Reality TV is very easy to dismiss without ever watching it, like eating octopus or going sky-diving. “I wouldn’t be into that,” you might think. “I have enough of a sense of what that would be like, and I know I wouldn’t enjoy it.”
I’m not here to push you out of a plane or force-feed you mollusks. And if watching real people openly express and then act on their worst instincts isn’t for you, that’s fine. But for your own sake, don’t decide you won’t relate to characters on a reality TV shows just because they’re, well, on a reality TV show. Particularly when it comes to “The Hills,” which gave us realistic friendships, combats boots at the beach, one of the first great reality villains in Spencer Pratt, and an indefinable but memorable character named Justin Bobby, “a man so great he needed two names.”
The first iteration of “The Hills,” a spinoff of the earlier teen reality show “Laguna Beach,” ran from 2006 to 2010. The show was about rich white 20-something women living in L.A., who worked unpaid internships but lived in huge apartments, fought with their friends, went out for sushi and dated terrible men. At that time, Twitter was in its infancy, Instagram didn’t exist, and we didn’t yet have the word “influencer” to describe people who we all paid attention to for no significant reason.
There were a ton of reality competition shows on TV, like “Survivor” and “American Idol,” but few that followed around ostensibly normal people. So something about the concept was oddly refreshing: watching people navigate the stressful but often boring mundanities of real life. No one on “The Hills” did anything that would normally be considered very TV-worthy. Mostly, they just tried to put up with their friends’ bad boyfriends.
But for me, what was by far the most satisfying thing about “The Hills” was how instructive it could (occasionally) be. There’s truly no better teacher than experience — particularly when the experience is that of a rich person who’s making a very dumb mistake.
All of the characters on “The Hills” made bad decisions, usually related to expending too much energy on men who were duds, a fairly universal experience for straight women in their early 20s. But there’s one bad choice that’s indelible to me, and to many other women who came of age in the mid-2000s and who chose to watch shows about privileged white people: the “girl who didn’t go to Paris” storyline.
In the last episode of season one, main character Lauren Conrad, who was interning at Teen Vogue, was offered a summer gig in Paris. The offer came on the heels of her announcement that she planned to spend the summer living at the beach with her big lug of a boyfriend, Jason, an ex she had recently taken up with again. She had to choose: job or boyfriend.
The show teased Lauren’s decision until the end of the episode. Paris is Paris, Jason is an inconsiderate lout with spiky hair and a chinstrap beard who was arrested for drunk driving and drunken assault six times by age 23. But Lauren chose him, forsaking career advancement and personal enjoyment, and her co-worker Whitney got the Paris gig instead.
On a scripted TV show, a moment like this might be overplayed. But on “The Hills,” Lauren wasn’t redeemed by clever writing or a sudden realization that she’d screwed up. Her bad choice simply existed. The show’s audience — primarily teenage girls — could come to their own conclusions.
By the time season two started, Lauren and Jason had broken up. We found this out in a short scene early on. Lauren’s editor Lisa asked her if she regretted her choice; wordlessly, Lauren assented. And then Lisa said one of the show’s most memorable lines, perhaps more significant than anything uttered by Justin Bobby: while talking to Lauren and Whitney, Lisa said, “Lauren didn’t go to Paris. She’s going to always be known as the girl who didn’t go to Paris.” (The line only increases in power when you learn that it was coined by none other than Anna Wintour.)
A moment like that has a lot of instructive power. It made a mark on me in the way more explicitly moralistic media wouldn’t. It made me angry that she chose this dumb guy over a great job, and I knew I never wanted to make that choice.
There’s something cathartic about seeing people go down the wrong path, especially if it’s a bad choice you can see yourself making, too. I think that’s a big part of why reality shows remain so successful, as “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” is still going, 16 season in, and stars like Rihanna and Martin Scorsese proclaim their love for “Vanderpump Rules.” There’s a lot of talk about schadenfreude, or about viewers wanting to feel superior. But I think what draws a lot of us in is knowing that we aren’t actually superior to most of these people. We all have the capacity to get drunk, to get angry, to make choices that are bad for us.
Much of the pleasure, or maybe the comfort, that I get from these shows is in seeing how close I am to following in their footsteps — making the bad decisions that would cause people to yell through their TVs at me. Adulthood, as I’ve experienced it so far, means skirting the edge of destructive choices and finding a way to make better ones.
The new version of “The Hills”, which premiers on MTV Canada on Monday, June 24, doesn’t look all that promising. Lauren won’t be in it, and neither will Kristin, her “Laguna” rival turned “Hills” replacement. There have been multiple reports of re-shoots, which implies that nothing interesting is happening.
But through some odd emotional cocktail of nostalgia and comfort, I’ll be tuning in anyway. There’s something about watching all these dummies navigate life that I can’t help but love.
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