'The Hills' finale: Lights, camera, reality?

kristin-brody-320.jpgThe series ender of "The Hills" was repeatedly described as "the end of an era" during MTV's televised finale party. But an era of what, exactly? There will always be reality shows. TV will always be splashed with California blondes who seem impossibly glamorous. Heck, "The City" soldiers on.

What made "The Hills" and its predecessor "Laguna Beach" stand out from an ever-growing pack of reality shows was the cinematography. There were no blurry, grainy night-vision shots of unidentifiable people rolling around in bed. There were no shaky hand-held cameras chasing people out of nightclubs. There weren't even any "talking head" confessionals.

In short, "The Hills" never looked like a reality show. Had it been marketed as a scripted drama, it could've fit in nicely alongside "Gossip Girl" or "90210" -- at least as far as the visuals go. Let's face it -- not a whole lot actually happened in each episode. Yet we watched, and as an audience, we made these people famous.

Even the much-hyped finale didn't actually have a lot going on plot-wise. Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt were missing in action, as they have been for most of the season. Lo Bosworth moved in with her boyfriend and got kind-of-sort-of engaged -- but since Lo's love life has never really been featured on the show, it was a struggle for viewers to actually care. Stephanie Pratt landed herself a boyfriend, but since their entire courtship was without conflict, we weren't invested in that, either.

The episode was built around Kristin Cavallari's move to Europe after Brody Jenner rejected her advances, but a fabulously wealthy twenty-something jetting off to Europe for the summer to "find herself" isn't relatable. It's also not believable, because Kristin was in Los Angeles for the finale party, and even if she does make the unlikely move to London, we know she'll be back all the time.

The most intriguing part of the finale had nothing to do with the people on screen, but was instead about the people at home watching. "Laguna Beach" started when I was a freshman in college; I watched Stephen Colletti break Lauren Conrad's heart sitting on the floor of my dorm room with my friends. By the end of "The Hills," I didn't watch the show because it kept me on the edge of my seat, but because it was part of my routine.

I watched the finale like an addict getting her last fix before some serious rehabilitation, and judging by my Twitter feed, so did a lot of others. The finale played into that. The retrospective montages weren't about looking back at the fake moments we've seen on the show, but about the passage of time in general and about the way we all change in the pivotal years between high school graduation and the quarter-life crisis.

Somehow, over three seasons of "Laguna Beach" and six seasons of "The Hills," these girls wormed their way into our hearts. Depending on the episode, we might admire the girls, mock them, or scorn them... but we were still talking about them as we walked across campus to our eight o'clock Intro to Psych class or during a coffee break at the office.

The final scene of "The Hills" showed Kristin and Brody's tearful goodbye -- and that it was filmed in front of a backdrop, and that Kristin's limo wasn't going anywhere at all.

What statement were Adam Divello and Liz Gateley trying to make?

If they were trying to say "psych, gotcha!" and reveal that it's all been a ruse all along, I'd like to give Lauren Conrad a retroactive Emmy for how genuinely devastated she was when Heidi betrayed her during the infamous sex tape scandal. Her lines may have sounded a little bit canned -- "I want to forgive you, and I want to forget you" -- but anyone who has lost a best friend can see that the anger and pain on Lauren's face is real.

On the other hand, anyone who has ever had a friend could tell that the conflict between Audrina and Lauren over Justin Bobby was fabricated.

Since Conrad's exit, the show has become even more obviously "fake." Sure, there's an occasional moment of (usually drunken) vulnerability, and once in a while someone says something so utterly stupid that it's clear they didn't read it off a page or even think before they spoke. In general, though, the audience knew that what they were watching wasn't remotely close to reality. Nobody believed Kristin and Justin even liked each other, and we know that by the time the gang went to Costa Rice, Kristin (and the rest of the world) knew that Brody was dating Avril Lavigne.

Still, we tuned in.

By Season 6, "The Hills" managed to find a way to present a show that was mostly fiction, but still appealed to our society's insatiable voyeurism fetish. For 21 minutes a week, we existed in a vacuum -- just us and the sliced-and-diced footage. We disregarded outside evidence and watched the show and listened to the music and didn't change the channel until we'd seen next week's preview. Otherwise intelligent people allowed themselves to be dumbed down in order to be entertained. Was it a guilty pleasure? Sure. But the best pleasures are the guilty ones.

In short, it was mostly fake. And we didn't care.

"The Hills" ended with the now famous Kristin and Brody setup, and then a final fade-out on the iconic Hollywood sign, reminding us all that while the people we've been watching are real, they're still in Hollywood. The City of Angels was always the real star of the show - and here it's lights, camera, action, and the only "reality" is that we're all faking it a little.

I'm not saying that "The Hills" wasn't a gratuitous show about privileged people living in a world that only exists on television. It was. It inflated egos to dangerous degree and made people famous who have no business being famous. It was cheesy and relied too heavy on pop songs and out-of-place gazes and perfect lighting.

The show probably lowered the collective IQ of America's youth every week.

I'm just saying I liked it anyway.

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