The Hills mercifully came to a close last night, ending six seasons of bubble gum with an impressive pop. As two characters-the perma-stubbled Brody Jenner and perma-tanned Kristin Cavallari-were saying their goodbyes in the final scene, the backdrop slid away, and what we thought was an exterior scene was revealed to actually be taking place on a studio lot. Natasha Beddingfield’s anthem echoed one final time in the background. "The rest is still unwritten," she sings. But does that mean everything that came before was written?
Allow Jenner to shed some light:"The thing is, as you saw on the end-what's real and what's fake, you don't know. " The show may have left that question open, but its former star, Lauren Conrad has not. To figure out what was fake and real on The Hills , just buy either of Conrad’s two chick-lit novels . They’re fascsimiles of Conrad’s actual life, starring four girls as they live their lives in front of a reality show’s cameras. ( Whether she had a ghost-writer is up for debate .) They’re a manual to how scripted reality shows work. Some key lessons:
- Producers drop hints about what they want the on-screen talent to do. And, at least at first, twentysomethings listen to mid-career professionals who seem to know what makes for good TV. From Conrad’s second book: "Trevor had called her yesterday and told her that she shouldn’t hold back on expressing her opinions about Scarlett to Jane, if that was what she felt 'compelled to do.’ Translation: Trevor was ecstatic that Scarlett and Jane were fighting, and he wanted to keep the tense friendship triangle going for as long as possible."
- Scenes are influenced on the fly. Conrad’s characters are repeatedly told how to act on-camera via text-message. The constant interjections start to create a form of self-censorship for the people on screen. "Scarlett glanced over her shoulder at Dana, who was making a frantic rolling motion with her hands, which Scarlett translated to mean, Please keep the conversation going, already. Any second now, she would be sending Scarlett another text: CD U TALK ABOUT CHRISTMASES FROM YR CHILDHOOD? ANY FUNNY STORIES? WHAT ABOUT THE BEST AND WORST PRESENTS U EVER GOT? WHAT ABOUT … ."
- The shots are most definitely repeated. Conrad suggests being a reality star is really an exercise in repetition, doing the same things over and over again until somebody else says you did it right. "After shooting the exciting [walk out of an elevator] scene for twenty minutes-they had to let several crowded elevators go by, and then a FedEx delivery guy wandered into the frame, requiring a retake … -Jane was ready to go face Fiona."
These aren’t just a peek behind the curtain. They’re cautionary tales. Over the past few years, Conrad has quietly become our country’s most famous advocate for media literacy.
And her services are badly needed. The Hills was innocuous as long as you knew that most of its drama was inflated. And you did, as long as they were over the age of 15. But The Hills’ most ardent and unironic fans were always its youngest. And for them, the people on screen are idols, not mortals. When I went to a Conrad book signing in New York last year (long story), there were a thousand people waiting for her to sign their copy of Sweet Little Lies . The largest contingent was tween girls. Perhaps it was for those girls that Conrad left The Hills . (That she had a clothing line to launch didn’t hurt.) Since leaving, she’s managed to capitalize on the show’s artifice while also exposing it. All too similar to what the producers tried to do last night as The Hills staged its final scene.