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…
As I sat down to watch the premiere of the sixth and final season of The Hills, MTV’s faux reality battle-ax, I was mentally preparing my snarky blog post. The Hills has always existed at one move away from reality, becoming more and more detached with each season. As I argued in my recap of the season 5 finale, at this point only Audrina still thinks the show is “real.” But about 5 minutes into the season 6 premiere I realized that my snark meter–which usually provides a continuous stream of snarky comments as I watch programs like The Hills and The City–was totally silent. I found that I was watching The Hills, really watching it, and that I was completely engaged by the narrative and the characters.
But 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 do we have to thank? Two words, my friends: Heidi’s boobs.
The episode opens with Lo and Stephanie, fresh out of her second (yes second!) stint in rehab, meeting at one of those outdoor lunch spots that seem to have been built solely for the purposes of these staged conversations. But this conversation (dare I say it?), feels…almost…real. Stephanie tells Lo that she has just finished up an AA meeting and then sighs, “I can’t believe I’m doing this all over again.” She looks genuinely frustrated with herself. “I’m only 23 and I’ve been to jail twice? I mean, that’s not normal.” This exchange marks one of the first moments when the world outside The Hills–the world of the paparazzi and Lauren’s clothing line and Heidi’s musical career, the world that the show’s cameras like to pretend does not exist–is entering back into The Hills narrative.
After Lo invites Stephanie to Miami with the rest of the Scooby gang to watch the Super Bowl (a great vacation idea for a recovering alcoholic, no?), Stephanie mentions that she hasn’t seen Spencer or Heidi in months. Lo then tells Stephanie “There’s been some…talk about Heidi. And…a new face.” Lo then lists all of Heidi’s surgeries (which have been exhaustively detailed in the tabs as well as the mainstream press these last few months), ending on “butt job.” “Butt job?” Stephanie asks, clearly puzzled, “Like liposuction?” “No,” replies Lo, making squeezing gestures with her hands “Like a bigger…like a bigger butt. Like a little junk in the trunk.” Stephanie still looks baffled: “But how do you, how do you add?” “I don’t know,” Lo responds, shaking her hand. And then we cut to credits.
I can’t describe how this cold open made me feel–not only was the show directly acknowledging the media spectacle that it truly is, but the show’s cast actually seemed to be having fun with it. This does not happen in the world of The Hills. I waited for the TV screen to collapse into itself. But it didn’t.
But this scene was nothing compared to the scenes featuring Heidi. When we first see Heidi, she is being filmed from behind, as she packs her suitcase to prepare for a trip home to see her family in Colorado. Spencer is talking to her from the livingroom, begging her not to go in her fragile post-surgery condition. What is great about this scene–even clever–is how the camera will not give us a view of Heidi’s much-discussed Frankenstein face or even her comically large breasts. We only see her wrists and legs. It is a tantalizing omission.
When Heidi arrives at her home in Crested Butte, CO, the camera continues to play coy. However, we are offered a series of close ups of framed family photos from around her mother’s house: Heidi as a young girl, Heidi with her siblings, etc. Looking at these photographs we are reminded of the Heidi from earlier seasons–a beautiful, fresh-faced girl. Seeing these photos now provokes…I can’t even believe I’m about to write this…nostalgia.
Then Heidi sits down on the couch with her mother, Darlene, and we get our first look at Heidi’s face–tight, swollen and chiseled all at the same time. The best term I can use to describe it is “uncanny”–something which is simultaneously familiar and foreign. A not-Heidi. Her mother nails it on head when she tells her daughter, moments before she breaks down in tears, “It’s very weird, it’s very awkward, I’m sorry…” Darlene recovers a bit and asks Heidi what exactly she had done. Heidi describes her browlift and Darlene asks “Is that permanent? They’re not going to come down a little bit?’ Darlene looks dejected when Heidi informs her that the look is permanent.
Darlene then switches her tone, becoming indignant, even angry, with her daughter: “I just feel like when you left home [for L.A.] you had more confidence and more self-esteem than anyone person I’d ever met.” Heidi begins to talk about how she always felt self-conscious about her chest size but Darlene isn’t buying it:
Darlene “It sounds to me like you want to look like Barbie”
Heidi: [brightening]: “I do wanna look like Barbie.”
Darlene: “Why would you want to look like Barbie? To everybody else that saw you, you were Heidi. No one in the world could have looked like Heidi Montag.”
Heidi “Are you telling me I don’t look good?”
Heidi then breaks down and begins crying real tears (at least she can still do that).
My snark meter was tempted to make some joke–like “Right, no HUMAN could have looked like Heidi Montag”–but I quickly told that snark meter to shut up because I got what Darlene was saying.Her mother’s words–that no one could have looked like Heidi, the Heidi we were just looking at in those family photos–are heart breaking. Heidi sacrificed her individuality–her Heidiness–for some twisted ideal of beauty that only plastic surgery addicts seem to understand.
Later in the episode Heidi goes out to dinner with her family. Her sister, Holly, asks “Don’t you think it’s so weird though? That you were always so outgoing and confident? I was envious of the confidence you had. I don’t know what happened.” When Heidi explains that she started to feel insecure, the following conversation takes place:
Darlene: “I would like to see the choice made to deal with the insecurity on a psychological level.”
Heidi: “And that’s great for you. And you live in the mountains–you don’t live where I live.”
Darlene: “Does that make a difference?”
Heidi: “Of course it does.”
Darlene: “So should you not live in that area?”
Heidi: “I don’t want to get into this.”
This may be the most compelling, the most real conversation I’ve heard yet on The Hills. This young girl, once beautiful and confident, learned to hate herself and her body, after only a few years of living in Los Angeles. Heidi, as she exists now, is almost monstrous. She has become a Heidi-monster. But it’s too late to go back. Heidi begins to weep at the table as she attempts to chew her dinner with a swollen jaw. Her family watches the Heidi-monster in amazement.
This is amazing melodrama, people. Amazing.
Further adding to the emotional complexity of the scene is the fact that the family ia surrounded by The Hills cameras–the very cameras that have followed Heidi around for the last 4 years, scrutinizing her face and body, pointing out her (non-existent) flaws. These cameras are responsible for the Heidi-monster that weeps on the couch and at the dinner table and now they continue to watch her, passively recording the spectacle of her demise. They created her and now they mock her. It’s all so cruel. If I were Darlene I would stand up, grab a wine glass from the dinner table, and smash the camera lens. After all, these cameras stole her daughter. She should be livid.
I have never before been moved by The Hills. I’ve always viewed it as a piece of pop culture fluff, as a way to discuss how reality television has ceased to record reality. But this particular episode, with its pathos and its melodrama, reminded me about what good reality TV–and good melodrama–can do. Dare I say it, friends? The Hills, at least for one episode, is real.
“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?