The Hills Is Too Real
Everyone who watches it knows on some level that The Hills is both real and fake, authentic and inauthentic, true and false, fictional and actual, honest and flimflam. People call this its fauxreality. Whatever its producers's intentions, an appreciation of these contradictions is a central appeal of the show. It exploits them in a way that is original and exciting, that makes the show into an object of intense fascination and wonder. I have blogged about this before and it's not news either to readers of Dr. T and Songs About Buildings and Food. In some ways, the balance has been skewing more toward artifice and contrivance and away from believability as the show was become more popular and its characters more savvy about how they function as agents of storytelling. At the same time, it is only because the characters are not actually fictional characters but real people that this kind of artifice is possible in the first place.
Among the fakeries typical of The Hills, perhaps the most audacious is the rigorous omission of any mention that the characters are in a show on MTV. Not only do we have no sense of the existence of a crew, which is usually true as well of Survivor and Project Runway and more or less every reality show, but we also never hear any reference to the show in dialogue. If you can imagine watching the show without knowing anything about the context of its production and reception (this is an impossible thought experiment), you would never know that the characters are famous, and that the very show we are watching is the cause of their fame. Contrast this with American Idol, for instance, which is all about nobodies being transformed into stars. Contrast this with other competitions like Dancing With the Stars, in which contestants regularly credit the show with providing an opportunity for personal growth and self-improvement. If Lauren or Heidi ever mentioned the existence of a program on television on which they regularly appear, the effect would be like a rupture in the space-time continuum. The first rule of The Hills is, you do not talk about The Hills.
In choosing to represent the narrative world in this way, The Hills departs from a convention of the reality genre: the confessional "on-the-fly" interviews that producers use to shape and craft storytelling and anchor meanings for otherwise ambiguous events. The confessional interview typically includes an address to the camera, a technique that aligns reality TV with the tradition of documentary film and television and with journalism. Some shows, like Big Brother, also have segments with an interviewer present to get the characters talking about their experiences. In BB's case, this person is even a journalist (Julie Chen, aka the Chenbot). Most forms of fictional cinema and television, by contrast, prohibit actors from acknowledging the camera, a convention often observed in the breach, as in comedies when the comedian appeals directly to us, breaking the "fourth wall". Godard and Woody Allen do this pretty effectively, and it always makes an impression because we are so unused to seeing this violation of stylistic orthodoxy in a dramatic fiction film. Mockumentaries get away with interviews and direct address because they make clear their terms of address as pseudo-reality.
The combination of avoiding all mention of The Hills and also of avoiding the direct address technique of the interview (aural and visual) has made The Hills (and before it Laguna Beach) distinctive all along. What has changed is not the textual approach, but the context in which the show is experienced. Now the show is a megahit, a pop culture phenomenon. Its characters appear on talk shows and in paparazzi photos and on the cover of Rolling Stone. John McCain and Barack Obama have mentioned Lauren and Heidi and people who would otherwise never watch MTV or reality TV know them by name and face. And now, much of the story is being told extratextually. In a sense, the US cover a few weeks ago spoiled the final episodes of season 3, alerting us to the growing rift between Audrina and Lauren. Their appearances on TV shows like Live with Regis and Kelly showed us that Heidi and Spencer were still a couple even as they seemed on the show to have split up. The lag in time between the appearance of Hills items in the news and the appearance of these same events on the show requires that we keep a story order straight in our minds even as the plot is presented through these different sources of narrative which we encounter temporally out of sequence. Thus we are constantly aware of the multiplicity of sources for narrative info and of their relative importance.
This tail-wagging-the-dog dynamic might have begun two years ago, when Lauren and Jason's breakup happened offscreen but was reported in the tabloid media. This was duplicated a year ago with the sex tape episode between seasons two and three (more on which in a moment). The crucial events in these narrative developments are the reality out of which the show crafts its drama, and the exposure the characters get in the extratexts functions not as publicity and promotion (well, not just) but as narration across platforms. These events set our expectations of getting our story about the show from sources other than the show. Amidst all the talk of fakery, the fact that The Hills can keep telling its story through these other means is evidence of its reality--of the real relationships and identities at the core of the show's narrative.
I propose that we can understand the significance of all this by looking to film and narrative theory, and in particular two concepts: reflexivity and diegesis. In classical cinema--movies that follow conventional Hollywood formats of storytelling and cinematic technique--reflexivity is generally avoided in favor of a kind of realism (in the 70s it was called "classic realism") that makes no reference to its own fictional and textual status. The literary analog of this is the 19th century realist novel. Diegesis, often defined as "story world", is a term that captures the sense the viewer has of a reality represented onscreen in three dimensions plus time, fully formed and internally coherent, like the real world. Of course this diegesis is a construct of cinematic (or media) production. Devices like synchronized sound and continuity editing stitch together a diegesis that seems seamless, and offer viewers an experience of this fictional space which they can believe exists when they lose themselves in the story. This is why the classical style has often been called "transparent" whether in literature or cinema: it never seems like the fiction is being presented or represented; it just is. I'm not going to get into the way this style was understood in 1970s film theory to function ideologically by positioning the spectator as subject who masters the space of the diegesis, misrecognizing himself (it's a male subject position) as the origin of the image before him. This is not a position many film scholars tend to buy these days. The point is to recognize the usefulness of the concept of a diegesis to capture the experience of a movie or TV show that represents a seamless, transparent world. Reflexive and diegetic are on some level opposed concepts, as devices of reflexivity threaten the coherence of the diegesis as self-enclosed and realistic.
The Hills as a television series aims for classic realism, working toward a diegetic effect while minimizing reflexivity. In avoiding mention of the characters' status as celebs and the techniques of reality TV, the show prefers instead to present itself as classically cinematic (the producers say they're after the look and feel of a film), using many traditional techniques including continuity editing and scene dissection (beginning with establishing shots, then cutting in closer for shot/reverse-shot sequences), clear scene transitions, and redundant dialogue to remind us of earlier actions and future plans. The reflexive techniques of documentary and political modernist cinema and of many non-fictional television genres are totally missing from the style of the show, a sort of "structuring absence" that is especially significant for being avoided.
And yet the sense the producers seem to be trying too hard to achieve of realism and diegesis is constantly undone by the show's success. Because of this, the characters are celebs, and their stories are told in the tabs and talk shows as much as on the show. They offer commentaries on events, and occasionally even criticize their representation by the producers (e.g., Lo complaining during last nite's season finale aftershow about being made into a villain--did she go off message?). It is totally unbelievable that they don't talk about the show and their celebrity, and we might reasonably assume that when the cameras aren't on, they talk about little else.
Our knowledge of Spencer and Heidi's self-fashioning as entrepreneurial Hollywood stars (fauxbiz!) and Spencer's self-casting as villain constantly distract us from the coherence of their characterization in the show, which seems several degrees more bogus than the way Lauren and her crew are represented. The artifice of the setup of Audrina and Whitney and now She-Pratt as friends for Lauren make us more aware of the authenticity of her friendship with Lo. Articles in the LA Times and Rolling Stone and US Weekly fill in details we would never learn from the MTV broadcast. The diegesis is constantly being constructed contextually as incomplete and insufficient, and because the characters are real people, it is possible for their characterization to continue through multiple media and more or less perpetually.
The relative authenticity or inauthenticity of these people on the show is made irrelevant by all of these contextual discourses, all of which presuppose that the characters on the show are continuous with the people in the magazines and on the talk shows who share their identities. Even the more fakey-fake contextual moments like Spencer and Heidi's insistence that the sex tape really existed remind us that the characters on The Hills are also persons of flesh and blood and feelings. Even if they're lying (of course they are!) Spencer and Heidi are acting out real motivations---of pursuing fame and wealth and success in entertainment. Even the rumor that Lauren and Lo's house is actually a set and not their actual place of residence presupposes that the same Lauren and Lo who are characters on the show also live somewhere in Los Angeles. The extension of these characters and relationships beyond the diegesis forces us to question the coherence and stability of the text as narrative, reminding us of the reality that cannot be contained in the weekly 22 minutes of TV time. Thus the realism attempted by The Hills is constantly undermined by the underlying reality from which it draws the materials of its representation.
It's my sense that the sex tape is what really forced us into this terrain of instability, caught between the appeal of the show's diegesis and our excess of knowledge about the reality that it fashions into drama. The sex tape and the actions surrounding its ambiguous existence constituted an event or non-event between seasons, whether real or imagined or merely rumored, which directed the narrative into one of intense passion and drama--a real soap opera. The fact that no one can say if it exists makes the sex tape into the perfect emblem for The Hills as text and object of intense cultural significance--it is at once too real and not real enough. Presumably, if it exists, the sex tape is the mediated representation that could never be questioned in terms of its authenticity--it would be the true evidence of people's intimate lives. A sex tape, an amateur porn recording of Lauren having sex with Jason, made by them and not by MTV, not by paparazzi, not by TMZ, would promise to be more real than anything we have seen on MTV or in magazines or on Letterman. We can only imagine it, of course, and like Spencer we might think we prefer not to. Let's imagine that it's underexposed, unedited, framed so you can't quite see some things you might like to, that there are fragments of speech that don't easily make sense. Let's imagine it has those amateur qualities that guarantee authenticity. These characteristics, only hinted at or assumed or projected onto it as products of fantasy, are those of a true document of desire, untainted by dramatic performance and slick cinematography and editing and the pop hits of the next five minutes and the whole bag of tricks that MTV uses to make us at once so wowed by the magic of moving images and so suspicious of their manipulative powers.
Or maybe it was part of an aspiring famewhore's quest to be another Paris Hilton...