“The Hills” & Co., or How Reality TV Killed the Writer

On May 31, 2006, The Hills premiered on MTV. It existed originally as a spin-off to Laguna Beach, the reality show version of Fox’s The OC, chronicling the shiny, bronzed, and drama-filled lives of the rich and teenaged. The Hills was created with the aim to follow Lauren “LC” Conrad and her best friend, Heidi Montag, on their adventures and subsequent misadventures in Los Angeles, referred to by Conrad in the pilot episode as “the city where dreams come true”.

Four years later, we find that those dreams include (but have not yet been limited to) a three-book-deal based loosely on the accounts of filming said reality show, fashion lines and collaborations, TV spots, modeling contracts, auto-tune-driven music “careers”, staged paparazzi shots, life-changing plastic surgery procedures, and the most boring late-night spots known to man. Dream? Sure, monetarily so for the stars of the machine. But in reality (real reality, mind you) it’s been more of a nightmare – at least for viewers.

So yes, the first season of The Hills looked to follow Conrad and Montag on their relative travels across the greater (read: most trendy) area of Los Angeles. Two young nineteen- to twenty-year-old blondes with limitless funds (either at the hands of their parents or show producers) surely will make for good TV anywhere, but what about someone more ethnic, more relatable to audiences? With all lack of coincidence, the girls met Audrina Patridge shortly thereafter – a young woman whose lack of whole sentences, hazelnut eyes, and dark locks quickly made her “the exotic one”. Naturally, they all met and became besties by the pool of their plush $3,000/month apartment complex.

Add another tall blonde, Whitney Port, to the mix as Conrad’s work-mate at Teen Vogue and you’ve got four somewhat complete strangers bent on making life seem interesting to someone in the boonies of North Dakota. Clubs? Check. Eating out? Check. Relationship drama? Double check. Palm trees and sunshine? Aw, yeah. Going for an interview as an intern at Teen Vogue? Check. (Wait… how does an intern make enough to live in a $3,000/month apartment in WEHO?!)

This set-up pretty much defines The Hills in its entirety up until the present day – except that even with this being a “reality show”, the story lines have gotten rather impossible by the episode. Take the following scenarios, for instance:

  • How do you simply drop out of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) on what is likely your parents’ dime? (I’m looking at you, Heidi “Ungrateful” Montag – something you prove to be later on down the line.)
  • When your girl friend and guy you are very much into (Jen Bunney and Brody Jenner, respectively) leave a birthday party to go hook-up…how do you get mad at your girl friend and not the guy? (Seriously, Lauren! Guys are not just guys. Guys can be gentlemanly as much as they can be cads.)
  • Why would you consider dating a guy a second time who not only left you in Las Vegas, but whose name is Justin but wants to be called Bobby? (Audrina! His name isn’t Robert and besides, he dresses like a sleaze!)
  • Why would anyone (ahem, Lauren and Audrina) choose to have a showdown about a nasty rumor (that Lauren slept with Justin Bobby) at a restaurant in Beverly Hills? Surely hammering out an extremely private matter at someone’s house is not glamorous enough?
  • “Eloping” in Mexico after one too many tequila shots should come with its own Get Out of Jail Free card. No one should ever be roped into marrying either Spencer Pratt or Heidi Montag without some kind of takesies-backsies.
  • How does Stacie the bartender – who was suspected of trying to hook up with Spencer – end up being the best friend of the new HBIC, Kristin Cavallari (who replaced Lauren Conrad during the middle of season 5)? Like, really? BS tabloid explanations aside?
  • Where the hell are all the Black/Asian/Middle Eastern/Hispanic/etc. people hiding?!

Clearly, I could go on.

Over the years, The Hills has seen its share of supposedly intriguing characters – with Lauren Conrad gone from the cast, Kristin Cavallari – the most popular girl in Laguna – joined the the crew as the lead troublemaker, or rather, misunderstood single gal. (Heidi must have been pissed, we assume fueling the barrage of possibly self-made publicity since.) Whitney has since moved to New York to star in her spin-off, The City (which will be discussed at a later time – or never); Stephanie Pratt, Spencer’s formerly drug-addled sister, has since joined the cast with Lo (Lauren’s friend from Laguna), Holly (Heidi’s sister), and the aforementioned Stacie the bartender in an incestuous cesspool of fame-seeking. It hasn’t been pretty in months. Some would say years. Now in its sixth season, The Hills is alarmingly the worst its ever been – and that’s saying a lot. If anything, even when riding the line of freakish impossibility, the show gifted viewers with a soap opera sensibility and a girlfriend-y Sex & the City vibe, if only with the implication of tangible sexual relationships. Not like I could imagine any of these people having sex to begin with, but I digress. Now the show is just a heaving, bloated repeat of everything that’s been seen before – unsympathetic character types and shiny things – with no novel element to keep viewers hooked. All the guilt but no pleasure.

Every show jumps the shark if given the room to do so, but it must be reasoned that shows like Sex & the City benefited from something that The Hills does not – writers. Every reality show is scripted to a degree, don’t get me wrong, but I’m talking about real writing, not Blair Witch-style suggestions in the forest. (Although that actually worked out phenomenally; again, I digress.) When I say “writers” I mean throwing ideas back and forth across with other show writers, crafting and knowing a character, thereby telling a story of humanity that in whatever format – drama, comedy, or otherwise – would strive to make us think about ourselves and others’ role in society through fixed but endearing character flaws. Writers being much more than, “Oh, I just thought up of this one-liner while Tweeting the other day and I’m going to use it while we’re filming — I’m a genius! Buy my CD! I love Jesus!”

However worthy of slight envy, the “right place, right time” roll of the dice can easily be considered less of an issue if and when actual talent is involved. Sure, I could be horrible and say that beautiful untalented people suck, reality TV and corresponding spin-offs should be abolished, and fame acquired for being famous should hold as much value as Monopoly money – but to do so would be a ignorant jerk move. Everyone should be entitled to their multi-million dollar idea no matter how little it contributes to society. But for how long? Long after viewers are calling bullshit?

Not that we really need to be watching any more television, but if we’re going to, we’re going to need better material. It goes without saying that the quality of programming has plummeted to mind-numbing lows in recent years. It’s almost painful to go into completely. That said, further spin-offs of The Hills are in talks to come, one of them being The Audrina Show – take a wild guess who that’s going to be about – another supposedly about Heidi Montag, Jen Bunney, and their lives as single girls in Malibu – an idea currently being shopped around that should really be shot dead in its tracks. The City – now in its second season – is more than enough, even though it  is admittedly better than The Hills was at its start. It must be the Kelly Cutrone element. But that will only last so long.

Prevailing attitudes being toted around like Birkin bags are indulgent, self-serving, and placid; even worse, they’re being displayed as real, not something to learn from and avoid. There are full-grown men and women brainstorming, drinking way too much coffee and graying at the temples by the day at making this happen. They are the ones making the aforementioned shows what they are, not so much the young, damaged men and women who appear on screen 22 minutes a week. But for what in exchange? The satisfaction of taking home a paycheck as a reality show “writer”? Where is the dignity in being a writer who gets paid? Is it residing at AMC or Showtime?

To think that this is what writing for television has come topromoting this modern definition of character, encouraging an already fragile public that being a reality show star or “writer” is a viable career – is beyond disturbing. But to be fair, as bad as it is, The Hills is no Rock of Love Bus. And honestly, E!s Pretty Wild would love to be The Hills when it grows up. Now that’s saying something. That’s saying a lot.

My head hurts.

Death to the reality show.