When I think about “The Hills,” I think about Lauren Conrad’s iconic black teardrop, which may or may not have been slowed down by editors. Just like the Kardashians may or may not Photoshop any given Instagram post. It’s the age of the influencer, and that makes now as good a moment as any to revisit MTV’s controversial blend of truth and fiction.
Millennial nostalgia and reboot fever likely explain why a “Hills” reboot was greenlit by the network. When the new season premiered Monday night, Conrad wasn’t present. But Spiedi was. Brody was. Even Justin Bobby was back in action.
In 2016, ten years after “The Hills” first premiered, ABC asked “the question still on everyone’s minds,” probing its creators on just how much of the show was actually real. Their answers were more revealing than you might expect.
“Mostly everything was based in a truth,” one cinematographer and director said. (“Based in truth” is an amusingly slippery phrase.) Here’s how an executive producer responded to the question:
It was both [real and fake]. A lot of the jump off points — the relationships, the conflicts — a lot of those things all were 100% real in my mind. But I also think that the show was embellished at certain points and liberties were taken. And as shows progress and storylines have to go further, the show has to be produced more and more. The answer to that is both.
Another actually argued editing is what made “The Hills” unique. “People don’t realize how much editing had to do with what was special about ‘The Hills;’ finding that one byte that led you to the next scene,” she said. “There were also things that we could heighten in the edit by choosing certain bytes over other bytes, which is what we did on that show.”
That’s particularly instructive. To an extent, these insights describe every reality show. “Based in truth” is the perfect summation of their output. Some, like “The Bachelor,” can struggle to even meet that criteria. I’ve argued before that reality TV is best when the editing and acting is lightest. (See: Bravo.) “The Hills” was never compelling to me for that reason, and I don’t expect the reboot to be better, but the hyper-manipulated shows hold an appeal of their own for soap-loving viewers. There’s a right way to do it.
That’s where the mystery comes in. It’s the same mystery that plagues—nay, fuels—the influencers. Like these two. There’s something about fake reality that grips us. It’s not just the question of what’s really real, it’s the aesthetic itself, the illusion of happiness or the illusion of conflict or the illusion of absurdity. Even the YouTubers are in on it.
“The Hills” premiered two years after the founding of Facebook. We were just learning to use social media as a tool to filter our lives. We were just learning to discern when that was being done by others. Thirteen years later, we’re exhausted, but addicted. And the best editors are taking over our culture.
Maybe “The Hills” presaged this era of ever-present editing. Maybe the Pratts were onto this before the rest of us. Maybe this reboot will land flat amid all the competition for which it paved the way.
Whatever happens this season, “based in truth” now describes a lot more than MTV.