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Personal Essays

Run for the Hills

The world MTV depicts is anything but real. But we don’t watch to escape, we watch because we can’t look away.

Recently, a friend of mine caught the MTV reality show The Hills for the first time. “That is the one of the worst shows ever,” she said. “Have you seen that episode?”

Actually, I’d seen it twice.

After I hung up the phone, I flipped on MTV while I paid my bills. It was the reunion special for the Road Rules/Real World Challenge. I had not watched this show twice. I had watched it three times.

Over the past year or two, MTV has become my white-noise channel, the place where I flip when no other programming satisfies. A lot of us have white-noise channels—the Food Network, CNN, ESPN. There is a comfort in the dependability, in the repetition. Oh, look, here’s the part in the reunion special where CT squats and pretends to dangle his dick in someone’s face. It’s a horrible moment, and yet, it’s maybe the best part.

My relationship with MTV is uneasy, to say the least. Many of the shows annoy me, and I watch them like a grumpy old man reads a newspaper. My Super Sweet Sixteen: This world’s goin’ to hell! Maui Fever: Where did these people learn to speak English? And don’t even get me started on vile dating shows like Next or Exposed. They make me insane. In this sense, watching MTV is a bit like my left-wing friend who listens to Rush Limbaugh, or my atheist friend fascinated with the Trinity Broadcast Network. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I genuinely like some of these shows. If you smoke crack every day, you’re a junkie. And if you watch MTV every day, you’re…well, what are you, exactly? That is, if the answer isn’t “13 years old.”

Growing up, my family didn’t have MTV. We didn’t have cable, period. In the pantheon of childhood injustices—a house ban on sugared cereal, a homemade Cabbage Patch doll, and corduroy culottes—this was surely the cruelest blow. No MTV! In the mid-’80s, being a kid without MTV was being marooned on a cold and desolate planet. It was being a dog with a cone around its neck. It didn’t help, of course, that I was a 10-year-old obsessed with pop music and movies, which found their ultimate expression in the narrative videos of Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, and David Lee Roth’s bulging tights. When Live Aid aired during the summer of 1985, I snuck over to a neighbor’s house to watch. And when I say I “snuck over,” I don’t mean I snuck out of my house—I mean I snuck into theirs.

It would be convenient to say that my MTV addiction resulted from this childhood denial, the way some sugar junkies grew up in a home with no sweets, or the way some Catholic school girls end up topless with Joe Francis. Maybe it really is that easy. But my relationship with MTV has fluctuated dramatically over the years. By the time I was in high school, I found the whole shebang vacuous and trite and having something to do with the patriarchy. A lot of words I learned for vocabulary tests could be applied to MTV: vapid, misogynist, reductive. In my first year of college, MTV began airing The Real World—maybe you’ve heard of it—and it struck me as a Bradburian dystopia: A future world where people watch other people’s lives instead of having their own. It’s funny to me now that the decade I spent in MTV’s target audience—from 14 to 24—was when I thought it sucked the world’s biggest wang.

All you needed was a commitment to your couch on a long Saturday. Which, for some of us, ain’t such a hard promise to make. All that changed one afternoon when I was 23, wicked hung over, and unable to budge from the futon except to grab the Cheetos. I watched a marathon of the entire season of Real World: Seattle, which was a little like staying off drugs your entire life, only to shoot up a giant eight-ball. Now, I’m not going to go on about the Real World. I think we’ve all had too many conversations about that show, especially if our last name is Klosterman. But I do want to point out one cultural contribution not often credited to MTV: their incessant repeat programming. Unlike other networks, always grabbing for the biggest chunk of Nielsen share, MTV treats their shows like radio treats a hit song: They play the ever-loving shit out of it. Long before TiVo, before every TV show came out on DVD, you didn’t have to catch an MTV show in its original timeslot to be familiar with it. Hell, you didn’t need to catch an MTV show in its original decade. All you needed was a commitment to your couch on a long Saturday. Which, for some of us, ain’t such a hard promise to make.

By my late 20s, I had sworn off The Real World, which at that point could only be interesting again if the show were to ban booze. (Seven strangers in a halfway house; now THAT would be good television.) But every time I think I’m out, they suck me back in again. It was the day after my 31st birthday. I was hung over. Guess what? There was a marathon.

The marathon was for a show called Laguna Beach, a soap opera-style reality show full of high school bitchery, stupid boys, and obnoxious Southern California privilege. My initial take was much like my friend’s reaction to The Hills: Worst. Show. Ever. But two episodes in, and the objection in my mind had dulled to a gentle, fascinated hum.

That fall, I loved mentioning Laguna Beach in a crowd of otherwise sophisticated, successful, ambitious women. There would always be one or two who would collapse into coos of recognition: Oh my God, you watch that too? What do you think of Jason? Isn’t he, like, a slimeball? Somehow that show had sunk its manicured nails into some reptilian—or at least middle-school—part of the female psyche, the kind that reads tabloids and can spend hours watching red-carpet footage and saying nothing aside from whether or not certain women look hot. It was nice to have something in common with these women to whom I might otherwise have nothing to say. It’s the water cooler conversational phenomenon minus the water cooler. Two people can have nothing in common, but chances are, they both love Seinfeld. Tabloid doyenne Bonnie Fuller has said that talking about celebrities (and I would extend that to include television) is the modern equivalent of asking, “How’s the weather?” Perhaps, but if all I wanted to do was engage people in conversation, I’d probably spend a lot more time watching sports. What this theory fails to account for is that reading Us Weekly—or watching MTV, or hearing about Britney Spears—is something that, for whatever reason, I actually like.

When the girls in the The Hills are critiqued, they look like someone just pointed out a period stain. This brings us to The Hills, the show my friend dubbed the worst show ever. (Until she saw J-Lo’s Dancelife, that is. That show is so bad even I could only watch it once.) The Hills is a sequel to Laguna Beach, and it’s all about Lauren Conrad, aka LC, moving to Los Angeles and getting an internship at Teen Vogue. In my life, I have never read Vogue, far less Teen Vogue (note to the editors of those magazines: This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love to write for them). But that is actually why the show became so fun to watch. In the first episode, Lauren’s work outfit is evaluated by Teen Vogue’s creepy, art-director androgyne—who does not have a German accent, but does in my memory—who drapes her with a crop jacket and says, “Here at Teen Vogue, it’s all about the mix.” She then turns to Lauren’s fellow intern, Whitney, and pronounces her outfit “a little matchy-matchy.” This episode, which aired a few weeks before The Devil Wears Prada came out, gives a far more scathing look at the fashion industry than Anne Hathaway can, slumming in a dumpy sweater. The heroine of The Devil Wears Prada knows she is smart and talented and that the industry is shallow. When the girls in the The Hills are critiqued, they look like someone just pointed out a period stain.

Now, I have to tell you something. I’m a journalist who works at home. Most days I select my day’s outfit from a bottomless drawer of Target jogging pants and shelf bras. But I have, on occasion, worked in a newspaper office. And in those offices, you were not expected to dress up; in fact, you were booted to advertising if you dressed up. In Austin, our publisher was occasionally mistaken for a homeless man. You started to worry if the production staff didn’t smell like bong water. So, “At Teen Vogue we’re all about the mix?” Oooh, do tell!

When I explained this to my friend, she was unconvinced. Maybe just disinterested. “All I know is that show makes me want to pour millions of dollars into the school system.”

This is a rational response. The Hills, like Laguna Beach, takes place on this evil alternate planet where there are no adults, no drinking ages, no credit card limits, and almost no day jobs. And yet everyone is still miserable, because they are forever making such bad decisions. In fact, when confronted with a dilemma—spend a summer in Paris or spend it with your loser boyfriend? Shut up or get in a fight?—the characters on The Hills always—always—choose unwisely. This makes it like a horror movie, where people are forever hearing a rumble in the basement and going to investigate while the audience screams and cringes. Except instead of the girls getting their intestines sliced open by a masked serial murderer, they wind up dating Jason.

“Where are these people’s parents?” my friend continued. “Do people actually think this show is real?”

The more we talk about The Hills, the more ridiculous I feel for watching it. I mean, I’m 32 years old. Can I really find proper entertainment in the shallow dabblings of a bunch of bitchbots sharing SUVs?

Sometimes, I think I should just cancel my cable. Purge my brain of all the useless junk clogging my brain. I have a lot of things to do, like pay these bills. I’ll just turn the TV on for a bit. Oh, hey, look, it’s CT squatting and pretending like he’s dangling his dick in someone’s face.

It’s so bad, but it’s also the best part.