest, and scariest, structuring myths.
The Hills is easy to watch, and incredibly hard to read: Its aesthetics seem engineered for maximum anesthetic effect. Rhythmic montages of sun-kissed skyscrapers, helicopter shots flattening the city into a paisley of swimming-pool aqua and Spanish-tile pink, day rendered as permanent magic hour and night as a matrix of white and pink jewels on black velvet, “conversations” consisting of a few scene-setting sentences followed by a ping-pong match of suggestive cutaway close-ups of smirks, batted lashes or rolling eyes. The cumulative effect is hypnotic.
What narrative there is focuses on a number of barely legal pretties. Conrad, a reality-TV star since high school who left The Hills and now writes best-selling novels about a reality-TV star; Kristin Cavallari, a reality-TV star turned aspiring actress turned reality-TV star; Audrina Patridge, an aspiring actress cast by MTV as Conrad's friend; Heidi Montag, Conrad's actual friend and infamous plastic-surgery disaster; and Montag's on-the-make husband, Spencer Pratt. As this gang parties by night and works low-level industry jobs by day, The Hills tells a loose, 21st-century version of the old myth of Hollywood as a magnet for ambitious migrants struggling to claw their way into the spotlight, under the constant threat of being eaten alive.
Considering this premise, it's maybe not surprising that The Hills has become increasingly contrived over the course of its run, all but abandoning the notion of being “unwritten” in later seasons. It's unclear whether the writing came from above (i.e., the producers telling the cast what to say and do), below (i.e., tabloid attention and blog snark compelling the stars to change their appearances and personalities themselves), or some combination of the two, but the comparative authenticity of the first season is now startling. Though Patridge has always come off as the invented personality she is, Conrad and Montag at first appear to be normal 19-year-old girls who, sans stylists, dress in sweats at home and make the occasional regrettable fashion choice at The Club. The West Hollywood apartment they share is nice, but not beyond the realm of expectation for two college girls being subsidized by parents. The production is not nearly as slick as it would become — mics rustle, and the cameras can't always anticipate the movements of the “stars,” who hardly seem aware of their presence. In particular, Montag's screwball goofiness and lack of poise read as blissful ignorance: This is not a girl who is presenting herself with a sense of savvy about the way she'll be seen.
Neither the ignorance nor the bliss could last. As the first season aired, the Hills cast became stars, famous for “being themselves” at a moment when fame itself was in the process of redefinition. The need of then-new blogs like TMZ and Perez Hilton to fuel the fire of page views by feeding readers a constant stream of content made the exploits of a Heidi Montag more exploitable than the lives of “real” celebrities. As media-studies professor Michael Newman put it on his blog Zigzigger in 2008, “Because the characters are real people, it is possible for their characterization to continue through multiple media and more or less perpetually.” The ultimate sign that the game had changed: As teenagers, Cavallari starred with Conrad on Hills precursor Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, which the former left to pursue an acting career; when Conrad bowed out of The Hills last year, Cavallari replaced her, intimating that this was just another role. “If it was a reality show,” she told NYLON magazine, “they would focus on me being an actress.”
After all, “Why would anyone act when they can just play themselves?” Pratt posed that rhetorical question in a Details profile in 2007. The Hills changed radically in its second season, and it's in large part thanks to Pratt, a natural-born plotter who injected the previously story-lite show with a plot by scheming his way simultaneously into the spotlight and Montag's heart. “Basically, I made it, like, my mission to try to go on a date with every girl on The Hills,” Pratt told Details. Montag was most welcoming to his advances, and soon Pratt set to work breaking up her friendship with Conrad by spreading a rumor about a nonexistent Conrad sex tape. This was a stroke of genius — what would have been a boon for a more typical reality star like Kim Kardashian was, for the serious-to-the-point-of-humorlessness Conrad, a blight on a personal brand that appeals mostly to tween girls — and it worked.
Without the imminently practical Conrad around to bring Montag down to earth, the Montag/Pratt union became its own brand. From a disastrous recording career (Montag sang, Pratt produced), to the couple's prima donna antics on I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, to their mysterious disappearance from The Hills this season amid allegations of sexual harassment — and after a series of episodes in which Pratt appeared to be turning into a violently unhinged new-age crackpot — Mr. and Mrs. Pratt specialize in spectacular, WTF failure.
As her husband morphed into television's best whacked-out villain, Montag took charge of her own transformation, inspired by insecurities dredged up by seeing herself on TV. “When I watched myself on The Hills … I was like the frumpy sidekick to Lauren,” she told People magazine. The solution: ten plastic-surgery procedures in one day, transforming Montag from a genuine, all-American beauty into a grotesque embodiment of the potential toxicity of Hollywood dreams, a monstrous symbol of the endgame of starlet manifest destiny.
With The Hills ending, Montag, now allegedly divorcing Pratt and shopping her own reality show, has emerged as a cautionary tale. Montag's story — her migration from tiny-town Colorado to California in a desperate bid for upward mobility, her romantic attachment to a shady character who promises to help her become a star, her self-professed “addiction” to self-transformation — recalls The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West's satire with sympathy for the Hollywood rabble. West wrote the novel between gigs as a for-hire screenwriter. Criticized by members of the progressive left (whom West socialized with but didn't actively support politically) for making a living off the very tainted system he criticized, West argued he meant to reveal the extent to which his subjects were unconsciously enslaved by a fantasy. In a letter to a friend, West wrote, “I believe that there is a place for the fellow who yells 'fire' and indicates where some of the smoke is coming from without actually dragging the hose to the spot.”
Hills producers have historically avoided focusing on the really real details of its cast's lives, whether that means framing the paparazzi out of scenes, or more morally questionable elisions, as when they failed to document the allegedly “violent breakup” between Conrad and boyfriend Jason Wahler, reported by tabloids but never seen on TV. But when it came to Montag's real-life metamorphosis, MTV took a cue from West, presenting the disaster as spectacle, letting it play out for amusement and horror without intervention. West's would-be starlet/sometime prostitute Faye Greener and his rioting movie-premiere masses were fictional types whose symptoms pointed to a real epidemic, with which Montag, an organic life-form under all that silicone, eventually became afflicted. Montag's physical mutation into the ultimate fake may be the only thing about The Hills that's indisputably real.
That the reality of the rest is debatable became indubitable with the much-discussed final images of the final episode of the series. After a tearful goodbye with Kristin, Brody stares mournfully off into the distance, with the omnipresent Hollywood Sign visible in the background. Suddenly, the Sign starts to move: the camera pulls back to reveal that Brody has been standing in front of a backdrop on a soundstage. Does this mean it was all fake? Or did MTV fake this last scene just to ensure that we'd be left asking that very question? It's some kind of victory for media education that the network that gives us Jersey Shore has provoked its audience to even question the way images are made, to understand that reality itself is always subject to manipulation, and that maddening ambiguities are a fact of real life.