Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why The Hills is good.

A lot of people seem to like The Hills and a lot of other people are baffled by this. What is it about this obviously staged and clumsily improvised show that we find so captivating? Even viewers who are drawn to the show week after week wonder what keeps them coming back. The stars are self-absorbed, unintelligent, and frequently unlikable. When there is any discernible plot, it is usually fake. And yet...

I like The Hills. I think I know why I like it. In fact, I have a hunch that I may even know why you like it, or why you should like it.

I do not admire Lauren, Heidi, Audrina, Whitney, Lo, Spencer, or Brody as human beings, as actors, or as sex objects. I do not aspire to be like any of them. But I do find them compelling, to varying degrees.

Lauren is not the protagonist because she is especially good or unique. She is the protagonist because she has an extremely expressive face and because she is pretty. In my opinion, these are perfectly legitimate qualifications. I find Lauren fascinating and usually, I find her sympathetic. I suspect (and I am not the only one) that she is confused about her sexuality. Her attempts at romantic relationships are by far the most staged and least believable aspect of the show. Her friendship with Brody seems to be based on his willingness to appear on television in a series of clearly contrived dinners and parties. I have often detected glimpses of genuine feeling on the show: jealousy, disdain, bitterness, wistfulness, desperation...but I don't think Lauren has ever demonstrated a spark of attraction toward Brody, or Jason, or any of the single episode flings cast by the MTV producers. What is apparent, though, is Lauren's extraordinary attachment to her girlfriends. While much of the conflict in the show is falsified, I don't think anyone doubts that Lauren's possessiveness and jealousy are real. And why shouldn't she be possessive and jealous? She appears to be an extremely anxious, nervous person who is often used and betrayed and who has yet to recognize that she is more drawn to women than to men. Of course she clings to her girlfriends and resents their boyfriends, and even their other girlfriends.

Heidi, repellent as she may be, is even more fascinating. If Frankenstein had assembled his monster out of plastic instead of dead body parts, I imagine that his freakish, Barbie-esque creation would not look unlike Heidi. And although the show makes Spencer out to be the mad scientist in this scenario, I am reluctant to credit him as such. Heidi is undeniably vapid, but she is also relentlessly ambitious. Her unscrupulous thirst for fame was apparent long before she met Spencer. I have no doubt that this is what inspired her to befriend Lauren while she was still appearing on Laguna Beach. A master of self-delusion, if nothing else, she is unwavering in her attempts to recast herself as an innocent victim, but I am quite sure she has more agency than she would like us to believe. She is perfectly willing to do just about anything the producers suggest in exchange for more time on screen, and she overacts in a way that is both hilarious and a little bit heart wrenching, giving the impression that she has rehearsed each and every facial expression countless times before the mirror. Her almost tangible desperation makes her pathetic in every sense of the word. It is repulsive, and yet somehow touching, which is what makes her such an intriguing character, inspiring both sympathy and disgust.

Audrina, Whitney, and Lo are less interesting to me. Audrina's cluelessness makes her an easy pawn, but she rarely does more than serve her purpose in the plot, gazing blankly with her empty eyes and bearing her aggressively white teeth. Sometimes I pity her in the way one might pity a startled kitten, but that is the extent of her depth on the screen. Whitney is an essential element of the show, as she observes and reacts to the storyline on behalf of the audience. But I don't find her to be the bastion of intelligence and common sense that other viewers seem to see her as. I think that she is smart enough to remain somewhat distanced from the show, only allowing it into a limited aspect of her life, and to take advantage of any opportunities that come her way as a result of the show. In my opinion, Lo is easily the most fun and intelligent character on The Hills, not that that is saying much. Her occasional bitchy comments are extremely welcome, as far as I'm concerned. I don't think we have seen enough of Stephanie, our latest addition, to draw any solid conclusions about her. At this point, I assume that she is simply angling for her chance to get some screen time, which is why she came out of nowhere calling herself Heidi's "best friend" and then made a beeline for Lauren at her first opportunity.

And finally, we have Spencer, or as I think of him, Iago. Obviously, there are better examples of the existence of pure evil in the world today than Spencer. But there is a senseless, inexplicable quality to Spencer's particular brand of evil that is uncannily reminiscent of Othello. And if you consider Iago's role in the play, the comparison fits eerily well. Iago is jealous of Othello's promotion to lieutenant, and Spencer is jealous that Lauren is the star of her own television show. In both cases, the jealousy is unreasonable, since Iago does not particularly deserve to be promoted to a lieutenant, and Spencer absolutely does not deserve his own show. Both Iago and Spencer demonstrate a pathological obsession with the objects of their jealousy and a sadistic delight in manipulation and destruction for its own sake. Iago schemes to turn Othello against his wife, Desdemona. Spencer schemes to turn Lauren against her best friend, Heidi. Both Iago and Spencer invent a false sexual scandal - in Iago's case it is an extramarital affair, and in Spencer's it is a sex tape. As a result of this scheming, Othello murders Desdemona himself, and Lauren ultimately makes the decision to cut Heidi out of her life. Watching Spencer on The Hills is as nauseatingly engrossing as one of Iago's soliloquies.

Some people take issue with the fact that some aspects of The Hills are fake, staged, or scripted, whereas I consider metatheatre the key to the aesthetic success of The Hills. The complex interplay between the multiple layers of plot is what makes the show so compelling. In the satiric play The Knight of the Burning Pestle, first performed in 1607, Beaumont depicts the interplay between three layers of fiction. He begins with a relatively conventional play for the time, which is soon interrupted by two plants in the audience, who object to the plot of The London Merchant and demand that the actors improvise a new story. The original plot of The London Merchant intertwines with the improvised play, The Knight of the Burning Pestle. The "citizen and his wife" in the audience are allowed to sit on the stage, where they provide noisy commentary and drive the plot according to their whims. In many ways, reading this play taught me how to watch The Hills.

On The Hills, the theatrical device of a play within a play is taken to a new level, with its multiple interwoven layers of fiction and the shimmering thread of Truth that runs through them. There is the surface plot, a conflation of actual events in the lives of the characters and events staged by the producers. There is another plot reflected in the tabloids and gossip columns. There is the plot as each individual character believes it to be and the plot they attempt to portray on screen and articulate in interviews. There is a larger story that encompasses the various stars' experiences with the television program itself as they expose their lives and personas to the public, the producers' attempts to orchestrate drama and dupe the audience, and the incredible interplay between fiction and reality. The producers and the audience are all participants in this larger story. And buried among all that, there is Truth. There are real people with real personalities and real emotions and real relationships. And the Truth can be entertaining and amusing and depressing and heartbreaking and surprising, but to detect it at all is exhilarating. Every facial expression or gesture, every interview and every rumor hints at the Truth among the layers, which is why, although I am not especially interested in celebrity gossip, I thrill at any juicy tidbit about the characters of The Hills. This gossip blog post, in particular, provides a wealth of new material to analyze and consider.

By no means do I wish to attribute the brilliance of The Hills to the MTV producers. In fact, part of the beauty of the show is its fragility, as it precariously verges on destruction at the meddling hands of its own creators. To their credit, however, the cinematography and relatively high production value play a crucial part in elevating this staged reality into an art form. The Hills is a neatly crystallized example of art imitating life and life, in turn, imitating art, a dialogue between fact and fiction playing itself out for us on screen (and online, and in magazines, and even in the real world). When Lauren, Heidi and Spencer are invited to the White House Correspondents' Association dinner and John McCain is calling Heidi "a very talented actress" and claiming that he never misses an episode of The Hills in a gracious acceptance of her presidential endorsement, it is clear that this television program is far more than a pseudo-improvised reality show. It is a cultural phenomenon, unwitting performance art in the public sphere, and a testament to the bizarre collision of reality television and our collective fixation with celebrity.

And I pretty much love it.


Nathan Bransford said...

This is incredible!!! Where to start -- Spencer as Iago, Heidi as Frankenstein, and best of all The Knight of the Burning Pestle... wow wow wow. I think you nail both the appeal of the individual characters as well as the interplay between reality and fiction. Nice work.

The New Yorker recently tried to capture what makes the Hills compelling, and they couldn't do it. This should have been the article!

J.P. Martin said...

Holy crap. You wrote the shit out of that and I agree with every last comment. Well done.

marsalis said...

It's like, I always think of The Hills as some French New Wave television series, including the long takes of silence and the jumpy hand-held camera. To me, that is the beauty and I think you've said everything else.

Anonymous said...

heey caitlin,

i've never seen this show, but i can pretty much see you launching into this analysis in our kitchen in atwater. though i'm surprised you didn't mention the ol oedipus complex.

anywho, your tireless devotion to raising pop culture onto the literary platform deserves this virtual drink i'm making you: your classic stoli +tonic.


Danielle Johnsen said...

Well done. I knew there had to be some deep seeded meaning behind this show that I find myself watching every week.

And I have often wondered about LC's sexuality as it seems she is almost more hurt by her girlfriends then her many men. Really interesting read!

KJ said...

Perfect! I never feel the need to defend my interest in the show, but I never really figured out why it interests me so much. Thanks for laying it out!

However, I do want to make an alternate argument about the whole "LC=Bi-curious?" thing. It seems like a lot of people are drawing that conclusion based on her behavior with her friends' boyfriends and her own "love interests". I think there's another explanation, though, and it's one that might hit home for a lot of girls. I have been thinking this forever, and I have to write it down, finally!

I think that there are a couple of levels to Lauren's issues with her friends' relationships.
1. She is jealous that her friend is being stolen away from her
2. The guy that is doing the stealing has not been on his best behavior (Spencer's playboy bunny incident, Justin Bobby's various transgressions).
3. She is loyal to her friend, so she has a hard time being nice to the guy that has hurt her, and even has had words with the guy over it (LC drunkenly yelling at Spencer on the phone while Heidi cries). This just feeds more into #1 - the guy will now avoid group situations that Lauren will be involved in, leading to her spending even less time with her friend. It also hurts her friendship, because ultimately her friend still likes the guy and LC can't be enthusiastic about the relationship.
4. Another big factor is that she is jealous that her friends have these relationships, flawed or not, and that she has no one. I read an interview with the guy Gavin that she went on one date with, and he said she was nice, but it was very clear that she was not going to be having any sort of real relationship or expressing real feelings while she was on camera. And after having her high school relationship failures documented on camera, who could blame her?

So there you go. A very long winded, but (I think) valid possible explanation for Lauren's behavior. :)

Anonymous said...

they all act like nutsacks on this show.

Caitlin said...

KJ - I think that your counter-argument about Lauren makes a lot of sense, especially since I just read the Rolling Stone article about "The Hills" and in it, Lauren claims that she sneaks out on dates without letting MTV know, and that she even had a secret boyfriend for a short time before the show's producers found out.

Basically I think that all of your points are probably pretty much correct, and I bet that if we could get Lauren herself to weigh in on this discussion, she would say that you are right. BUT I think there is an intensity to her jealousy and resentment that stems from the fact that she finds it much easier to be emotionally intimate with women than men. I doubt that she is even conscious of this yet, though, and I don't necessarily think that this is a sexual issue so much as it is emotional, so calling her a lesbian or bisexual would be too definitive at this point.

allie said...

My god, this is such a good analysis. Just found your blog via commenter metoometoo on Jezebel and I'm amazed at how many blogroll similarities we share. You're an excellent writer! Added to my google reader :)

Unknown said...

i love this post. It is amazing to compare spencer to iago because he is sickening and no amount of venting can say how evil. he is even worse than iago when you really think about it because iago at least seems smart at his manipulating which makes him more viable of a figure... spencer is a dull interfering loser and horrible and dumb!!!

Mallika said...

well the latest comment sort of stole my point. i agree that all good pop culture products are in the tradition of only the greatest literary and artistic masterpieces. but the problem with a show like the hills is that its actors are devoid of the sensitivity its viewers must have to appreciate it. while the dynamics might reveal the same archetypes observed by shakespeare, the lines have none of his beauty or wit. and i think that speaks more to the brilliance of shakespeare than the hills. he managed to elevate normal human interaction to art. the hills is simply shrouding normal human interaction in celebrity.

but i love your analysis. very well done.

Anonymous said...

wow, this is incredibly insightful and an interesting read. I myself have attempted to come to conclusion about why people are intrigued by "The Hills" and failed. I think you nailed it. Congrats!!