Gavan Reilly

thinking out loud

The Reality of Fake TV

with 4 comments

The Missus is sat beside me here, borderline wetting herself with excitement. Somewhere across the interweb, Ben Kenealy is probably doing likewise. And in far too many bedrooms and living rooms around the British Isles, a worrying amount of adolescent – and an even more disconcerting number of post-adolescent – people are practically paralytic with a potent cocktail of excitement and nervousness.

Why? Because it’s nearly 8.30pm and MTV are about to show a new episode of The Hills.

As you probably could guess with remarkable ease, The Hills is something that has always, always perplexed me. Basically the show is a spinoff of an earlier MTV show Laguna Beach, following Lauren Conrad and her pile of somewhat-well-cast group of “friends” playing themselves in a dramatised version of their own lives. The show is billed as Reality TV – but given the fact that there’s curiously always a microphone on a peripheral character who might become pivotal to any particular scene, it’s quite obvious that the show isn’t. The first name in the credits is “Created By”, people!

As a result, I honestly don’t understand the appeal of the show – or certainly its appeal above that of any other teen drama set in California. Remember The O.C., the show that every teenager in the western world lived and breathed by only four years ago? The show that launched the careers of Adam Brody and Mischa Barton – and that Ireland went nuts for when TG4 started showing it on Mondays and Bell x1 had a song played on it over a lesbian kiss? Even if you watched the show religiously, you’d need reminding that it existed. The O.C. was pitched as an actual drama, with actual plots, and the ability to transplant people into cool nightclubs and cooler clothes. Yet The Hills survives with what seems like a vastly more dedicated following – I used to know girls who didn’t watch The O.C.; I have yet to meet even one female individual who doesn’t watch The Hills – without this ability, sufficing merely on the ability to give two characters internships on Teen Vogue or in trendy clothes shops.

Of course, dear viewers. Of course these magazines and shops didn’t pay MTV to cast the stars there. Of course Teen Vogue didn’t see a massive spike in readership after Lauren and Whitney started working there. Of course not. It’s real, of course it is…

Reality TV, despite its detractions, is brilliant when it’s done properly. While it quickly became synonomous with desperate diehards for fame, if you look at Big Brother, the king of reality TV shows, as a social experiment, it’s a remarkable work, and continues to be so. Try and divorce the concept of the show from the trappings of fame that its become so tainted by, and you have a concept so devastatingly simple that it’s a wonder it hadn’t been thought of any earlier than 1999. Stick people in a house, watch how they get on, manipulate living conditions for them and see how they react, have them tell the omnipotent power who they dislike, and the most disliked people face a public vote to be removed. Ultimately one person is left and they win a cash prize. It’s brilliant.

The first series of Big Brother UK is the perfect example – as you could be sure the entrants weren’t too hellbent on seeking fame. Not until the housemates left were they aware of the massive media spectacle that the show had become – and so they lived in a house, amused each other on meagre means and often with very little food, and generally went about their lives, interacting with each other, just as humans do.  We saw how some people interpreted the game as just that – a contest, open to manipulation by its participants – and how ‘Nasty’ Nick Bateman fell foul of his housemates, of the rules and of the public – while everyman builder Craig Phillips stayed genuine and won the public’s affection, donating the prize money to his ill friend.

It was interesting to see how the public latched onto these traits. In a way that hadn’t been seen before, the public became devoted to a TV show, whose main unusual trait was that there was no pretense, no script, no drama: it was just people going about their lives in a deliberately enclosed setting. On another level, the fact that the public almost unanimously chose the honest principles of Craig over the scheming motives of Nick said an enormous amount about what people wanted to see.

Even when the show turns full-circle, having celebrities as housemates instead of punters who want to become celebrities, the show has a function to fulfil. Last year, Celebrity Big Brother spawned the biggest social debate of the year – that of racial integration and tension, and all through rows between Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty over behaviour in the house. As the show itself has gained profile – this year attracting C-list celebrities like Ulrika Jonsson or Coolio instead of the usual Z-list fare – it becomes even more enthralling, seeing how those who seem so hallowed and revered on the outside world are so… normalised, once you step inside the sealed environment.

The ultimate thing to learn from the all is that humans find real life far more entertaining than drama. People think The Hills is enthralling because they think it’s real. People watch Big Brother and its celebrity equivalient because it is. Maybe it’s a lesson for TV makers: get rid of stuff like Coronation Street – which people watch because it’s fake – and give us more of what we want: ourselves.

Alas. The Hills is over – nothing of great consequence happened, I can heartily assure you – and Dancing on Ice follows. Another day, another dollop of drivel. You live and learn.

Written by Gav

January 11th, 2009 at 9:15 pm

4 Responses to 'The Reality of Fake TV'

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  1. Hah, gas post Gav. I was just sitting with my sister about an hour ago thinking exactly the same thing.

    Regards the whole reality-TV-full-circle comment, recently weve seen shows being made about reality TV – the big brother hell reality tv/documentary/drama/horror/whatever had my head spinning trying to figure out exactly would I would be watching. Even so, that one-off probably has more merit than The Hills, which is basically a soap trying to pass itself off as reality TV.

    Another nice post.




    11 Jan 09 at 10:15 pm

  2. By now, I’ve seen a depressingly large amount of the Hills (any number of episodes above 0 defines a depressing amount).

    My original questions was “….what IS this?”, and I then realised The Hills is….nothing. It’s a cynical attempt to string a number of ads and endorsements together with a flimsy story populated by characters that are purposely one-dimensional so as not to distract you from what they’re wearing or what club they’re in.

    I’d come up with an outlandish “I’d rather do X than watch The Hills comparison” but nothing can quite sum up the contempt in which I hold The Hills.



    12 Jan 09 at 1:43 pm

  3. <- Female. Doesn’t watch the Hills.

    I can haz taste.


    13 Jan 09 at 12:16 am

  4. <- Female. Watches the Hills.

    I can haz frivolity.

    Honestly, it’s ok to admitting liking girlie things. I’m still a bad ass. *Cough*

    Scally- you make valid points. But I like looking at their clothes and seeing the clubs they frequent, it’s my favourite part. Yes I really am that shallow.


    16 Jan 09 at 12:20 pm

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