If you read this blog, then you know that I am a little obsessed with The Hills. In particular I’ve always been fascinated with show’s peculiar brand of unreality. But when the sixth and final season of The Hills premiered on April 27, the show’s mode of address appeared to shift. While earlier seasons of the series existed at one move away from reality, with cast members clearly performing their roles and hitting their assigned marks, the season six premiere actually felt real.
For five seasons Adam DiVello successfully kept the world outside of The Hills separate from the world inside The Hills: Lauren Conrad never mentioned her clothing line while she cried over lattes with Lo at some trendy L.A. eatery and Heidi Montag, God love her, never mentioned her singing “career” on camera. But when Heidi’s massive breasts and chiseled jawbone appeared onscreen in the season six premiere, it must have been clear to DiVello that the bizarre, paparazzi-filled, fame-mongering lifestyles of his cast members could no longer be distinguished from their seemingly isolated,”normal,” onscreen personas. Heidi Montag and her grotesque plastic surgery broke down the wall between diegetic and extradiegetic and the result was some pretty fantastic television. At last The Hills was addressing its impact on its own cast. It was as if a reality show was not just admitting that the reality it captured was not real — it was admitting that the reality it captured was profoundly warped by the very fact that it was being captured.
I was awfully pleased with my conclusions about season six. I even wrote a piece about it for another media studies site:
“In its final season The Hills has morphed into a treatise on the “reality” of reality TV “stardom,” a reality crafted by the rewards and labors of a life of constant surveillance and confession. I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that this season can also serve as an allegory of the current cultural moment—in which we are starting to take stock of the high costs of self-exposure.”
I thought that was a fairly tidy conclusion. But the problem was that I came to this conclusion after only two episodes of the new season had aired. Soon after that, Spencer and Heidi disappeared from the show. The moment these two cast members exited the show, the diegetic once again split from the extradiegetic. My thesis — that The Hills was becoming self-referential and even critical of the reality TV machine — was effectively disproven. Ooops, my bad.
Why was Speidi’s exit so momentous and so disappointing for a fan like me? Why did it destroy my thesis? Avid readers of tabloids knew that Spencer Pratt was kicked off the show for threatening one of the show’s producers and for his anger problems in general. Since Heidi’s biological functions are controlled by a small, external remote that Spencer carries at all times, she naturally had to leave the show as well.
It would have been fascinating if the real reason behind Spencer’s exit had been addressed within the show — that he was simply too dangerous to keep on the set. But DiVello was clearly not ready to relinquish that kind of control. He was forced to acknowledge his young casts’ extradiegetic lives but he was not going to acknowledge that The Hills was a show. Instead, the episode, “This is Goodbye,” featured lots of scenes in which people who have no interest in Spencer and Heidi, like Lo and Kristin, sat gravely with people who do have a lot invested in the couple, like Holly Montag and Stephanie Pratt. While Lo feigned interest and compassion (something Lo does exceptionally well), Holly and Stephanie cried rivers of black mascara over the televisual death of their siblings. Their conclusion? No more contact with Spencer and Heidi until they stop being crazy (good luck with that, ladies).
After this episode, Speidi disappeared from the world The Hills, effectively cleaving it back into two parts: the constructed world before the cameras and the real world outside of the cameras. Naturally, the cast members resumed their emotional detachment: Kristin pretended to pine after Brody Jenner (really? Brody Jenner?) and bland Audrina pursued and then ended a bland relationship with bland Ashlee Simpson Show alum, Ryan Cabrera (yes, the show always referred to him as “Ryan Cabrera.”) With the exit of Speidi — that Tasmanian devil of emotional instability — The Hills once again became boring and emotionally detached.
The emotional complexity first witnessed in the season premiere did not return until the penultimate episode, “Loves Me Not,” when Heidi’s mother, Darlene, flies to L.A. for a visit with her daughter, Holly. Darlene is anxious to see Heidi and Holly frets over her inability to locate her sister. It is clear that Holly not only misses her sister, but is also distraught over her mother’s pain and her own powerlessness in the situation. Over lunch Darlene admits that she hasn’t slept in months and has been force to take prescription sleeping pills because she is so distraught over her daughter’s absence. “I’ve been mourning the loss of a child,” she tells Holly. Both women cry. And yes, so did I. Because the whole Heidi story is truly sad. The pursuit of the spotlight has resulted in the loss of her fledging career, her good looks, and most tragically, her family.
It is difficult not to compare Darlene’s and Holly’s weeping in this scene with Kristin’s own “breakdown” at the end of the same episode, when Brody Jenner tells her that does not in fact love her. Maybe it’s because Kristin is not skilled at emoting (she’s no Lauren Conrad) or maybe it’s because I have the extradiegetic knowledge that she’s dating one of the show’s cameramen, but I could not buy into the “emotion” of this scene. I do not believe that Kristin “loves” Brody. Notice how I have to put quotation marks around everything?
Thus, despite the hyperreality of Speidi’s image, they were, nevertheless, the only element capable of bringing reality into The Hills. This became painfully clear during the series finale “All Good Things…” when The Hills girls (minus Heidi) sit down to assess their lives and their futures and let the platitudes fly. “I feel like I need to be alone for once,” Audrina sighs. “Yeah!” the girls reply. “I want little babies,” Lo squeals. “Awwww!!!” the girls cry on cue. The girls are striving for some kind of connection here, but nothing resonates. In fact, I could sum up the The Hills finale like this:
Kristin: Blah blah blah.
Lo: Totally! Blah blah blah.
Audrina: Like, for real. Blah blah blah.
Stephanie: I know, right? Blah blah blah.
Brody: Bro! Blah blah blah.
And then, there’s that final scene. As Kristin drives away from Brody and Brody stands there pretending to look forlorn (or constipated?), the camera cranes backwards and the sunny California backdrop turns out to be an actual backdrop that lifts up to reveal … wait for it, wait for it … CAMERAS! Do you mean to tell me that these people have been followed by cameras this ENTIRE time? That the The Hills is a TV SHOW?!? I thought Kristin, Lo, and Audrina were just really tiny people who crawled into the box in my livingroom every week!
This “shocking” ending was Adam DiVello’s attempt at self-referentiality, the self-referentiality this show has so desperately needed since about Season 3. But for me it’s a case of too little, too late. DiVello pulled back the curtain, but behind it was simply another curtain. A truly shocking ending would have been a roundtable featuring Speidi, Adam DiVello, and the rest of The Hills cast hashing out their conflicts. Man, that would have been great. But hey, it’s not too late, Adam DiVello. Why not give Speidi a call? Something tells me their schedules are open…
Yet another season of The Hills has drawn to a close and yet the earth still rotates on its axis and the sun still hangs in the sky. Like every Hills episode, the finale was jam-packed with shocking revelations, reversals of fortune and edge of your seat drama.
I’m just kidding ya’ll! Nothing happened! But I’ve written a recap anyway. Please to enjoy:
Brody and Jayde:
Over the course of this season Brody and his on-again/ off-again paramour, Jayde, have endured a series of meaningless fights. I say meaningless because their conflicts are wholly manufactured for the cameras. This is nothing new for The Hills –Spencer and Heidi have turned the fake fight into an art form. The difference with this fake couple, however, is that these fake fights generate palpable discord between Brody and Jayde. Brody, whose emotional range resembles that of a Ken doll, nonetheless appears genuinely annoyed with Jayde whenever he is around her. He seems to loathe her (I too find her asymmetrical eyes vaguely disquieting). So I was not surprised when he decided to end their relationship for good during the finale.
But what surprised me — and it takes a lot for The Hills to surprise me — is that Brody provided the voice of reason in this episode. Witness this conversation between Brody and Jayde at a friend’s engagement party:
Jayde: It’s weird how they’ve been together for like 2 months and they’re engaged and we’ve been together for a year and a half and we’re not even living together.
Brody: Yeah well we’re…smart.
Zing! Now back to the stripper pole for you, dear Jayde.
Lo is an Accessory
I’m not sure why Lo is still on The Hills. Lo is Lauren Conrad’s friend, her sidekick, her accessory. Seeing her in these episodes is equivalent to having one of Lauren’s handbags enjoying a latte with Audrina. It’s unnatural. And really unfair to the handbag, who is probably very bored hanging out with Audrina.
And am I supposed to believe that Lo and Audrina are now BFFs? These two women hated each other last season. And yet here they are in the finale, shopping together at Catherine Malandrino. But Lo is a “monologue catcher” par excellence and the show needs her to balance the lunacy of the other characters. For example, during their shopping trip Audrina tells Lo about her ludicrous plan to meet with Justin “one last time.” Lo is skeptical — because we’ve already seen this episode, right? — and asks, “But what if you get into the same situation, where he’s in control of the situation?” Great question Lo! Why does Audrina keep returning to Justin for further ego bruising? But Audrina won’t listen and Lo sighs and looks in the mirror — she really would look cute in that mini dress. Time for lattes!
Audrina Still Thinks The Hills is Real
Audrina is the one person in America who still believes that the events transpiring in the world of The Hills are real. This did not become fully clear until this season when her earnest reactions to the “drama” unfolding around her stood in stark contrast to the detached, almost robotic actions of her jaded castmates. Audrina is a real life example of The Truman Show. Even Enzo knows The Hills isn’t real and he’s only 6.
When Audrina headed to the pier (so dramatic!) to talk to Justin “one last time,” she was genuinely hurt by his nonchalance. He tells her “Maybe you just weren’t the one” but what he should have said was “Audrina, our relationship was last season’s storyline. This season I’m supposed to date Kristin. Didn’t you read the script?”
No, Justin, Audrina did not read the script. As her big brown eyes fill with tears it is painfully clear that Audrina believes the world she is living in is real. Poor doe-eyed Audrina.
Speidi is Not Procreating
Spencer and Heidi function on a different plane from their Hills cast mates. They are the undisputed king and queen of faux reality and they rule their domain with an iron fist. I love, for example, how Heidi runs errands in outfits and make up suitable only for a rock video or walking the corner (a high-class corner). It’s just the grocery store, Heidi, chill out. Take off the stilettos.
During the finale it is revealed that (BIG SPOILER HERE) Heidi is not pregnant. Of course, as with all Speidi-generated plotlines, the interest lies not in the “what” but the “how.” And this ridiculous plotline yielded some great lines from Spencer:
On Heidi’s attempts to get pregnant behind his back: “I feel like it’s a sperm kidnapping — straight hijacking sperm.”
Explaining to the urologist why he wants a vasectomy: “I heard it’s kind of like a faucet where I can turn it off and then turn it back on again if I ever need to. So I’m coming here to turn it off.”
As the urologist shows him pictures of how a vasectomy is performed: “Oh so you do go punch into the nuts?”
I Still Miss Lauren
Hills finales usually end by providing the viewer with some modicum of “closure” for each of the main cast members’ story arcs and the final scene must always, always go to the heroine. So this season’s finale ends with Kristin deciding that yes, she will date Justin Bobby, despite the fact that he has trouble stringing more than two words together. As the camera tracks backwards from Kristin’s picturesque beach house balcony we see Justin drape his (ugh, dirty!) motorcycle jacket over Kristin’s dainty shoulders.
This image should have filled me with joie de vivre but all I could think was: where’s Lauren? How does her story arc end? Then I remembered that Lauren was gone. She’s been gone all season. And I began to weep. I feel like the protagonist of Memento who keeps forgetting that his wife is dead and then has to relive the pain of her death over and over. Okay, that may be a bit dramatic but you get the picture.
I miss you Lauren Conrad. And I shall avenge you.
“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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?