If you’ve ever seen the MTV show, The Hills, you know how utterly unique, interesting, and, well, odd it is. On one level, The Hills is just another MTV teen drama-fest with all the usual trimmings: hot twentysomethings, vacuous dialogue, an orgy of product placement… But there is something very different about the form of the Hills-type shows, and it strikes me as one of the more intriguing “experiments” of post-network T.V.
Essentially The Hills, like its groundbreaking predecessor/model, Laguna Beach, is a “faux reality” docudrama that is equal parts Melrose Place, The Real World, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The plots are simple: rich, beautiful white kids living the jet-set scene in Hollywood and beyond. The Hills centers around Lauren Conrad (who also starred in Laguna) as she pursues a career at Teen Vogue magazine in Los Angeles. The drama of the show comes from Lauren’s various romantic entanglements, friendship/feuds (most notably with Heidi Montag), and mini-crises of the “I ruined my dress” or “what should I wear?” variety…
It sounds trite and passé, right? Well, yes, but something about it is definitely resonating with the youth culture zeitgeist, because it’s the highest rated program on cable television. Season Three just resumed last week, and the premiere episode was 2008’s highest-rated cable telecast—with 4.7 million viewers. Clearly there is something alluring and addictive about this show, which also streams online to an average audience of another 1-2 million viewers each week.
I can only take so much of it, but when I do watch an episode (and I watched last Monday’s “Paris Changes Everything” episode), I am struck anew by the curiosity that is The Hills. It’s such a strange thing to watch “real” people interacting in such a staged/performed/fake (pick your word) way. One could argue that this is what all “reality TV” is, but The Hills takes it to a new level. They flaunt the uber-constructed, un-reality of it all. These kids are living out fantasies and movie scripts and E! adventures in Hollywood, arranged and financed by the world’s biggest pop culture pimp: MTV. It’s about as unreal as it can get—and the MTV producers know it. Question is: do the audiences know it? And more intriguingly: do the stars of the show know it?
Does Lauren Conrad know that any value her “career” at Teen Vogue might hold pales in comparison to the value she—as an iconic commodity of flighty pop-culture fluff—offers the MTV/Madison Ave advertising behemoth? Do Heidi and Spencer know that their “relationship”—its survival or failure—is only important as a plot point or dramatic foil for the ongoing soap opera that is their publicized twentysomething lives? In short: as these “characters” live out their “real” lives, how much of it are they playing for the camera vs. living for their lives? Or perhaps those two have become indistinguishable?
When you watch any given interaction on The Hills, you can see two things very clearly: 1) scenes are setup and scripted, just like anything you see on TV, and 2) there exists some reality, somewhere—some measure of truth to every interaction, expression, and plot development. For example, in last week’s episode, Spencer tracks down Heidi at her picturesque Crested Butte cabin where she is “working on herself” in the comfort of her parents’ comfy abode. I was struck by one scene with Heidi and Spencer at dinner with Heidi’s parents. The scene was clearly setup by the producers to be a high-water mark of awkwardness—and several things Heidi and Spencer say are very suspiciously “straight from a movie.” But in watching the scene you can see—in Spencer’s eyes, in Heidi’s blank stare—that there is some truth to their relationship; they are really going through this tension and awkwardness, on some level. But herein lies the fascinating thing about this show: it fuses reality and fiction on a very cerebral, intrinsic level.
The stars of The Hills are performed characters. But they are performances of real people. “Lauren,” “Heidi,” “Audrina,” and all the rest are avatars for some real girls who are also called Lauren, Heidi, and Audrina. They are the performed selves of some actual selves (and, interestingly, there are also virtual selves at play here in "The Virtual Hills"). But in the end, are they necessarily different?
In this digital, second-life, avatar age, are our public constructions of self who we really are? The girls on The Hills seem to think so. Audrina told TV Guide, "Who I am on the show is who I am in real life.” And why wouldn’t she want to think this? On the show she is a rich, glamorous covergirl who can get into any club in L.A. If she is or ever was someone else in her life outside of MTV, that “self” is now no longer relevant and certainly no longer desired. When you become a character that millions across the world want to be like, who cares who you really are? The glossy, costumed, makeup’d character is who you want to be.
In our Facebook/Myspace/blog culture, who we are to ourselves (our “inner” or “ultimate” Self) is less important than the image we present to the world. Or rather, perhaps who we are to ourselves becomes the self we project to others. In either case, it is clear that our culture is characterized by identity confusion—and The Hills is cashing in on it.