does 'the hills' have a place in 2018?
It was a pioneer of the scripted-reality format we’ve become so obsessed with. But how will it fair in a culture that’s ultimately outgrown it?
Aug 29 2018, 7:00am
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In a clear attempt to win back the viewers it’s lost in recent years, MTV announced at this year’s VMAs that it’s rebooting the once popular reality series The Hills. Working under the official title The Hills: New Beginnings, the reboot is slated to hit screens in 2019 and will see some of the original cast members from the show’s six seasons return.
The news sent fans of the show into meltdown as, for a lot of people, myself included, The Hills was a staple part of our formative years. And, while reboots can often feel like a lazy way to recapture a show’s former glory, MTV reviving The Hills feels a little different and, dare I say, important. Though perhaps not for all the right reasons.
During its original run between 2006 - 2010, the show was widely criticised for being vacuous, shallow and destroying MTV's credibility as a major platform for supporting musical talent first and foremost. This may be the case, but given the show’s pioneering of the structured reality genre that governs TV schedules today, its impact and legacy shouldn’t be understated. The real question is, could a reboot even be possible in a world so drastically different to the one it left behind eight years ago?
Created by Adam DiVello and Liz Gateley, The Hills, originally a spin-off of the latter’s other successful MTV reality series Laguna Beach, adopted a documentary-like style approach to filming. At a time when reality shows were either games driven or sociological experiments -- think Big Brother, Survivor and Temptation Island -- The Hills favoured story arcs, loosely-structured plotlines and a narrative that viewers could follows seamlessly on a weekly basis. At no point did any of the cast acknowledge the cameras or provide confessional-style storytelling.
"With so much exposure and attention on the cast, the four soon became regular tabloid fodder, and were one of the first true casualties at the hands of the callous online bloggersphere."
For the most part, the four female protagonists were Lauren Conrad, her roommate Heidi Montag, friend Audrina Patridge and co-worker Whitney Port. The four navigated the minefields of living, working and dating in LA as wealthy young women in their early 20s. Pegged as a younger and sexier version of Sex and the City, The Hills became an overnight success, and with five million viewers per episode it rapidly became the most successful series MTV had ever produced. The cast became red carpet regulars, finding themselves on the covers of US Weekly and People Magazine. Even Rolling Stone featured them on the cover.
But with so much exposure and attention on the cast, the four soon became regular tabloid fodder, and were one of the first true casualties at the hands of the callous online bloggersphere. TMZ and Perez Hilton -- whose powers maybe have greatly diminished now -- were once the gatekeepers of gossip online. In 2018, rumours can be denied with a single tweet. But the cast of The Hills never had that luxury.
Perhaps to the show’s detriment, producers chose not to focus on the cast’s growing celebrity and instead tried in earnest to maintain the idea that they were all still ordinary people working regular jobs. Lauren and Whitney interned at Teen Vogue together in season one, and later worked together at Kelly Cutrone's PR firm, People's Revolution. This created a dissonance between what was being aired on the show and what was happening in their lives off camera. The viewers knew that they weren’t actually working 9 to 5s in PR: pop careers were being kick-started and fashion lines were being produced.
Speculation that the entire show was scripted only increased, and in 2010, the show bowed out a meta-ending that poked fun at the rumours of the series being fake. As Brody Jenner and Kristin Cavallari -- who became the show's focal point following Lauren Conrad’s exit in 2009 -- said their goodbyes, the camera pans out to show the pair on the set of a film lot, surrounded by props and a production crew. It was one final wink to the camera that left viewers still guessing. It beckoned in a new era for reality TV, and on reflection acted as a gentle precursor to the fake news and alternative facts world we live in today.
"I dread to think how ruthless the tweets, memes and reaction videos to Heidi revealing the result of her 10 cosmetic surgery procedures would have been."
So this time round, what will be different? The cast and creators will have to deal with the added layer of scrutiny that will arise from social media. Audiences today collectively watch Love Island and RuPaul’s Drag Race, Twitter providing a real-time water cooler of memes and hot-takes. The Hills missed this first time round. I dread to think how ruthless the tweets, memes and reaction videos to Heidi revealing the result of her 10 cosmetic surgery procedures would have been.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for The Hills is that, at its core, it is a reality show for rich, white people enjoying their privilege. The entire cast of the original series were all cisgender, white, affluent and straight. Ten years ago, this was sadly the norm, but in 2018 we expect a wider range of people visible on our screens, and a show that can’t offer this will no doubt feel the wrath of call-out culture. The chances that Heidi and Spencer will swap their lengthy talks about crystals with a very serious discussion about the police brutality against black people in America feels slim.
Then again, with America in the midst of a tumultuous period in its history -- a reality TV star occupying the top seat -- perhaps it is in fact the perfect time for The Hills to return to our screens.