THE HILLS Premiere: Viva la Spectacle!

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“Media stars are spectacular representations of living human beings, distilling the essence of the spectacle’s banality into images of possible roles.”
-Guy DeBord, Society of the Spectacle

“I’m more famous than president Barack Obama. I’ll say that to President Obama’s face. My portrait is higher than his on the wall at Wolfgang Puck’s Cut restaurant. That’s such a statement. Spencer Pratt is above the President of the United States in fame. No matter what I say or do from here on out, I’ve imprinted myself on the culture. Ask somebody why I’m famous, they’ll say I’m annoying or have a big mouth, but there’s no tangible thing.”
-Spencer Pratt, interview in Spin Magazine Online

A panorama of douchebags.
A panorama of douchebags.

I am well out of MTV’s target demographic. I am not a consumer of the bands featured on the show (or its accompanying soundtrack), nor do I plan to party at Les Deux any time soon. I don’t want a career in fashion or public relations or whatever it is that Audrina Patridge does. And truly, I care very little about The Hills’ young, overprivileged, spray-tanned cast. I do however, read a lot of gossip magazines and I even read academic analyses of celebrity culture in my free time. In other words, I enjoy The Hills for the same reason that I enjoy films like Glen or Glenda? or The Room — I love how the text of the show constantly pushes me beyond the frame, to the extratextual. I can never see an episode of The Hills as a self-contained world. I am constantly thinking about the casts’ lives outside of the show — who they’re dating, how much they’re making and whether or not they still have that pesky eating disorder.

Stephanie, don't you know you're not supposed eat in Los Angeles?
Stephanie, don't you know you're not supposed eat in Los Angeles?

The young cast of The Hills is a regular feature in tabloid magazines like US Weekly, In Touch and OK!. They are also featured on celebrity gossip websites like PerezHilton.com and The Superficial. Fans who enjoy the “stars” of The Hills can also buy their clothing, listen to their music and read their novels.

Look away, friends, for it is too horrible to behold.
Look away, friends, for it is too horrible to behold.

This kind of “multiplatform” engagement with the text is an ideal way to target Generation Y (aka, MTV’s prime demographic), who enjoys consuming their entertainment through multiple venues. This type of engagement also leads to a peculiar viewing experience. As I have written elsewhere, The Hills’ “media savvy audience is likely aware of the characters’ offscreen lives and yet they continue to tune in (in record numbers) to see what transpires onscreen each week.” Viewers tune in to see these characters, rather than to see “what happens next.” For example, I did not need to watch last night’s Hills’ premiere, subtly entitled “It’s On Bitch,” to know that Audrina and Kristin would butt heads — I read all about their growing animosity in last week’s US Weekly. I also love knowing that the only reason Kristin Cavallari is back on reality TV is because her attempts at a film career tanked. No wonder she’s such a bitch. The Hills’ multiplatform structure almost demands that its viewers consider the extratextual. It is central to The Hills experience.

Does this lighting make me look human?
Does this lighting make me look human?

Of course, the most entertaining personalities on the show are Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt (aka, Speidi), a couple for whom the term “fameosexual” must have been invented. Unlike their co-stars on The Hills , Speidi is fascinating precisely because it is almost impossible to locate where their textual personas end and their extratextual lives begin. While castmates like Lauren Conrad and Lo Bosworth have been caught by the paparazzi’s lens sans make up or biting into a greasy hamburger, Speidi seems to have the preternatural ability to avoid being taken by surprise. Every single paparazzi image of the couple is staged, as if they were able to construct a special fantasy world around themselves — a life-size Barbie dreamhouse that includes shopping at Kitson and going to brunch.

Spencer and Heidi "relax." Spencer and Heidi "shop."

Spencer and Heidi exist in a constant state of performance before an ever-present camera. I imagine Heidi getting into bed at night — in full make up, hair freshly blown out — and turning on a video camera that is mounted to her ceiling. Indeed, their entire life appears in quotation marks: Spencer and Heidi go “golfing,” Spencer and Heidi “shop for toys,” Spencer and Heidi “breathe.” This couple, and the world of The Hills in general, seems to be the emodiment of Guy DeBord’s thesis in Society of the Spectacle (1967) (and I am sure that somewhere a graduate student has already written this paper). DeBord writes “Understood on its own terms, the spectacle proclaims the predominance of appearances and asserts that all human life, which is to say all social life, is mere appearance.” Perhaps its is for the best that DeBord did not live to see the rise of The Hills.

Speidi, in their natural habitat.
Speidi, in their natural habitat.

I do not say these things to spite Spencer and Heidi. In fact, if Speidi read this blog post, my guess is that they would agree with everything I’ve just written. In a recent interview, Pratt explained “Heidi and I got married on the show. You know as much about us as anyone. We tell people everything. No one is more honest than Spencer and Heidi.” The thing is, I believe Spencer. I believe that I know as much about his life as Heidi does. I believe that if we took their clothes off we would discover smooth, plastic, genital-free bodies with a “Made in Los Angeles” stamp. And for this I salute them. Long live the Spectacle!

A few other thoughts about The Hills premiere:
1. I love that Lo, once referenced in her onscreen title as “Lauren’s friend,” is now labeled as “Audrina’s friend.” Isn’t Lo important enough to just be “LO”? And more importantly, don’t Lo and Audrina hate each other?

2. Did anyone get a little creeped out when the recap segment at the beginning of the episode featured Kristin’s voice over narration, rather than Lauren’s? It felt dirty somehow, like I was cheating on Lauren.

3. Finally, although I have never been a fan of Kristin, I was definitely enjoying her in the premiere. Moments after her first cat fight with Audrina and Stephanie my husband turned to me and said “This girl’s way more fun than Lauren!”

So, what do you think? Can the show go on without Lauren? Or will Lauren show up at some point this season, mascara streaming down her cheeks, telling the audience that we betrayed her? And if we all keep watching this show, will the world collapse in on itself?

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13 thoughts on “THE HILLS Premiere: Viva la Spectacle!

    Brian said:
    September 30, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    I am ashamed, but this show is my guiltiest pleasure. I simply love it! I miss Lauren, but the “bitch” is going to be fun. I am also fascinated by Justin Bobby’s hair- in fact, I am fascinated by his very existence. I could watch JB try to express a thought for hours.

    songsbuildingsfood said:
    September 30, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    I mean, I haven’t watched this show since the third season and don’t plan to watch it now, but I just can’t imagine how it could be any good without Lauren. People always criticized The Hills as being shallow and empty and emotionally void and et cetera and I never felt this was true if only because of LC* – her character was this relatable emotional anchor for the audience amid all the postmodern emptiness and degeneracy of her environment and the rest of the cast and it was the key to why the show worked**. Without that core of sincerity and “truth” being present, I don’t think the show will last another season, personally. All these other characters are so completely theoretically interesting in the ways you describe, but they’re not* relatable enough as representations of actual human beings in the world to create dramatic and emotional stakes that can carry a dramatic television. I mean, on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here this summer, Heidi and Spencer were doing this AMAZING avant garde identity-performance-Herzog/Andy Kaufman kind of thing and yet that show was a complete failure (for a LOT of reasons, but partially) because people couldn’t deal with them; even though it’s almost impossible not to find them interesting, it’s very difficult to love them (though I do love them). My feeling is that, all the meta authenticity play kind of stuff aside, the first two seasons of The Hills explored friendships among young women and how those friendships interacted with romantic and professional relationships in a new (yet zeitgeisty) and interesting and powerful way. Then (in my personal opinion) the third season was this incredible balancing act between the extratextual meta ephemera that Heidi and Spencer/the producers had engineered and at the same time the relatable, emotional stories that formed the main text of the show, this perfect blend between the “drama” that had leaked out into the “real world” and the traditional requirements of plot and character and et cetera that are necessary to create what we think of as a television drama. Since then, though, I feel like the extratextual stuff has become so big that it’s completely overwhelmed the drama I’m trying to watch on the show; it’s the difference between Breathless, where despite the jumpcuts and et cetera you still care about Michel and Patricia in a traditional dramatic sense, and the Brechtian stuff in a lot of the later Godard, where all this crazy stuff the director and cast are doing is preventing you from identifying with the characters or really feeling anything because of what you’re watching. I continue to be fascinated by the show and all the implications it has for life, but it doesn’t touch me anymore. Lauren touched me.

    [one black tear falls down my cheek, the end]

    * Heidi also filled this emotional anchor role in Seasons 2 (remember the pregnancy plot) and (to a gradually lesser extent) in Season 3 but at this point she’s transcended to another plane of identity and performance and existence (an easy analogy would be something like Lauren: Tailor Swift:: Heidi: Lady Gaga, but Heidi is so much smarter and more interesting and mindfuck inducing than Lady Gaga). Whitney was always too much of a cypher to be a truly empathetic or relatable character– this is why the City is such a weird show, IMO, because it’s almost impossible to really identify with the heroine. Lo is charming and adorable and darling but she can’t convey the angst and inner turmoil that Lauren always seems to be exploding with even when she’s most successful and happy.

    **besides the fact that it was part of the Devil Wears Prada/SATC zeitgeist and rode the ’07 tabloid/gossip blog boom and all of that with miraculously perfect timing and other things you described in your article.

    p.s. oh my god, that spencer quote at the top is AMAZING. He and Heidi are really wasted on The Hills, I feel, I wish they were on a show that I wanted to watch regularly. I love that his trusted metric for celebrity is the photo wall at a Wolfgang Puck restaurant.

      princesscowboy responded:
      September 30, 2009 at 5:14 pm

      I’m very tempted to delete my post and to copy and paste your comment into my blog. Also, I am disappointed both that you’ve stopped watching THE HILLS and that you’ve stopped blogging about it.

      But to respond to some of these great points: I agree that Kristin brings a very different dynamic to the show. Her persona is “bitch” while Lauren’s persona is “poor little me.” Though I must disagree with your argument that this show was ever “relatable” on any kind of level. I always felt that this show was functioning at one move away from reality. Things have definitely spiraled much further out in later seasons, but for me, there was never anything human or relatable on this program. Lauren did indeed provide an “emotional anchor” but I feel she played this role in quotes, just as Kristin is now playing “the bitch.” And Lauren IS different than the other personalities on the show because she *believes* she is real and that her emotions are real, not realizing that she was always starring in her own version of THE TRUMAN SHOW. I mean how can your feelings be hurt by robots? How can you be betrayed by a fake friend?

      I LOVE your comparison between Speidi and Andy Kauffman. That is exactly what Spencer is doing (though I’m still not convinced that Heidi gets it–like Lauren, I think Heidi believes all of this is “real”).

      Finally, what would happen is Speidi had their own show? I think it would become a vortex that sucked the rest of the universe into it and we’d all wake up in Speidiland with bleached blond hair, spray tans and cameras nailed into our skulls.

      Anyway, thanks for the great comment. Lots to think about…

    songsbuildingsfood said:
    September 30, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    Also, OH MY GOD it is SO GROSS to think of Kristin doing the opening VO. SO GROSS AND WRONG.

    Nick said:
    September 30, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    Congratulations, you *almost* made me care about The Hills. It’s like jumping off a really, really high cliff–a sick part of me wants to, but we all know it ain’t gonna happen.

      princesscowboy responded:
      September 30, 2009 at 5:16 pm

      Do it Nick, care. Its all a freefall after that…

    Mark said:
    September 30, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    Best CNN headline ever:

    “Spencer Pratt ‘barely having sex’ with Heidi Montag”

    http://www.cnn.com/2009/SHOWBIZ/TV/09/30/spencer.heidi.marriage/index.html

    mike said:
    September 30, 2009 at 5:52 pm

    Well, I have admired the Hills for many of the same reasons as you. This is a nice analysis and I hope you’ll keep blogging the show (some smart person has to!), but I’m not sure I can keep watching now either. I didn’t pay full attention to last night’s ep. Kristen’s voice-over kills me for the same reasons as songsbuildingsfood, and I feel like they need to find a new theme song because I always think of “Unwritten” as being specifically about Lauren. But more importantly, I think the show always balanced the fake and authentic (or the authentically fake and the fake authentic), most of all in season 3 when its narrative spilled into tabloids. Now there’s so little of the authentic left from the cluster of relationships where Lauren was the center, it’s all just fauxreality. Lo is “Audrina’s friend”? WTF? And I could take Speidi when they were the fakey-fake contrast against the modestly authentic performances of Lauren’s life, which admittedly were getting progressively less believable as she became a bigger celeb, a fact they rigorously suppressed from the show’s representations. But I don’t think I could watch a show that was mainly Speidi, they’re so hideous to behold! So I guess my take is: the Hills needs to be real AND fake, and it doesn’t work if it doesn’t strike the right balance. (And by real, I guess I mean “believable to me” or something wishywashy like that.)

    And are you watching The City? I want to for the Kelly Cutrone. But it’s still waiting on the DVR.

      princesscowboy responded:
      October 1, 2009 at 8:18 am

      Well, Mike, you’ve discovered the real reason why I’ve started this blog — to have an open forum to discuss THE HILLS. I do plan to write about it regularly — it has a pull on me, like heroine.

      We still need to watch THE CITY premiere. Kelly Cutrone is like a black hole of disdain — how can such an unkempt, vile woman be a fashion maven? The mind reels!

    princesscowboy responded:
    October 1, 2009 at 8:19 am

    Oops, I should have said “heroin” not “heroine”

    […] why? Why has a show that has always been the simulacrum of reality suddenly become real again (notice that I didn’t put the word real in quotation marks)? Who […]

    The End of THE HILLS « judgmental observer said:
    July 14, 2010 at 11:52 am

    […] despite the hyperreality of Speidi’s image, they were, nevertheless, the only element capable of bringing reality into […]

    […] early days of my blog’s life I posted frequently (several times per week) and my posts were generally short (less than 1000 words). These posts were written quickly, often in response to an episode of […]

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