A blond man is going into spasms in a dimly lit room. The vein on his neck is the size of something you would use to jump a car battery or wash elephants. He is talking about petting puppies and logging his girlfriend out of the Matrix. No one is really acknowledging him, presumably because he is talking about things like logging his girlfriend out of the Matrix. He twitches, he hunches over. He is some mixture of a feral child, a sweaty televangelist, and the guy in the back of the subway car talking about the apocalypse.
During the month of July, MTV aired all six seasons of The Hills, its genre-defining reality show about halter tops, sunglasses, and white people crying. If your response to that is to say it is artificial, that it glorifies immoral infants, that it celebrates unabashed vanity, I will tell you that yes, it is all of those things. It is a spectacular mess. I am being manipulated. I know that. It is not a documentary, it is not real. But within it is a montage of authentic human moments. It is Human Beings: Greatest Hits.
And so, at 11 in the morning last Tuesday, I watched Spencer Pratt unravel like an addict on Intervention after being confronted for selling his mom’s portable dialysis machine so he could buy meth with a guy he met in a bowling alley, because everything’s going to change after this, just one last time, seriously, we’re going to go back to community college and get a part-time job at Papa John’s and everything will be different and perfect, you’ll see.
Spencer is the former Patrick Bateman-Iago-The Good Son Voltron of reality television, once named Most Likely to Date-Rape Someone in a Range Rover by his high school, currently broke, jobless, and dressing like a guy who uses a Motorola Sidekick and sells cracked copies of Adobe Photoshop in a mall parking garage. Spencer is deranged, he is a diabolical megalomaniac. He is beautiful. If you know nothing else about him, know that he wore a wallet chain for an entire season and once touted a Mexican restaurant because you could buy “margaritas on the rocks and pitchers.”
Much of the second and third season is focused on Lauren Conrad trying to get Brody Jenner, Spencer’s ex-bestie and Lord Commander of the West Coast Broheims, to be her boyfriend. Brody was last seen tweeting things like “KOBE IS HANDS DOWN THE MAN,” which is maybe the definitive Bro Musing of our time, unless he has previously said “FOOD IS DOPE SOMETIMES” or “I TOTALLY LISTENED TO MUSIC YESTERDAY.” He broke up with Avril Lavigne in January, beginning a long, slow fade into irrelevance that will likely include a cameo in American Pie Presents: Gonorrhea Ice Luge and “Brody Jenner Gives Maxim His Top Ten Dirty Sluts in Santa Monica.”
Brody does not make a single interesting comment to a girl during the life of the show. His first date with Lauren consisted of him telling her relentlessly that she has a beautiful smile, and also that he likes when she smiles, because her smile is cute. He is corny and manipulatively sentimental. In one episode, as Brody and a bunch of friends get ready to go out, he toasts to “having a good night.” He talks to girls like a guy who leaves sincere Yelp reviews for a suburban Applebee’s.
(THE CANONICAL LIST OF BRODY BUZZWORDS: beautiful, smile, gorgeous, incredible, amazing, somebody special, cuddle, being real with you, really care about you.)
Without Spencer and Brody, the show could not have functioned. They were the catalysts for nearly everything that happened. But things “happening” is really beside the point in The Hills. In the macro, it is the least exciting reality show ever. The synopsis of the entire second season is “Lauren attempts to hang out with Heidi.” It is a show about attractive people looking at each other in glossy settings: in bikinis by the pool, on patios in the shade, in clubs with twinkling neon lights and velvet couches. Their skill is existing as volatile, raw human beings, just like us, except they are rich and have nice skin. It is not so much a show as it is a collection of expertly arranged facial expressions. The show is all long sighs and pensive lip biting; coy smiles and innuendo.
The Hills showcases moments of stark vulnerability, moments where no one does anything. Whitney and Lauren sit silently in a car eating Tommy Burger, the camera cuts back and forth between them and lingers on each of their faces. The Hills is Wuthering Heights for the Internet Age, and its characters speak in emoticons. It reminds us that people, even the beautiful ones, are damaged and weird, stuttering and mumbling and not making eye contact or knowing what to do with our hands.
We’re able to process those micro moments so easily because The Hills is devoid of complexity otherwise. It mashes melodrama into baby food and feeds it to us through a tube. There are “conversations” which exist solely for the purpose of exposition, a “Previously On … The Hills” to reveal imminent plot developments, wide-angle shots of a car at an intersection as a character contemplates a major decision. And there are songs with lyrics so perfectly synchronized to the moods, to the betrayals and comebacks, that they are almost a narration. I am happy I am sad I want him to stop talking to her I want Pinkberry. Songs with triumphant, crescendoing choruses that make you feel like you are unique and different and that you didn’t spend last night sitting on the fire escape eating a thing of VitaCraves and scrolling through your phone.
The Hills is sanitized heartbreak. It is Life: The Videogame. It is pouring a bottle of Patron into open wounds and defibrillating hearts with a million watts of Kelly Clarkson, then realizing it never happened at all, it was only a dream, and then we check Twitter and buy a sandwich. It is high school’s ruthless lunch table politics shined to a glow. Girls with green eyes who would file a restraining order if you looked at them directly. Guys with facial hair like Charlie from Party of Five belittling commoners from behind tinted windows.
In a recurring sequence in The Hills, the girls are sitting on a couch, looking through magazines at pictures of famous people. I am doing this, too. I did it for 102 episodes. Here we are, all of us, in a sort of stasis, wondering about people who are cooler than us.
Also by John Saward: Octomom Masturbating Is the 38th Wonder of the World