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The Rest Is Still Unwritten: On ‘The Hills,’ the Last Pure Reality Show

In 2006, Hollywood looked a little brighter, Heidi and Spencer still hadn’t done what they knew they did—and social media wasn’t around to spoil everything

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Was there ever a better reality show than The Hills? It had everything: Hollywood club scenes, mascara tears, a hairdresser named Justin Bobby, really dumb quotes, Ryan Cabrera for some reason. It was shot in what I thought at the time was a very beautiful way, with Lauren Conrad speeding down the 101 in a black BMW convertible, her sunny highlights streaming in the wind. It was a fantasy better than any Disney movie. Sure, it probably should have ended with Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt’s wedding in Season 5, and yes, it’s difficult to acknowledge the two extra seasons starring Conrad’s Laguna Beach rival Kristin Cavallari as canon. But still, The Hills was a unique treasure, a monument to the culture of Hollywood in the mid-aughts. And now, nine years after the series finale, MTV is bringing it back. Hmm.

I don’t think this is a great idea. I mean, no one asked me, and the new series, creatively titled The Hills: New Beginnings, premieres Monday night, so it’s happening regardless of how I feel, and of course I’m still going to watch. But I don’t think this shadow version (both Conrad and Cavallari declined to participate) could come close to re-creating the magic that was The Hills: The First Beginning. It was a perfect show—in its time.

The Hills premiered on May 31, 2006, two blissful years before the recession. The show was a spinoff of Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, MTV’s sun-streaked look into the lives of teenagers who lived with mostly absent parents in Spanish-style mansions with hot tubs and ocean views. The Hills was about what happens when those teenagers leave the O.C. for Los Angeles and try (try) to start paying their own rent. In a 2016 interview, Conrad told Us Weekly that she started filming The Hills to bankroll her transition into adulthood. “I really loved Laguna and had such a great experience,” she said. “And I had used up all my money. It was time to get a job, so I was like, Yes, this! This is what I want to do.” (She ended up making $125,000 an episode during her final season.)

On the show, money was seen but never discussed. Most of the cast was underemployed—Conrad interned at Teen Vogue for a while; her friend Audrina Patridge was a part-time receptionist at Epic Records—but they all had Chanel bags and frequent access to bottle service. Watching the premiere as a 16-year-old living in Pittsburgh (no ocean views), I felt like I was getting an exclusive peek into the lives of the rich and the bored. (Oh, they were so bored all the time, staring into space, or in the case of Audrina, at the ceiling. It was great!)

Even though everyday realities like car payments and the cost of hair extensions were glossed over, the drama at the heart of the show seemed authentic. While much of reality TV at the time was competition-based or otherwise contrived (American Idol; The Bachelor), The Hills was primarily about how nightmarish friendship can be in your early 20s, and nothing is more real than that. Since the series finale, the cast has admitted in various interviews that some of the relationships and situations were dreamed up by producers, but when the fights were genuine, they were incredible.

Remember when Patridge accused Conrad of hooking up with her on-again, off-again boyfriend and human koan Justin Bobby, and Conrad was screaming like, “I would rather KILL MYSELF than hook up with him” at a club? Remember when Conrad got Spencer Pratt’s sister, Stephanie, a job at People’s Revolution to win Stephanie’s loyalty in her feud against Spencer, but then Stephanie sucked at making copies and Lauren had to fire her? Remember YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID?

Of course you remember that. Conrad delivered the iconic line in the third-season premiere episode, which took place at Frankie Delgado’s birthday party (“Frankie’s birthdaaayyy!”) at Les Deux. (Incidentally, Delgado is still around and returning for The Hills: New Beginnings.) Conrad had been drinking and stewing over the presence of Montag and Pratt, who she believed had leaked rumors about her making a sex tape with her ex-boyfriend Jason Wahler to the press. (Wahler is also returning.) (Spencer has since admitted to being the leaker.) Montag tried to approach her to “talk” at the club, and Conrad snapped. “YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID!” she screamed, her perfectly flat-ironed side bangs swishing around as she shook her head. It was a fantastic episode with a real payoff, but the most wonderful thing about it was that when you sat down to watch it for the first time, you had no idea it was coming.

When “You Know What You Did” aired in 2007, Instagram and Snapchat did not exist, and Facebook was still just a site for sharing prom photos with your 236 closest friends. No footage of the Les Deux fight leaked before the episode aired. The tabloids hadn’t gotten ahold of the exact story line before MTV had time to cut the episode. YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID was a true, glorious surprise.

Reality TV is not like that anymore.

In 2019, television is just one component of the average reality star’s media output. Most stars now broadcast their daily lives on Instagram Stories or YouTube, and the story lines that appear on their shows have often already played out for the public on social media or in the tabloids. The subsequent reality show episode isn’t exactly what really happened—it’s more so a tool in narrative crafting.

Take, for example, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which premiered in 2007, to showcase a slightly different kind of California wealth. (As the stepsister of Conrad’s love interest Brody Jenner, Kim even appeared in a deleted scene on The Hills.) The biggest storyline KUWTK has going for it this season—that Khloe Kardashian’s boyfriend cheated on her with Kylie Jenner’s best friend Jordyn Woods—has already played out on multiple social platforms, and fans know the broad strokes of what happened. Khloe tweeted about it; the Kardashian family unfollowed Woods on Instagram; Woods appeared on Jada Pinkett Smith’s Facebook Watch show “Red Table Talk” to tell her side of the story. When the actual episode dealing with the cheating incident aired this past weekend, there wasn’t much more to say about it. The Kardashians’ ability to spin one story line into months of multiplatform drama is impressive, but the process is tiresome for the viewer.

This is where I fear The Hills: New Beginnings will stumble. The original show jumped the shark when producers started bringing in story lines from the tabloids. (Remember when the girls accused Cavallari of unspecified “drug use” in Vegas? That story was in Us Weekly first, and, according to Cavallari, producers bribed the cast to bring it up on camera. It was not fun to watch.)

Now, producers will likely be tempted to source story lines from the cast members’ social media diaries. The returning stars—Patridge, Whitney Port, the Pratts—have all become influencers and share much of their life online. When Patridge got back together with Ryan Cabrera last year (!), it was all over Instagram. Port, meanwhile, has 1.4 million followers on Instagram, a YouTube series about her life as a new mom, and a podcast where she discusses the intimate details of her relationship with her husband (whom she met, incidentally, when he was a producer on The City, a short-lived New York-based Hills spinoff that I also do not consider canon). Stephanie Pratt, meanwhile, has somehow become a reality star in the U.K., appearing on several iterations of the popular Made in Chelsea series and shows like Celebs Go Dating and Celebrity Big Brother. She also cohosts a podcast with a Bachelor star about her life called Pratt Cast, where she recently revealed that she still does not get along with Spencer and Heidi. “We are not on good terms. We are not on speaking terms. I do not consider them my family,” she said during an episode in April.

But it’s Spencer and Heidi who have done more than any other original cast members to keep interest in their daily dramas alive: In the immediate aftermath of The Hills, they appeared on several reality shows, and then talk shows to discuss the controversies they started on said reality shows. Never forget the time the couple publicly feuded with AL ROKER over his questions about their time on I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! These days, they also host a podcast about their lives, and Spencer, whose dogged pursuit of media attention could be the main reason the show is returning, livestreams most of his day on Snapchat. (Activities include making espresso, singing along to Taylor Swift, tending to his hummingbirds, martial arts). He is eminently watchable, but I’m wondering how much more there will be for us to watch on The Hills: New Beginnings. To find out what’s going on with the cast, you simply have to open your phone.

(It is also worth noting that, thanks to social media, it is clear that the cast did not stay friends after The Hills ended in 2010. They are coming back together now for one purpose, which is to star in a TV show.)

Pratt revealed in a recent interview with Page Six that producers are working to incorporate the look of social media into the show. “So, spoiler alert, I saw the first ep — oh — I saw some content of the show and there’s social media used in the show that creates like an energy of like, you’re filming this, so it kinda creates draw,” he said. “It’s so meta. It’s like, pfft, mind-blown.”

If that tactic does not entice viewers, producers have also hired a couple of new cast members who are slightly more mysterious at this moment in time. One is Brandon Thomas Lee, the 23-year-old son of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. (Will he talk about WikiLeaks?) The other is Mischa Barton, who, as of course you know, starred on The O.C., which spawned Laguna Beach in the first place. Barton is demonstrably less “online” than the rest of the cast, and she certainly has stories to tell. Will that be enough to save the show?

For the sake of the original cast (and all of us), I hope so, as they seem very, very happy to be back on TV. “It’s really fun filming yourself, and now it’s such a blessing to have MTV’s beautiful cameras on tripods,” Pratt told Page Six. “Like, you know my thumb feels better, like, ah, it’s relaxed, like, it’s great.”

Allie Jones is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in GQ, Vice, and The New York Times.