Throughout, the girls talked much of transition. They seemed to share a sense that a chapter of their lives was ending. This is true, of course. After tonight, none of these people will be stars of a television show on MTV. But the cast members of The Hills aren't supposed to talk about the show on the show, right?
The fact is that all of this transition talk made complete sense within the context of the real world but none of it made sense within the context of The Hills. It was as if the show needed to end, so the girls made changes in their lives to accommodate this fact. The show was not about the lives of Kristin, Lo, Audrina, and Stephanie. Their lives were about the show.
Then again, Lo really is moving in with her boyfriend and Kristin really does appear to be moving to Europe. These things are actually happening regardless of the presence of cameras.
This push and pull between between reality television and "reality" television is nothing new for The Hills. The question of what is real and what isn't has long been at the core of the show, long before tonight's twist ending.
Last week, I imagined how The Hills season finale might play out in the universe of ABC's Lost. I did this completely jokingly, unaware of how apt that comparison would prove to be after tonights finale. In Lost's series finale, we learned that half of that show's final season took place in some sort of limbo between death and the afterlife and that everything that happened on the show previous to the final season was real, but only important in that it would eventually help the characters on the show transition into their afterlives. The plot of the first five seasons of Lost was not necessarily important in and of itself, but only important as it pertained to this alternate reality depicted in the final season.
The Hills concluded its sixth and final season in a similar way. As the camera panned away to reveal Brody standing in front of a backdrop surrounded by cameras on a Hollywood lot, the viewer was forced to consider whether anything that happened over the past six seasons was actually real. Further, he had to consider what the word "real" means in the context of that question. If all of the events depicted on The Hills actually happened to these people, but only happened as a result of their involvement with the show, does that make these events less real? In the after-show, Holly Montag was moved to tears due to events that transpired on the show while Brody and Kristin were glib and borderline dismissive of their on-screen tribulations. Does this mean that the portions of The Hills featuring Holly Montag are more real than those featuring Kristin Cavallari?
At the end of the final episode when Kristin said goodbye to Brody on the street and then got in her car to go away, where did we think she was going if she hadn't yet decided where she would live?
In the thirteenth essay of his seminal pop culture manifesto, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman argues that traditional modes of storytelling in entertainment have become obsolete because modern reality is "more transient and less concrete." He goes on to elaborate that, "traditional character models like 'The Everyman' and 'The Antihero' and 'The Wrongly Accused' are no longer useful because nobody can agree on what those designations are supposed to mean anymore . . . Modern movies can no longer introduce impending realities; they can't even explain the ones we have. Consequently, there's only one important question a culturally significant film can still ask: What is reality?"
This is the enduring legacy of The Hills. It is the first show to ask this question within the context of a reality television show. Up until tonight, the question was always asked implicitly, through the show's production. The Hills never depicted reality the way a show like True Life did. They preferred to serve a version of reality that had more in common with how our minds remember and distort past events than how our minds observe events happening in the present. Every frame was lovingly shot in a soft focus lens from carefully considered angles. Everybody always looked perfect; no hair was left out of place and no blemish left uncovered. Every seminal moment was soundtracked to the popular music of the time and everyone wore the trendiest clothes Every look and every gesture was suggestive and filled with meaning.
The Hills shows reality as we wish it was. Timelines of events are shoehorned into rough narrative structures. The rugged, dirty parts that don't fit are swept away while everything else is exaggerated and emotional and beautiful and the weather is always sunny and your hair looked just the way you wanted. It is the reality of memories. It only ever exists inside our heads.
With its surprise ending tonight, The Hills finally overtly asked the "what is reality?" question. They deliberately called into question their own airbrushed version of reality and left the viewer to decide which parts of that reality he wants to believe in. No reality show has ever attempted anything like that before. It was an interesting move and a memorable one.
The Hills was an important television series. Not because of the people on the show and events of their lives, but because of the way those people and events were portrayed. And in the end, surprisingly enough, because it made you think.