It’s hard to imagine loyalists of “The Hills” — the MTV network’s brilliant reality soap opera, which aired in its first run from 2006 to 2010 — finding much to keep them tuned into the ambitiously subtitled “The Hills: New Beginnings,” which began its run last month.
The new series is focused on a group of acquaintances who were brought together in order to be cast members on a heavily-produced reality series. As in the friends-reunited film “The Big Chill,” the issue at hand is hard to discuss, and as in that film, one friend is crucially absent. While the first run of “The Hills” had been centered around the emotional journey of Lauren Conrad, a Hollywood serf whose gradual rise was as satisfying to the viewer as was her blank, omnidirectional charisma, the new series has no anchor, and no organizing idea beyond the power of a familiar brand.
And that brand is a good one. “The Hills,” in round one, was a pathbreaking show in two ways. One of them has been widely imitated, and one has been discarded even by “New Beginnings.” The enduring “Hills” legacy seems to be its sense of life as a series of dramas that continue without the benefit of catharsis, drawing out over seasons with only fleeting resolution. The feuds and romances of Conrad, who was met at every turn by traitorous friends and unfit lovers, sprawled only as far as they could within a thirty-minute timeslot (with commercials). Conrad, an alumna of the less-sophisticated but charming MTV reality-soap “Laguna Beach,” knew how to make her moment last; previous reality smashes had been closed-ended, concluding with the roommates moving out (“The Real World”) or a winner being declared (“Survivor”). The Natasha Bedingfield theme song, with its idea of “reaching for something in the distance,” had a pleasant vibe of endless Westward expansion: “The Hills” promised to extend as far as did Conrad’s willingness to subject herself to its lens. Its absence was filled first by Bravo’s ever-expanding “Real Housewives” empire and then by “Vanderpump Rules,” a show whose community of Angeleno strivers makes up for in a certain hunger to be onscreen what they lack in relatability.
“Vanderpump Rules,” which began airing in 2013, now sets the agenda for its ilk of shows, and, as such, has tossed the aspect of “The Hills” that might have been more meaningful: Its commitment to framing the small moments of life as grandly melodramatic. “Vanderpump Rules” reverses the equation “The Hills” had mastered. On Conrad’s “Hills,” small human moments are pumped up into the stuff of grand tragedy. On “Vanderpump Rules,” grand and bizarre human behavior feels oddly earthbound.
“The Hills: New Beginnings,” at a punishing hour-long running time, follows suit. Its seeming protagonists, Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, are familiar to viewers of the first iteration as the sneering villains whose behavior came to throw off the series’s balance, pushing past the frame to pursue fame by turning friendly competition for camera time into a mean-spirited game. In the run towards notoriety, both came to seem warped by the camera’s glow. Montag found the self she wanted to present through extensive and widely-documented plastic surgery and a willingness to subordinate herself to her husband’s vision; Pratt did so by finding an idea of himself as a chilly Svengali defining the reality of those around him.
That these two are not sympathetic leads seems to go without saying to everyone other than MTV executives. That they are not, really, at this point even interesting — after even the most content-hungry of tabloids have slowly walked away — might seem to present an opportunity to at least try something subversive. But in the absence of Conrad as a human grounding agent, the show burbles over only with supplicants trying to get what little Pratt and Montag still have.
Among them are new entries Brandon Thomas Lee (son of Pamela and Tommy), who seems happily bemused at being on a show otherwise populated by would-be stars a decade or more his senior, and Mischa Barton, an erstwhile actress whose presence here is both meta and cruel. She was, for some time before her character was killed off, a star of “The OC,” the quick-burning teen drama whose widely-admired vision of SoCal splendor in the sandgrass inspired “Laguna Beach,” which begat all this. She is, now, an unemployed actress whose demotion to reality TV is insulting both on its merits and in what she’s forced to endure. A confrontation forced between her and formerly controversial gossip blogger Perez Hilton (with Pratt grinning in the background) emphasizes the hurts both are still holding onto, and how far those hurts are from contemporary concerns. Barton’s presence feels like a real-world iteration of the HBO mockumentary “The Comeback,” in which a former TV star is humiliated past a point she is willing to bear; even her credit in the show’s opening, “Introducing Mischa Barton,” seems to leer at a star who’s fallen not merely to earth but into this valley of scrappers. (It’s worth noting that MTV’s “The Real World,” once the flagship reality show of the network and a show that placed un-camera-ready people in the position to have frank conversations undisturbed by the mechanisms of fame, has been relegated to Facebook Watch; what remains on the network are reconstitutions of both “The Hills” and “Jersey Shore,” chasing past glories.)
“The Hills,” round one, was assiduously careful never to let the increasing fame of its participants enter the show’s story; it also worked to make them understandable and, eventually, iconic through their bearing and not their testimony, building a narrative through actions and not through confessional clips. This series tosses both, letting its bruised-but-striving stars explain themselves at some length and further deflating their flaunting of what’s left. What they have to say is a mélange of half-remembered storylines from a decade ago (as in the case of original-series supporting player Audrina Patridge’s Daisy Buchanan-ish attempt to reclaim a dormant love affair) and new grasping at straws. I tapped out somewhere between Patridge’s product-placed use of a particular eyeliner — placed at the very center of the shot, and followed by an ad for the same cosmetic — and Pratt’s onscreen plugging of his crystal-sales business. The lacuna between his onscreen desperation and the show’s knowingness that this was bound to fail felt unbridgeable.
This show may be doing a service: It depicts, perhaps, the consequence of the striving to make it in the entertainment industry depicted by “The Hills.” The aperture closes, and the surroundings seem less thrilling than simply banal. (In contrast to the thrillingly lit first iteration, with its zooms out to the Los Angeles landscape and skyline, this show could have been shot in any company town.) But it’s a sad sign for the reality genre — one that might do, and has done, far more in the way of telling stories that move and compel — that this is where this franchise has ended up.
The series’s theme song has been remixed with a dark backbeat for 2019, but retains the lyric about reaching out into the unknown. Whatever that is seems farther away than ever, and the show knows that. “The Hills,” with its regenerating drama and hope, knew how to make each day feel like a new beginning, even as it promised a new dispute. “New Beginnings” feels, if not like an endpoint, at least like the middle of a journey that it’d have been kinder to spare everyone involved. Its unkindness extends to a viewership that has many options for spare and bland inhumanity elsewhere, from all the shows that learned from “The Hills” how to create ongoing drama but neglected its lessons about unexpected beauty.