The Hills: reality television without the “real”?
This past Tuesday marked the end of an era for MTV – the final episode of their popular docu-drama, The Hills. For better or worse, The Hills had become a pop culture phenomenon over the last four years (I mean, what would this world be without the existence of Speidi?). The show became a guilty pleasure of countless Gen Y’ers over the past six seasons because so many of us were at a similar point in our lives as Lauren. We were finally out on our own, learning the ropes at our first jobs, and the experiencing the ups and downs of new relationships. And while its impact on the celebrity pop culture is apparent, what’s less so is the way that the show created somewhat of its own sub-genre: reality TV without the realness.
While billed as a reality television, there has been criticism since its inception that much of The Hills was not real at all. But as ratings would indicate, that didn’t stop most of us from tuning in. As the show grew in popularity, so did the celebrity of the show’s cast members. Lauren, Audrina and Heidi were now regulars on red carpets and in the pages of magazines. The show producers made a decision early on that this aspect of the cast members’ lives wouldn’t be featured on a show. While I think this helped keep the characters more relatable to the general audience, it also took an element of legitimacy out of the program. The life of celebrity had become a large part of these people’s reality, and it seemed like a disconnect to not even address it on the show.
When Lauren left the show after the first half of season five, her Laguna Beach nemesis, Kristin Cavallari, took over as the show’s central figure. From here, the false front of reality only became more obtuse. With Lauren, the relationships she had on the show came across as more organic. Even though we knew that many of the situations were a manufactured reality, it was at least believable that she was actually friends with these people in real life. But when Kristin is essentially just plugged into the situation, it became blatantly obvious that basically all of the relationships are totally contrived for entertainment value.
Which brings us to this week’s final episode. In the final scene, Kristin is saying goodbye to ex-boyfriend and current friend-with-benefits Brody as she is leaving town for Europe. As Kristin’s car pulls away, the camera pans out to reveal that the entire scene was filmed on a set in a studio back lot. Were the shows producers inferring that the show was not in fact reality at all? Multiple cast members noted that the ending was to be left up to the interpretation of the viewer. C’mon people, this isn’t Lost. What is left to interpret? As the seasons went on, it was more evident that there was very little “reality” and this was the producers’ tongue-in-cheek way of admitting that we were right all along. I, for one, thought it was a smart way to end the show. I give the producers credit for acknowledging the criticism that has plagued the show for years and finally letting us all in on the joke. We may never know which parts of the show were real and which were not, but the truth of the matter is that I don’t think many of us even care.
So this begs the question, how “real” do we need our reality television to be?