In the first full scene of The Hills: New Beginnings, the reboot of MTV’s hit 2000s reality series, returning cast members Whitney Port, Audrina Patridge, and Heidi Montag sit by the pool with glasses of white wine and catch up. Whitney can’t believe they’re all moms. Audrina can’t believe she’s divorced. Heidi can’t believe she left her son with her husband for the night. Nine years after it first ended, the revamped reality show should probably be called The Hills: Actual Adulthood, but that sounds about as dull as the series itself.
New Beginnings’ first episode plays kind of like a high-school reunion. The cast, minus former star Lauren Conrad, who has graduated from all of this, and now including actress Mischa Barton, who has transferred in, makes cheery small talk as they catch each other up on major life events. Like tabloids with their relentless focus on major life events—engagements, marriages, births—The Hills does its best to create drama by having parents pester the child-free about babies, and the married pester the singlet about marriage. Spencer Pratt and Frankie Delgado wonder when Brody Jenner will have kids. Brody in turn suggests Justin Bobby should marry Audrina after their first date in years, which like all their old dates includes very little conversation and lots of elliptical eye contact.
The other chitchat stalwart typically available to people who haven’t seen each other in a long time—career—is, in this case, too meta to discuss. (“What are you up to?” [studiously avoids looking at the camera] “About to film a new season of The Hills!”) But career is, of course, why they’re all there. The show is built around the pretense that they’re friends, but they’re colleagues. The faux-intimate talk of marriage and babies barely obscures the extent to which The Hills: New Beginning is a well-paying freelance gig, not a reunion but a job—though one that does, like high school, carry the funk of former glory days.
Spencer, Heidi’s husband, the breakout villain of the original series, and by all accounts the man most responsible for the reboot, explains, “10 years ago, Heidi and I got rich and got famous: It was a dream, that was the problem.” He’s hoping to get his family back into the lucrative spotlight. But Spencer then goes on to elaborate that he and Heidi—the B-list super couple known as Speidi—were so despised and isolated they felt they had to move to Costa Rica to get away from everyone and everything. They are now back in California, with a toddler, grinding on things The Hills references only obliquely—crystals, podcasting—hoping the revival can again make them rich and famous, but without bottoming out financially or socially this time around.
Speidi’s story is a relatively tame version of an arc that’s repeated over and over again in the first episode: The Hills made its cast members famous, and then fame messed up their lives, though they might say it was the absence of fame that did them in. Spencer’s sister, Stephanie, is introduced as returning because she wants to make peace with her brother and get to know her nephew. She claims not to understand why she and her brother aren’t speaking, but he and Heidi point to all the interviews she gave calling them monsters. It’s only halfway through the episode that we learn, in passing, that she had a serious drug problem and overdosed while shoplifting.
Barton, who was not on The Hills but was the star of The OC, the great teen drama that inspired Hills precursor Laguna Beach, talks about her own destabilizing brush with fame, one that involved drugs, institutions, and more recently, a horrifying revenge porn lawsuit. Audrina got pregnant and then got married, and talks about her ex in frightening, isolating terms. After the burst of fame, so many of these people’s lives took an unhappy turn—one they’re hoping to correct with more fame, or at least whatever money they can still eke out of their fading celebrity.
Despite New Beginnings’ extremely polished fakery, as with all reality TV, you begin to hallucinate intimations of something real: Is Brody pretending to be over his marriage, or is he really over it? Will his and Spencer’s disintegrated bro-ship be the emotional locus of the season, as Lauren and Heidi’s relationship once was? Could Mischa Barton really care about former rude blogger Perez Hilton—and how can Perez Hilton be on a TV show in the year of our lord 2019 without anyone explaining who he is? Everything is fake, except for the part where everyone really is hustling.
Some of that hustle is written on the cast’s very faces. You only have to look at the plastic surgery the women have undergone since The Hills started to see the distortions and pressure of fame and notoriety. Heidi and Stephanie, in particular, are now plasticized versions of their former selves—not any more attractive, exactly, but hewing to a beauty standard that prizes a kind of conspicuous blandness, a symmetry that makes them hard to recognize. The show provides additional note of gravitas with a visit from new cast member Brandon Lee’s mother, Pamela Anderson, who seems energetic and warm—she burns sage around his house and moved to France after Donald Trump’s election—but whose face also tells a story of fame’s expectations.
Grinding was always a part of The Hills. It’s original star, Lauren Conrad, distinguished herself from most reality TV leads with ambitions that went beyond simply being famous. Conrad has been so successful that she doesn’t have to return to reality TV, and weirdly, the show has selected Audrina to replace her as the lead. Though she was perhaps the best option insofar as she seems to want little more than to be on The Hills forever, the only thing she shares with Conrad is her diligent inoffensiveness—then as now not an ideal trait in a reality TV star. (The Hills casting in general is, and has always been, very low-key.) Barton, who treats the whole project with a certain throaty hauteur, would have been a better fit. Like Conrad, she seems to be both above and removed from it all, approaching The Hills as a professional step that may lead to something other than The Hills, or a way to stay famous without it.
As fake as The Hills is, as bogus as the cast’s orchestrated interactions may be, fame is real, the set of golden handcuffs everyone on the series is still chasing. When you think about what’s driving The Hills, its emptiness becomes almost hilarious. A series about the relentless thrum of capitalism and acquisition—the foreclosing of opportunities that comes with age, the addictive nature of fame and notoriety, the unsettling kabuki of playing oneself—has been packaged in some blithe chatter about kids and partners. It’s as though a show about the desire for the something as dully wholesome as the nuclear family is preferable to what The Hills really is: an account of the cast’s throbbing, distorting, understandable quest for recognition and cash, and those of us who are watching at home’s willingness to give it to them.