Wait, 'The Hills' is real?

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I recently tore through the first couple seasons of MTV's The Hills, whose basic hook is so good, the show absorbed even my girlfriend, who can stand Hollywood deb culture about as much as one of these characters could stand a dishwashing job. The show presents a handful of basically decent--if naive, decadent, and provincial--young women beginning careers in fashion or entertainment, then surrounds them with guys who (and this is key) are much bigger assholes than they are. The central Lauren has all the virtues of a Jane Austen heroine (if anyone more worldly or intellectual crosses her radar, it's usually someone meaner). You can watch the show and imagine why party people who are basically small-town girls and guys--townies with the latest fashions, cars, and VIP club passes--find comfort within their limits, and why the series might appeal without irony to an audience that identifies.

I liked the second season enough that I checked out the special features, and was annoyed to find actor commentary about various scenes delivered in character, and as if the events onscreen had actually happened. Then I watched interviews with cast members in which the actors similarly kept up the pretense. Then I felt a chill. I don't have MTV. I'd heard next-to-nothing about the show before renting. I'd always found it odd that the opening credits list only the characters' first names. Was this show, you know, supposed to be real?

The word "reality" appears skads of times without much elaboration throughout the first several thousand words of last May's Rolling Stone cover story about The Hills, an article I ignored on arrival, but pulled out again to settle my curiosity. Only halfway through does the writer, Jason Gay, even address the question: "Is it real, or BS?"

"I speak to friends who tell me, with zero insider info but total confidence, that each episode is scripted," Gay writes. "Part of the skepticism, of course, stems from the fact that The Hills violates a cardinal convention of reality TV: It doesn't utilize the first-person confessionals ('Jimmy really got trashed at Hooters last night,' etc.) that are a staple of the genre."

But "skepticism" doesn't quite describe what I feel: In a reverse of what some experienced with Blair Witch, I took The Hills to be wholly fictional. And in a way, I still do. With a straight face, Gay describes the structured environment behind the scenes of The Hills, a system that allows multiple camera angles, but without cameras onscreen; a filming schedule "diligently mapped (on average the girls film four days a week)"; a series of arranged jobs and photogenic professional tasks; reenactments of conversations; and various other artificially-created social and professional situations. "Talking with the girls," Gay writes, "it's clear that each lives a kind of double life--a televised Hills life, and a non-Hills one, with separate friends and confidantes." What he's describing isn't the real world encroaching on a television studio, but a television studio expanded out to real-world proportions.

That's not "reality." I don't care if two actors have an affair off-screen that enhances the realism of what we see in their fictional movie. Flogging that off-camera story might help publicity, but it doesn't make fiction fact. Acted stories always play with real-life elements, down to the very real bodies and motion onstage or on camera--that's why actors call it "playing." But one reason Gay's qualified use of the term "cinema verite" to describe The Hills is so misplaced, and so infuriating, is that the tradition it invokes acknowledged, and actually emphasized, the inherent ambiguity of turning a camera on real people and expecting them to act naturally. Jean Rouch's Chronicle of a Summer--arguably the first reality show--let the director and camera crew into the frame to demystify both, then let the subjects observe and react to their onscreen selves.

The Hills should be judged for what it is: A highly evolved work of realistic fiction, albeit one marketed as "reality." The dialogue is almost musical in its inarticulate and intuitive rhythm: However it was created (written, improvised, captured, faked, or felt), it sounds more like how people actually express themselves than even most "reality" drama, which is usually just hothouse showboating from celebrities thinking up what they're going to say next. As the Rolling Stone piece points out, the show looks beautiful, a seared and jumpy vision purportedly modeled on Michael Mann's Heat. And while the device of lingering on the faces of characters at the end of each scene as the soundtrack kicks in is overused, it strikes me as new, and it works.

The MTV employees laboring to convince you that The Hills is real rather than realistic need the mass audience that gossip creates more than they need the relatively small one that resents being lied to, or disdains reality media altogether. I imagine the show's packagers reassure themselves that the gossip lovers hit what they head for, and I kind of agree: If you're truly spending voyeuristic energy wondering whether Lauren and Heidi actually hate each other in real life, you're already wasting your time, not having it wasted for you. And this Trekkie and music geek doesn't view wasting time as necessarily a bad thing, just what it is. "[The Hills] is as real or fake as the characters want to make it," says one actor to Gay, carefully preserving the facade. The same could be said for the viewers.


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