Illustration by Penelope Gazin
Everyone knows the moment or month or era when life happened, all at once, and established some set point of desire or values or best-ever happiness. Flash-flooded with detail, and then flash-frozen in time, it’s usually a quick, early thing: an especially rad summer, maybe, or a singular, sparkler-in-the-dark love. For me, it was my first three months of work. (I’m the worst?) Everything that comes before doesn’t matter; everything that comes after is not so much compared with it (because nothing can compare) as informed by it, forever and always.
There are biological and age-related reasons for these fast-and-hot epochs, and that they usually happen so early, before anything else gets figured out, feels like a gnarly trick. A particularly cruel and punishing strand of nostalgia is assigned and attached to these mega-specific moments, which means that other eras, even the amazingly idyllic ones, never feel as… much. If you were deep into Facebook or some other searchable record at the time of your personal flash flood, then it’s probably extra brutal for you, and guh, I’m sorry. The inevitability of remembering parts of youth as flares in a cold, black sky really means that, by the time participatory and for-real life starts, there has already been some profound but invisible loss.
I rewatch The Hills to work through, and maybe get over somehow, the effects of this kind of loss. For me, it’s a perfect, if elevated, proxy of my own era of sunlit rosebud gathering. I barely ever watched the show during its original run because, at that time, a posse of kids who took clubbing really seriously wasn’t interesting to me (which is cute, because during this time of my life I took going to shows in garbagey bars really seriously; if you were 23 then, all it really came down to was whether your sequins were ironic or not).
The Hills was a hothouse of future nostalgia for its total nonspecificity: Aside from the LA-ness of it all (luxury SUVs direct from the car wash, etc.), the show was so broadly about everyday origin stories of friendship and love and jobs that its themes drew a wide circle around MTV’s entire demographic. The Hills revolves around its women, who move between shabby-chic shared apartments, barely-there jobs and formal-shorts internships, dates with their trainers, and clubs, with Cabo and Costa Rica interspersed. The show became especially mythical (and, yeah, this statement will probably be controversial for LC-heads) when the dark-blond, tall-poppy centerpiece of the show, Lauren Conrad, left. Remaining were girls who were exclusively and explicitly about “the best time of their lives,” with sunset-BBQ cheering, deeply fraught breakups, and friendship fights.
What other show, or what other entity, has been so available for the projection of anyone’s pre-adult nostalgia? The Hills did not make its drama out of plot twists or calculated misunderstandings, the stuff of most TV programming that is about the same parts of life. Instead it distilled—and then amplified—the existing, ready-made drama of being alive and 20-ish or whatever, hanging out with your friends every single day and night, as if they’re oxygen, until, slowly or suddenly but always agonizingly, you just don’t anymore. I don’t know whether The Hills was hyperrealism as TV, but it wasn’t “reality television” as we knew or now know it.
Watching the show is like a salve, a Crayola-bright and comfy therapy that makes me feel closer to, and less reliant on, my own individual but hardly unique halcyonathon of riding bikes and driving cars and playing games and talking eeeeendlessly with and at my friends. I know that all of it is totally unremarkable, elevated only because it’s mine, just as The Hills feels unremarkable and elevated only because it’s theirs (and also because of its soundtrack, which offers a second, separate punch of nostalgia). Watching identical emotions played out by blonder, glossier similars recasts the experience itself—and the subsequent loss of it—as something else, as something so common and, yeah, mythical, that the attendant alone-feelings just wear themselves out. They seem, I don’t know, cute now, and not so tragic, because I’ve seen them through a prism of high ponytails and beach houses and sidewalk confrontations. That loss—still sticky and gnawing on a bad day—is most often just information on what I loved, what I once had, and what it is I should find and make for myself again, in a real and adult way.
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