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Wednesday, September 3, 2008
  DVD Review: The Hills: Season 3

The Hills is a very strange show, at least it is to me. I normally consider myself pretty plugged-in to pop culture, and have been pretty much all my life (it wasn’t until relatively recently that I realized how it was sort of odd that I was voraciously reading Entertainment Weekly in junior high), so when something approaching a genuine “pop culture phenomenon” takes flight and I’ve never even heard of it before, it makes me feel a little bit weird (and a lot old)One assumes that Heidi, on the right, was Photoshopped in after the fact. The Hills is one of those things. It feels like one day I woke up and found myself a cultural leper because I didn’t know who Lauren Conrad wa

Lauren Conrad is, apparently, a girl who, when she was in high school on a popular MTV high school reality show called Laguna Beach, decided she wanted to work in the fa
shion industry, and I guess because she was on a popular MTV reality show called Laguna Beach, she got a job in the fashion industry. When high school was over, so was Laguna Beach, but Lauren was pretty so she got her own show called The Hills, which follows her life and the lives of her other friends Audrina and Whitney and, in one case, former best friend, Heidi, who is now her nemesis (Lauren's sort of like a superhero that way).

Reviewing The Hills: Season 3 was, aside from a couple of minutes I caught here and there while channel surfing, my first exposure to the show. In fairness, I am aware that I’m really not in the show’s target demographic; I’m a 29-year-old straight guy who doesn’t happen to find skinny, vapid blonde girls attractive, which means on paper The Hills should offer me nothing of value. And while jokingly lamenting to friends and colleagues that I was tasked with reviewing this DVD set, I decided to try to make it some sort of contest with myself: could I withstand watching a full season of The Hills in one day? The answer, I’m vaguely ashamed to say, is yes I did, and I was sort of amazed at how compelling the show actually is.

If the premise of The Hills goes beyond “pretty girls go to clubs, and occasionally work,” it’s lost on me, because that’s all anyone did for 28 episodes. Lauren starts the season working for Teen Vogue, along with her friend/superior (I think; this is never really made clear) Whitney. She also has an apartment with Audrina (who works as a receptionist at a record label), and they both used to be friends with Heidi (who works at an event-planning company), but things went sour when she started dating Spencer (who has apparently spun being a loathsome human being into a full-time gig). The show is basically just watching these people interact with one another and the drama/hilarity that ensues. (The secret brilliance of most MTV reality shows is that what you get out of it is left almost entirely up to you.)

The people on The Hills are young, rich and beautiful, the sorts of people many of the rest of us wish we could be. But at some points in the show, the "drama" hints at something deeper. Watching a scene in which the newly-engaged Heidi and Spencer engage in psychological battle (he "surprised" her by painting a graffiti mural on their apartment wall and putting classic arcade-game cabinets in their dining room; she "surprises" him by painting over it a week later), it seemed like there was a subtext there about how even though these people are rich and pretty and (I guess) famous, they're not necessarily any happier than you or I. I mean sure, flying around on private jets and living in glamorous apartments and going to trendy L.A. clubs every night looks like fun, but if at the end of the day your fiancé doesn't treat you with simple human respect, how much does that other stuff really mean? But as much fun as it is to read that much into this show, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't just plain evil fun to watch Heidi's parents exchange knowing glances (The Hills is a show that elevates shots of knowing glances and meaningful looks into an art) over their soon-to-be son-in-law. Their disapproval is wonderfully palpable.

Halfway through the season, the aforementioned Heidi vs. Spencer psychological battle escalates into all-out war as their wedding day approaches. The jerk inside me that unapologetically finds entertainment in the unhappiness of awful people found himself pinned to his seat as the acid of their mutual dislike and lack of respect for each other as people ate away at their engagement. But the part of me that has faith in humanity wondered what it means that this show is so popular and that Heidi and Spencer have been embraced as the barrel-scraping gossip-rag version of Brangelina.

There’s been a lot of discussion online about just how real this reality show is. I certainly don’t remember the last time I saw a reality show, at least in this post-Survivor age, in which the producers try so hard to conceal the camera crew; at this point in the evolution of reality TV, we’re all pretty accustomed to seeing the fourth wall being broken with some regularity, but on The Hills, everyone is trSo pretty! So glamorous!ying really hard to make it seem like you’re just watching these peoples’ lives as they happen, which actually makes it seem more put-on. And there are simply too many coincidental encounters for any reasonable person’s B.S. detector not to go off; there are WAY too many clubs and bars in L.A. for Lauren’s posse and Heidi to keep running into each other by chance. But two pretty young blondes trying to shout at each other without spilling their beverages does make for some pretty compelling television, I will give The Hills that.

Lots of behind-the-back sniping and the occasional face-to-face confrontation are essentially what the show’s all about. And as I found myself getting more and more drawn into it as the 20-minute episodes breezed by, it dawned on me that that’s one of the reasons (if not the reason) that The Hills resonates with people: most of us bitch about each other behind our backs. Every office, classroom and group of friends I’ve had, through my whole life, has had this dynamic to one degree or another, whether it's students or coworkers bonding over the mutual dislike of a hated teacher or boss, or friends discussing their disapproval of someone else’s new boyfriend or girlfriend, everyone does this stuff to some extent, and hey, apparently so do rich, pretty people. And if a guy like me can watch an entire season of this show in one day without going on a killing spree while frothing at the mouth (I considered this a possibility going into my little experiment), then I guess that says something. Maybe The Hills isn’t just another sign of our cultural decline. Maybe it’s just fun guilty-pleasure television. And I guess there’s nothing wrong with that.

GRADE: C (though it could also be an A or an F depending on one’s perspective...The Hills very much defies traditional reviews, hence my selecting the most middle-ground grade I could think of.)


There’s a nice collection of extras on this four-disc set, though one of the alleged bonus features, something called ‘Fashion: The Life’ seems to just be an MTV web series about people in the fashion industry that has nothing to do with The Hills, so that hardly counts. Lauren, Audrina and Whitney give commentary on a 25-minute reel of scenes from all over the season, and their observations are about as worthwhile as you’d imagine. (“I really like your hair,” Audrina says to Lauren midway through one scene. “Thanks,” is Lauren’s reply. Fascinating.) Watching these girls talk about the show as they watch it somehow manages to be even more insipid than the actual show. It’s kind of a feat.

Heidi does commentary on a shorter collection of Heidi-centric scenes, only her track is actually kind of awkward. The show clearly demonizes her pretty much any time she’s on the screen (except when she just comes across as pathetic), and her commentary mostly quiet and vaguely defensive. “People don’t understand our relationship,” she offers during one particularly painful scene with Spencer.

There’s also a collection of deleted scenes that really don’t add anything, but there’s a little mini-story told across several short clips in which Audrina, who’s allergic to cats, takes Lauren’s cat to a groomer without her knowledge, and Lauren is none too pleased when her roommate shows up one day with her cat shaved like a poodle.

Rounding out the extras is a series of interviews with the cast members. No hints are given for the fourth season, which just started, and they never spend more than two minutes discussing anything – much like The Hills itself.

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