The Cynical Series Finale of "The Hills"
When I was a teenager, I remember seeing commercials on MTV for a show called Laguna Beach. It was curious because the production values were incredibly high for what was touted to be a run-n-gun reality show about teenagers. In fact, if you look up Laguna Beach on Wikipedia, it's listed as a reality show...
The premise is simple: We follow the "real-life" drama of rich teenagers in California.
Many people commented on the quality of the show, specifically the cinematography. It just seemed a little more than the average reality show.
The average reality show features multiple-camera angles with imperfect or constantly-shifting angles, varying sound quality, and a general feeling of spontaneity as if the camera was discovering life unfolding along with the audience.
Laguna Beach had a different aesthetic. Even though it aggressively marketed itself as a reality show, I couldn't help but notice how contrived it all seemed. I was an active filmmaker as a teenager, so my fascination with the show was precisely for this reason: The tension created between the marketing of the show (it's real!) and the actual content of the show (it's fake!).
Then came The Hills. Not that I ever watched it. But it was a direct spin-off from Laguna Beach. Apparently that show was wildly successful, and so was The Hills.
The controversy followed its spin-off: Is the show fake? Because it's claiming to be real.
Look, there's no controversy. OF COURSE THE SHOW IS FAKE. It's clear to anybody with a modicum of media literacy. Watch the show for a few minutes and you begin to wonder things like: Gee, how did the cinematographer know that person was going to walk through that door unexpectedly? Because they were perfectly framed for that shot. Little things like that.
The cinematography is so steady. Many of the shots are so well-composed they could only be the result of a massive production effort. This strips immediate spontaneous-reality of its true essence & converts the to-be-filmed moment into fiction, or a kind-of fiction. But certainly not documentary reality.
The entire show feels like a feature film. Which is the charm of the effect, but at the same time, goes against the big claim of the show: it's real. Formally Contrived, Authentic Subjects - Is that cinematically possible? Perhaps. But The Hills does not achieve this.
Well, it achieved it in terms of commodification. Meaning: It bottled that essence & sold it to kids. It's a seductive aesthetic: High formal contrivance with real documentary subjects. But the tension between real & fake is too great, and is never resolved artistically within the show.
And why would it be? It's not art, it's a media product. On that end, it did well.
And that's why the series finale of The Hills is so cynical...
Okay confession time. I haven't watched Laguna Beach nor The Hills. But I did catch the last episode, Season 06 Episode 12. I briefly read about it in an article about Paris Hilton, and had to check it out.
Basically, a bunch of teen drama happens between rich blonde teenagers and stocky 5 o' clock shadow dude bros. And then at the very end of the episode, the one guy says goodbye to the girl that's about to get away forever. It's all smiley & pop music & teary eyed. She gets in the car, and drives away toward the sunset... in the opposite direction from the iconic Hollywood sign. He stares from the sidewalk, brooding...
It's at that moment something becomes "off" about the image. The camera suddenly cranes back to reveal the guy is not on a street but in a movie studio back-lot. We see that the car with the girl didn't actually drive off into the sunset... but is just off camera. Everybody cheers & hugs, and the camera continues to crane back... revealing the entire movie studio, and eventually, the real Hollywood sign...
It's as if to say: