When a reality show admitted it was fake
“The Hills” is coming back this year. MTV is reviving its classic reality show about the lives of Los Angeles’s nouveau riche and calling it “The Hills: New Beginnings.” Most of the original cast is returning, except for the few who managed to find upstanding, respectable jobs cultivating lifestyle brands and Instagramming pinkish-beige things with gold accents. In their place, MTV is tossing in some new faces — Mischa Barton (hmm) and Pamela Anderson’s son (HMMM) — in the hopes that they’re pretty and blonde enough that we’ll forget they weren’t there the first time around.
It’s just as well, because those four years of “The Hills” were a bit of a blur anyway. If there was anything to be learned from the show, it was just how boring your life was in comparison to the ones these women lived. They worked in impossibly chic offices, got bottle service at the swankiest clubs and they all had gorgeous, terrible boyfriends. They walked away from lifelong friendships for their gorgeous, terrible boyfriends. They ruined precious $30 Guerlain Cils D’Enfer mascara crying over their gorgeous, terrible boyfriends. They turned down once-in-a-lifetime summer jobs at French Vogue to spend more time with their gorgeous, terrible boyfriends. God, they were so young and dumb and strange, but hey, it worked.
Then one day, when it seemed like everyone on the show was one or two vodka tonics at S Bar from committing a violent crime, “The Hills” ended. Kristin Cavallari, the show’s villain-turned-protagonist, decided she was going to move to Europe (no country in particular, just Europe) and everybody said their clumsy, prickly onscreen goodbyes. In the final scene, Kristin heads out to meet her ride to the airport. Who is waiting for her but her star-crossed flame Brody Jenner (yes, he is gorgeous and yes, he is also terrible). They stare at each other longingly, banter about what might have been, and Kristin slips into a town car and speeds away.
Cue a clip montage of all the good times they have had together, set to stripped-down version of Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten.” Cut back to a teary-eyed Brody, watching Kristin’s car disappear into the distance. It has the makings of a perfectly anodyne television finale until something strange happens. The trees and Hollywood sign behind Brody move, and the camera pulls back to reveal that the scene took place on a soundstage. It had all been fake!
In that moment, “Unwritten” felt almost taunting. Here was this song about the unpredictable nature of life, about the winding, inchoate paths we take. And all the while, “The Hills” was, as a matter of fact, totally and completely written. For six seasons we had laughed about how contrived the show’s squabbles were, how unlikely their professional successes were and how vapid everybody seemed. And the whole time, “The Hills” had been in on the joke. (Or more distressingly, the joke had been on us.) A doting, enthralled audience was — as Ja Rule put it — hustled, scammed, bamboozled, hoodwinked and led astray.
The illusion continued to shatter. At first, the producers suggested that the ending was an open-ended question of sorts, meant to provoke thought about what was real and what was fake. In the years since, though, the cast has mostly stopped pretending anything was real. Kristin and Audrina Patridge revealed that a big fight between them had never happened. Whitney Port said she didn’t actually take that Paris internship Lauren had turned down. Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag admitted that the reason their neighbor’s son was always over at their house was because it was his house — his family’s house was easier to film in than the couple’s home in the Palisades (so yes, the birthday party they threw for little Enzo was all the conjuring of some bored producer).
I have devoted maybe a third of my waking moments (and quite possibly a sizeable portion of my sleeping moments) to contemplating this scene. Was it mean? Ridiculous? A cop out? Quietly brilliant? Loudly stupid? The answer, I think, is yes. Nobody watched “The Hills” for vérité. It’s an unspoken truth that reality TV is more or less a misnomer, but part of the thrill of reality television is knowing that someone is taking it seriously because they have stakes in the illusion. That’s what makes MTV’s choice baffling — and admirable. It was tantamount to admitting that they didn’t really care about any of it. And they especially didn’t care about us. “Yeah, we’re fake,” the finale said. “What’s it to you?” It doesn’t get more real than that.