Feature: ‘The Hills’ Made Reality TV What It Is. Now It’s Back.
It was a sleepy Tuesday in Santa Barbara, just before the new year, when a bunch of people who were once on a popular reality show swept into town. Their first stop was a winery nearby. They walked in, and then they walked out, and then they walked in again. Then they fought like children over whose seat was whose.
“I was always sitting here,” said Stephanie Pratt, the sister of the show’s villain, Spencer Pratt.
“Are you crazy?” said Justin (Bobby) Brescia, a former hairstylist for the band Maroon 5 and the show’s toxic bachelor. “You’re sitting here.”
“No, you’re sitting there,” Stephanie said.
“I’m sitting next to Jason,” Justin said.
“Fine,” Stephanie said. “If it’s so important to you, you can sit there.”
“Thank you. Perfect spot.”
At a table some 50 yards away, Lauren Weber, the showrunner of “The Hills: New Beginnings,” was listening on a headset and sighing. Though she had instructed the cast where to sit, she did not expect them to ruin the shot by discussing it on camera. “O.K., have her do it again, since she boned this entire shot — on the arrival,” she said, speaking with the lilt of a reluctant babysitter.
And so they walked in a third time. Then they took a break. “Can everyone go pee now?” Spencer asked. Weber allowed it. They’d been driving for more than an hour. Everyone’s headsets went dead. “They pod down during bathroom breaks,” Weber explained. “There’s some stuff we don’t need to hear.”
After a field producer shepherded five adults, one at a time, into a bathroom inside the winery, the cameras finally rolled. Heidi Montag, Spencer’s wife, seemed to speak for everyone when she said, “Yay, guys — we made it!”
The original “Hills” premiered in 2006 as a spinoff of MTV’s high school “docu-soap” “Laguna Beach.” The show followed a group of young people in Los Angeles. They had disappointing boyfriends and sort-of-real jobs that seemed different from their parents’ 9-to-5s. They were fashion interns and club promoters and music-label scouts (on the digital side). They learned to live on camera. Eventually they became “brands.” The show, meanwhile, marked the dawn of the sort of glossy programming that would later subsume networks like E! and Bravo. The aspirational L.A. settings, the ensemble cast connected via nebulous lifestyle choices, the sweeping aerial shots with light bouncing off glass facades, the deadpan looks in place of normal human emotion — “The Hills” invented this.
A popular thing to say about reality TV, especially by people who have never seen it, is that it isn’t really real. Few shows played with this idea better than “The Hills.” Epic swells of music signaled narrative cues. The voice-over gave it a single heroine. Producers plotted much of the story. Part of the thrill was that you never could tell what was real. In the 2010 series finale, MTV let viewers in on the joke. As Brody Jenner, the show’s male protagonist, stood with the Hollywood sign behind him, watching his love interest drive off into the sunset, the backdrop was suddenly wheeled away, revealing that they were in fact on a movie lot. The car never even left.
In the series’s wake, a net of tangential fame spread across the actual hills of Los Angeles. If you’ve never heard of Brody Jenner, then you may know his extended family members. “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” had its premiere a year after “The Hills,” following Brody’s stepsister Kim, then sidekick to Paris Hilton. Brody’s father, Bruce Jenner, had married Kim’s mother, Kris, and Brody made cameos to babysit their then pretween daughters, Kendall and Kylie Jenner. Meanwhile, Brody’s mother, Linda Thompson, a former Miss Tennessee and girlfriend of Elvis (the fat period), married and divorced David Foster, the musician and producer who would then appear on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” as stepdad to Gigi and Bella Hadid, now among fashion’s biggest models. Bruce and Kris Jenner would eventually divorce, too, and Bruce would become Caitlyn, getting her own show, “I Am Cait.”
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In a way, the return of “The Hills” is the merry-go-round coming full circle. Since it has been off the air, Pamela Anderson — she who paved the sex-tape way for Paris and Kim’s reality careers — has twice married and divorced the guy holding the camera in Paris’s sex tape, while Brandon, Pamela’s eldest son, has come of age just in time to be tapped to appear on “The Hills: New Beginnings” by none other than his good pal Brody Jenner. By now, you may be pretending you don’t know any of this, but you do, at least some of it, the same way we all know it, which is that your brain has adapted to the new millennium by functioning like one of those Roomba vacuums — just passively sweeping up information, hoping its human will come home and dislodge it from beneath the sofa.
“Spencer made ‘The Hills’ come back,” Heidi told me. (Nina L. Diaz, MTV’s president of entertainment: “We’d already been thinking about it.”) After the show ended, Spencer was depressed. For years, he called his former co-stars and MTV, pitching a reboot. But then came the endless TV remakes (“Roseanne,” “Will & Grace,” “Twin Peaks”), and even reality executives turned to that precious IP. After the “Jersey Shore” reboot became MTV’s most watched show of 2018, the network decided to resurrect “The Hills,” which will have its premiere on June 24. But this time the cast would be, in Diaz’s words, “newly divorced, newly wed, newly sober.”
Lauren Conrad, the original show’s lead, declined to return, so in a real mind-bendy plot twist, MTV replaced her with Mischa Barton, the star of the 2003 Fox show “The O.C.,” which inspired “Laguna Beach,” which inspired “The Hills.” Except “The O.C.” was a scripted show, in which Mischa, an actress born in London and raised in New York, played a sun-kissed teenager from Orange County. Depositing Mischa into “The Hills” today is like having Julia Roberts join a reality show about call girls. It’s the sort of thing that only makes sense in dreams — and Hollywood.
Since “The O.C.,” Mischa’s life had taken the familiar course of a child star: There were a few hospitalizations, a “Dr. Phil” appearance and a lawsuit against her mother. “She spoke to the themes we were exploring,” Weber, the showrunner, told me. “Which was kind of brushing yourself off after you’ve been beat up by Hollywood at a young age. They all can relate to that.”
The day’s shoot was in Los Olivos, mere miles from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Technically, everyone had aged a decade, but I couldn’t tell. They all still looked tan and sparkly-eyed. If anything, they seemed like more potent versions of themselves, like stock that had been left to simmer, or in this case adults who were still playing characters they created at 22. Spencer was brawnier. Stephanie’s skin was so lustrous that she seemed to be molded out of Barbie-grade thermoplastic. Justin Bobby had gone full Johnny Depp — chin-length hair, a goatee-mustache combo, a blooming rose tattooed on his left hand. He’d brought a new lady friend but was still playing the world’s most unavailable boyfriend. Asked if they were “official,” he stuttered: “I think it’s still very ... I just haven’t like ... it just hasn’t, like ...”
Weber was all over that. “Can we get a reaction as Justin weasels away?”
Weber is the show’s omniscient, Godlike figure, manning the control room in ankle boots and a leather jacket, but she’s also a little like Puck, that quick-witted, meddling fairy, always perched somewhere just out of frame, watching the players, whispering in their ears, amused by their human foibles. At one point, watching Justin, she said: “He’s always so pensive, that Justin. What are you thinking about, Justin?” The original series aired shortly after Weber moved to Los Angeles from Ohio, and she still talked like a fan. “I think he’s uncomfortable because this girl is taking it real fast,” she finally said.
Santa Barbara was to serve as the setting for Heidi and Spencer’s wedding-vow renewal. The weekend would culminate with Heidi performing her new Christian single, which is exactly what it sounds like. While everyone was still arriving, the winery crew would get boozy and stir some drama, most of which had to do with Brody and his new wife, Kaitlynn Carter Jenner — not to be confused with Caitlyn Jenner, his father. Brody and Spencer used to be best friends, but since “The Hills” ended, their friendship had soured. Brody didn’t even invite Spencer to his wedding in Indonesia. There was a lot of talk about Brody’s “lifestyle,” which turned out to be code for what Stephanie called his “famous open marriage.”
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Justin’s slipperiness was just a B-story. The real story was coming, and Weber already knew what it was. Unlike her predecessors on the original, Weber doesn’t script the episodes. She might tell the cast where to sit, but she never tells them what to say unless it’s something they want to say, then she just helps them get there. (“We try to bring forth what they’re thinking,” she told me.) “Spencer is about to say something, and it’s going to be to Jason and Ashley,” Weber said.
Just then, Spencer launched the sort of hollow missile that gives reality episodes their engine. After revealing that Kaitlynn had called everyone fake, he turned to Jason, a newly sober member of the original cast, and his wife, Ashley. “Obviously I don’t feel this way,” he said, “but she feels you two are too trashy to hang out with.”
And just like that, the episode’s seeds were planted. Jason and Ashley vowed to confront Kaitlynn that very night. Weber rubbed her hands together. It was chilly, but the gesture was also very puckish. She called out to her crew. “Let’s get some exits, and then let’s ice them!”
It used to be that if producers missed a “real” moment, it would be re-enacted for the cameras, giving first-generation reality TV that stunted quality of bad acting. Now the cast is often isolated between scenes so that nothing is lost. While Weber advanced to the next location, some were “iced,” while others traveled with GoPro cameras to “maximize reality,” as she put it.
In Santa Barbara, MTV had rented an oceanfront villa, which sat on a sprawling property with a pool, a fire pit and private beach access. “It’s like a Nancy Meyers set,” Weber said. Brody was hanging in the backyard with Brandon Lee, eating tacos. Last year, Brandon was in the tabloids for physically assaulting his father, Tommy Lee, the Mötley Crüe drummer. Their reconciliation would be part of his arc. He told Brody he’d invited his dad to a Chargers game, but his dad was away with his fiancée. “He obviously made plans before we reconnected,” Brandon reasoned.
The production team was camped out in the driveway. Weber watched the cast on six screens, as if peering inside the rooms of a dollhouse. Brandon and Brody were in one. In another, Mischa was chatting with Kaitlynn, who turned out to have her own beef with Ashley, after Ashley (apparently) said that Kaitlynn and Brody shouldn’t have kids because of their open marriage. “She needs to learn to mind her own business,” Kaitlynn said.
“She works at a hair salon,” Mischa replied. “Those people weigh in on everything.”
This got a hearty laugh in the control room. (Weber: “That was so shady!”)
Mischa’s story line would include her relationship with her mother. “It was better for a minute, but then it got bad again,” she told Kaitlynn. “I’m a strong individual when it comes to that stuff — I am. I had to learn to be.”
Kaitlynn continued to overexplain her marriage. She said, “A couple’s sex life has nothing to do with whether they should have kids.” And: “Everything that’s happened in our relationship is a decision we came to together.” And: “It’s equally to my benefit as much as Brody’s. I used to always get bored in relationships, and now I don’t.” On another screen, while his wife tirelessly defended their union, Brody was discussing the menu at McDonald’s. “The McGriddle?” he said to Brandon. “I’m sure I’ve had that, bro.”
This whole time, Jason and Ashley were being iced in the driveway. Ashley’s confrontation with Kaitlynn had to be timed just right. The director counted them in like a rocket launch. “And three, two, one — send in Jason and Ashley.”
On the old “Hills,” such scenes were heavily staged to amplify drama. Spencer recalled that after Snooki Polizzi was punched on “Jersey Shore,” a producer suggested that he “do the Snooki thing” with his sister to boost ratings. “I was like, ‘Did you just joke about me punching my sister?’ ” Spencer said. Somewhere along the quest for fact meets fiction, Heidi and Spencer — collectively known as Speidi — lost the plot. Heidi, once a bubbly 17-year-old from Colorado, had 10 cosmetic operations in a single day. Spencer spent millions on healing crystals and was reported to have physically threatened a producer. By the series finale, they were booted off the show.
“New Beginnings” is the work of a different production company, appropriately called Evolution Media. The show is shot like a moving documentary, and the cast will be able to weigh in via traditional interviews. (“It’s their story this time around,” Nina Diaz told me.)
In the last decade, reality TV has become so very real that it has gone all postmodern. On “The Kardashians,” a crew member once entered the shot to help Kim take a selfie when her carpal tunnel was acting up; on “Vanderpump Rules,” a “Real Housewives” spinoff, a producer’s voice is often left in during interviews. On “New Beginnings,” for now, the fourth wall remains very much intact. When Mischa joined “The Hills,” Spencer imagined a more experimental version of the show. “I thought we were going to make like a Netflix documentary-style ‘Hills,’ where you would see cameras, and it would be like ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ ” he told me. But the producers still told him not to talk about the show on the show. “And I was like: ‘But we have Mischa Barton from “The O.C.,” what do you mean we can’t talk about the show? Can I talk about “The O.C.”? Like, what?’ ”
But keeping things real can also mean tamer plot lines. Ashley’s entrance at the house was ultimately anticlimactic. She and Kaitlynn just kind of glided by each other, avoiding eye contact. Eventually tensions bubbled over, with Brody storming into the backyard, announcing that he and Kaitlynn were leaving. When everyone arrived for the rehearsal dinner, Weber was waiting out front.
“She’s heated because I made a comment about her not having a baby because her husband sleeps with her friends!” Ashley said breathlessly. Weber nodded empathetically. She was at once a producer, shrink and coach. “I defer to you,” she said. “But it is their vow renewal, so. ... ” Ashley was listening. “Why don’t you talk about it when you get in there?” Weber continued. “Have some cocktails, and make a decision based on how you want to handle it — as a couple. Sound good?”
Ashley and Jason looked at each other. They seemed calmer. “O.K., yeah,” Ashley said. Weber sent them back into the game with the equivalent of an encouraging pat on the bum: “You look gorgeous!”
What can I tell you about the rehearsal dinner? Heidi and Kaitlynn talked. Brody and Spencer talked. Ashley said things like, “She thinks I’m saying all this stuff, but I’m just saying what she’s saying, and she’s actually saying stuff about me.” Spencer brought one of Heidi’s backup dancers as a date for Brandon. I heard the director cue in Heidi, then Brody, then the dancer, then the paella.
The next day, everyone gathered at the Santa Barbara courthouse for the vow renewal. Heidi wore a white minidress with a sheer overlay. Spencer wore a Lemurian crystal around his neck — for the dispelling of drama. An MTV executive watching over Weber’s shoulder took issue with Mischa’s outfit, an asymmetrical skirt paired with a floral cap-sleeve blouse. “Does it have shoulder pads?” she asked. “What is that? Oh, no. She looks like a linebacker.”
Once seated, the cast was asked to sit still so that cameras could capture “beauty shots.” As they held their pose — foreheads glistening, eyes squinting against the afternoon sun — they had the distinct look of people who’d spent the fragile parts of their lives on TV. They seemed simultaneously incapable of neuroses and perpetually self-conscious.
The ceremony itself was quick. Afterward, everyone headed back to the house. While Heidi prepared for her performance, Spencer held the couple’s 1-year-old son, Gunner, and discussed his crystal line, Pratt Daddy Crystals. “Before, crystals made me broke, and now, crystals are making me rich,” Spencer said, unfazed by his wife, who was whipping her high ponytail around and lip-syncing to an imaginary microphone in the middle of their bedroom.
Brody and Kaitlynn ended up staying. They even promised to invite Spencer should they have an American wedding. Kaitlynn didn’t plan on legally changing her name anyway. “Just because of Brody’s dad. ... ” she said, not finishing the thought.
It was time for Heidi’s performance. After thanking everyone for coming, Heidi announced, “I have a little song for you — about Jesus.”
As Heidi and her dancers began gyrating, a pulsating pop-club beat came over the speakers, followed by her autotuned voice. The song, called “Glitter and Glory,” was about losing fame and finding God.
Some will see their name in neon
Think they’ve finally got it made
But there always comes a moment
When they watch it fade away . . .
Don’t want to gain the whole world
And lose my soul . . .
God help me to see
The difference between
Glitter and glory-ee-ee
Glitter and glory-ee-ee
When it was over, it turned out she’d missed a few steps. They did it again.
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