Full Empty

Cj1s2Claire Jarvis in Paper Momument:

In “I, Heidi, Take Thee, Spencer,” the final episode of the fourth season of MTVs glossy quasi-reality show The Hills, antagonist Heidi Montag (flighty and airbrushed, surgically enhanced, blonde) reaches out to the program’s protagonist, her onetime “best friend” Lauren Conrad (given to seriousness and heavy eye makeup, less obviously surgically enhanced, blonde). The conversation shifts from the sentimentally banal (they “miss each other,” but things “are what they are”) to the absurd; in one oddball moment, Heidi, incapable of turning off the LA body-flattery she’s absorbed over the past few years, asks Lauren, “Have you been working out a lot?” Still, the intensity of this attempted reconciliation is larded with pathos. Never mind that this pair’s enmity has outlasted its friendship by a good two MTV “years,” or that their “reconciliation” has been prompted only by their simultaneous attendance at one of the many “young Hollywood” parties that litter the program’s mise-en-scène (Heidi is “working” as a functionary for an event-planning firm; Lauren, in one of the program’s neverending assertions of hierarchy, is a valued “guest”). No, The Hills accords the event a full measure of dignity, embedding the minimal dialogue in a choreography of meaningful glances and unspeakable sentences: Is this a soap opera or a Henry James novel?

The encounter’s signal moment—a clue to the show’s novel depiction of time—arrives when Heidi asks:

[sighing] Don’t you feel, like, you’re, like, eighteen again, nineteen? I feel like I don’t really get older, time just keeps, like, passing by. And I’m like wait, like, two years ago, three years ago seems, like, five minutes ago, so much.

Heidi’s awkwardly telescopic nostalgia (in which two or three years can feel like five minutes) reminds us that The Hills happens in both television time and “real” time. Over the years, Heidi participates in the bildungsroman of contemporary America—leaving home, getting a job, making consequential life decisions along the way, like everyone else in the real world. Unlike Heidi, though, most people in similar circumstances mark their aging all too clearly: time marches on, and the shift from teenager to adult comes with the attendant discovery that life is not endless. But that’s only part of Heidi’s complaint. More centrally, Heidi’s perception of temporal dissonance shows how parceled her existence has become over the past several years—fit into five-minute segments for mass-market consumption. With this partitioning, MTV conditions the viewers, and possibly Heidi herself, to think of Heidi Montag as “Heidi Montag.” As the program overlays a novelistic plot arc on Heidi’s life, it also impresses it with an unchanging Californian ambience, one patterned on the many fictional Californias of film and television, polished for home viewing. Things unarguably happen on The Hills, but Heidi’s right: on this show, three years ago is the same as the present moment. How can a show so preoccupied with marking the passage from youth to adulthood seem so listlessly static? And why is this listlessness so fascinating to watch?