I still remember the first time I stumbled on MTV's "The Hills," and how confused I was. This couldn't be scripted, since the dialogue was awful and the characters could barely deliver their lines. But it couldn't be a reality show, because the scenes played out a little too perfectly. The cameras always happened to be rolling when the phone rang or the meaningful text message arrived.
It is, of course, a reality show, but a strangely innovative one. Lauren Conrad and her friends in Los Angeles might replay scenes they've already lived through, or make carefully timed entrances into rooms so the cameras can get the right angle, but they never give a hint that they're being filmed. "The Hills," a coming-of-age follow-up to MTV's "Laguna Beach," drops the pretense of the confessional and the sense of manufactured conflict in favor of a new charade: pretending that the cameras aren't there.
We viewers are expected to keep up our end of the bargain: Forget about Lauren's clothing line and her Mercedes, forget the single Heidi recently released. Pretend these are struggling young women, trying to make it in the cutthroat world of LA.
It's a concept I've struggled with from the start, so when I queried a group of Suffolk University students recently about the show, I was surprised to hear how much they connected with this overprivileged crowd. One girl, a smart, poised journalism student - whose life must be very different from Conrad's - told me she likes the show because she can relate.
She's not the only one; "The Hills" is an unmitigated MTV hit, and not just among the college crowd. John McCain, who recently won an endorsement from Heidi, told Time magazine that he never misses the show, and it's hard to tell if he was being facetious. The first of the current eight-episode run of "bonus" installments (the fourth premieres tomorrow at 10) drew 4.8 million viewers, the show's top ratings ever. The day after it aired, the episode drew 1.8 million streams from MTV.com.
Not everyone approves, of course. "The Hills" was the subject of a recent torrid rant from indie singer-songwriter Juliana Hatfield, who wrote on her blog that the show glorifies the worst of excess. "Think of the waste, the expense, the ethical repercussions of never wearing an expensive outfit more than once!" she seethed. "How can they live with themselves knowing there are children in Ethiopia who don't have a thing to wear?"
It's an unsurprising critique, but it also says a lot about the image MTV has created for itself. In the past the erstwhile music network has done great work cultivating a sort of poor-alternakid cred, creating reality shows that gawk at wealth without fully celebrating it, offering rich peoples' lives as cautionary tales. "Rich Girls," a "Hills" antecedent that premiered in 2003, featured
What "The Hills" does, as Hatfield suggests, is much more dangerous: It makes fabulous wealth seem less excessive, more accessible. The pretense of "The Hills" is that these girls are struggling, toiling in school and at glamorous-but-entry-level jobs. (Lauren and her friend Whitney run errands as interns at Teen Vogue, Heidi works for an event planner, and Audrina answers phones at Epic Records.) Low wages notwithstanding, they go home to fabulous apartments and spend nights on the town, and yes, Juliana, they do wear those clothes.
The bare fact of their wealth negates some of the drama; when Lauren frets over whether her boss at Teen Vogue will ever send her to Paris, you can't help but think, Can't you just ask your parents for a trip? On the other hand, I can understand why Lauren, known as L.C. to her fans, is a likeable figure. Unlike those horrid "real housewives" on Bravo, Lauren seems so unaware of her wealth and privilege - on camera at least - that she appears unaffected by it. Maybe it's because she already has everything one could materially acquire; her struggle is all about relationships, not acquisition. She truly aspires to be a decent and regular person.
And while she isn't the smartest or wisest soul, she tries to see the best in people while protecting her fragile reputation. This season, she befriends the sister of Spencer, the boyfriend of her former best friend Heidi, even though Heidi and Spencer spread vicious rumors that Lauren made a sex tape. If that's not generosity of spirit, I don't know what is.
Heidi and Spencer function, on the show, as Lauren's spiritual foils, a beautiful, miserable pair of people who can't bridge their mutual selfishness. Spencer, in particular, is a marvel of casting: He carries himself unapologetically like a young James Spader in a John Hughes film. Even the supposed good guys in "The Hills" come off as vaguely creepy: Matthias, a French musician in tight pants, is a menacing prospect for a quick Parisian fling.
But as far as I'm concerned, Lauren's true nemesis is Whitney, her co-worker at Teen Vogue. I never bought into the concept behind the comic novel "The Underminer" until I started watching this girl, a shameless career climber who always manages, with a friendly smile, to make Lauren look inadequate. When Lauren, who gets that Paris trip after all, ruins her borrowed ball gown by leaving it next to a curling iron - "I can't go to the ball without a gown," she wails - Whitney's faux sympathy smacks of superiority. "Don't cry, it's OK, it's OK," she says unconvincingly, in monotone. She offers to call the man who loaned the dress, but only after voicing doom, in the Valley-girl dialect that is the series' language.
"The thing is," she says sweetly, "that we ruined one dress and I doubt he's like, 'Oh yeah, let me just . . ."
Thanks, pal. Still, when I mentioned my distaste to my Suffolk friends, they were shocked. Whitney has a solid fan base among the "Hills" faithful, who view her unvarnished self-centeredness as something to admire. On one of MTV's "Hills"-related blogs, one poster summed up the appeal: "THIS GIRL IS SO AMBITIOUS SHE'S SO COOL SHE'S REALLY FOCUSED ON HER FUTURE AND NOT DRAMA."
Maybe fortunes will turn for Whitney, who left Teen Vogue this season to take a job with a stylist who seems unashamed to be the Boss From Hell. But maybe Whitney will only learn that treating others badly gets you far. That's the other sad message about this show: It's a portrait of frenemies, not friends. The Lauren-Heidi rift has been the center of "The Hills," but none of Lauren's replacement friends has done much better by her. Audrina, her roommate, thinks it's a good idea to call her in Paris - where Lauren is struggling to impress her bosses - to report that she spotted Lauren's sort-of boyfriend canoodling with another girl.
Maybe this is what passes for aspirational these days. The youngest fans of "The Hills" are likely recent graduates of "Hannah Montana," the Disney Channel sitcom about a music superstar who takes pains to preserve her ordinary life and her mostly-grounded friends. "The Hills" offers that fantasy in reverse: A girl whose real life is loaded with glamour is secretly all alone.