Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The City vs The Hills: The Discrete Charm of the Vapid Whole

I think it may be one of those whole greater than the sum of the parts things.

A key element of the charm and appeal, for want of better terms, of The Hills, had to do, I think, with the juxtaposition of essentially bland characters, each of whom brought a different quality of blandness, and without that blandness, the show would never have had another key element to its success: accessibility.

Lauren, Audrina and Whitney remind us all of girls we knew in high school, college, or both, no matter when or where we went to high school or college, and regardless of whether we mocked those girls, were best friends with those girls, wanted to be those girls, or were those girls.

That, more than any DiVellic script or production values or editing, is why we feel as if we know them, and why their inane interactions with each other against the backdrop of an almost static, time-stands-still landscape, resonate with us.

We are taken back to a standingstill time when we each heard our own personal protoLaruens and protoWhitneys exchange banalities, sharing with each other and us the non-events of lives that are, despite the glitterglam of the designer bags and endless expensive outfits and trendy restaurants, the glitzy star-studded events and assorted swimmin' pools n' movie stars, basically dull as dust.

Oh, sure, there is a little kick of schadenfreude, of cliched hollow bleakness of tinseltown existence, but these are almost optional condiments to be sprinkled or not on the dish that we are really lapping up: the slightly more "experienced," opaque-eyed Lauren, as she recounts, in her trademark whiskeywhisper, to Whitney the Fresh-Faced, that this or that boy did or did not call, that this or that recently or not-so-recently estranged friend of her televised Lagunadolescent days was or was not present at this or that place, texted or did not text, and Whitney's impeccably polite and unerringly noncommittal responses delivered in that perfect Nice Girl peal of a voice that no amount of coaching nor talent could produce. This is the reality part.

Whitney the Wholesome, who keeps her friend-estrangements, if any, genteelly to herself, who seldom receives, or expects calls from boys, at least none that she wishes to tell us about enough to interrupt Lauren, to whom it seemingly never occurs that Whitney has any existence at all beyond sitting at the next desk, she is there all night, waiting, while Lauren is out at the fashionable bar du jour taking shots and whispering to other more, sophisticated but equally uninteresting and unremarkable members of her limited little social circle about who has come in, who has gone out, OK, don't look but who is coming this way now.

Maybe the incongruity of what, in almost any other circumstance, would be called the "chemistry" between the two is enhanced by Whitney the MarySue, the viewer representative.

Lauren is without a doubt the most accessible Teen Queen in television history, Millions can identify with her completely, either being, or having been her, minus, of course, at least some of the tinsel and limitless wardrobe budget.

But if it is too heady for most of the show's biggest slice of the demographic pie, young girls between 10 and 24, to imagine themselves in the Jimmy Choos and Louboutins that grace the feet of LC Superstar herself, they can at least imagine themselves as that next-desk neighbor, receiving the Word from the slightly overglossed lips of the Goddess Herself.

Every high school, every college homecoming, every town festival, always has more Ladies in Waiting than Queens, more Whitneys than Laurens, who don't date quite as much, don't seem to inspire as much envy, or have quite as many quarrels with friends old and new.

The Los and Audrinas of the world do not fight over the coveted prize of being Whitney's BFF, nor are mothers likely to sigh that they wish their daughters had more friends like that Lauren.

It is no wonder then, that as The Hills has crawled on, through season after season of a story whose actual plot, if it can be called that, could be summed up in about half a page, double-spaced, as Lauren has blazed into the stratosphere of superstardom and become a one-woman empire that some awed whispers have suggested could be on her way to giving Oprah herself a run for her money one day, if this keeps up, that the Sweetheart Crown has gradually ceased to fit exactly, and shifted from Lauren's smooth, meticulously maintained highlighted head to the softer, corn-colored locks of Whitney the Increasingly More Accessible.

The decision, in retrospect quite shrewd, of Whitney to keep her personal life off the show (if indeed it was hers and not the producer's) added a touch of mystery to her sweetness, and cultivated a growing interest in the girl who just sat at the next desk and absorbed recap of the basically nothing that had happened last week, whose lines consisted almost solely of those unfailingly courteous, exquisitely vapid replies that slowly got viewers to wondering, first idly to themselves, and then out loud, what was really going on under those golden tresses.

There were even a few here and there who dared to speculate that Whitney must be totally over it by now, sick of just sitting there listening to Lauren going on about every phone call and text message she received, every social engagement she attended, though Lauren's star could by no means be said to be in decline, on the contrary, her fame moved ever-upward, even as more and more viewers began expressing more and more love for Whitney.

Audrina and Lo's own respective "chemistries" with Lauren fulminated and marched apace, and roles continued to grow, and the unique contributions to the show's overall lack of substance recognized, with Audrina becoming what that big viewer pie slice perceived as having an "edge," meaning that she hung out with "rockers" and had once posed for photos with her top off.

Audrina evolved into the Slightly Bad Girl and undisputed champion whose perfectly empty gaze would define for a generation the term "vacuous," perhaps most sharply crystallized by a scene that quickly catapulted itself to viral status, of a co-worker trying to discuss with Audrina the news of some experiments involving a particle accelerator, to which Audrina responded with the now-classic line "Isn't it strange that all of this is happening when Lauren is gone?"

Meanwhile childhood friend Lo, historically pleasant and perky, but so assiduously uninteresting, even for a show famous for giving viewers a glimpse into a world where nothing happens, that in a bold and unprecedented move, she was given a character makeover, and with no warning, and for no apparent reason, did a complete personality 180, from one appearance to the next became New Demon Lo, jealous and crafty, petty and manipulative enemy of Audrina, her declared arch rival for the BFFic affections of LC.

Whitney, already The Sweet One, by contrast began to appear positively angelic, and all through the fandom, Whitney Love bloomed like wildflowers on Miracle Gro.

This is how spinoffs happen, and so it happened with Whitney and The City, the story of the basically nothing much that happened when Whitney proved to have indeed grown weary of sitting at the next desk delivering noncommittal and courteous responses to Lauren's weekly update.

If ever a show were positioned to be an instant hit, The City should have been it. Whitney even relaxed her no private life on camera rule and allowed herself to be shown not only liking a boy, but kissing one, going on dates with one.

The new star-become sun was given her own coterie of satellite players, carefully selected to be guaranteed to be duller than she, but with tenuous off-show celebrity connections: the daughter of a famous name eighties rock band, a social-climbing wannabe whose mediaho antics had gained her a few, if not a full fifteen minutes of minor and largely local notoriety, even a slightly sketchy musician boyfriend with an Australian accent that he might or might not be enhancing for dramatic effect.

She was outfitted with a suitable faux job at a famous name design house, and the regulation spacious luxury apartment that no one who really had that job could possibly afford. Off-camera, she launched her own clothing line and made multiple appearances on The Hills aftershow to promote The City.

No effort was spared to painstakingly craft the show into an East Coast doppelganger of The Hills, with all the identical stock elements, of fancy parties and scene after scene set at cafe tables set up outside establishments popular with a small but select segment of Manhattanites who all knew each other and no one else.

But it just wasn't the same. It just isn't the same.

Whitney in the role of Manhattan Lauren recounting the non-events is nowhere near as compelling as Lauren, with her Knowing Looks imparting significance to the dreary trivia of her lifestyle of the rich and famous.

Frankly, Whitney was much more fun to watch when she sat at the next desk and replied politely, when any expression of emotion, even a smile or a laugh, would send viewers by the thousands to the internets to exclaim over how beautiful she was, and how much they loved her.

Where is the Whitney that won our hearts that wonderful day when, in the presence of God and everybody, even Emily the SuperIntern, Andre Leon Talley cast one keen glance at her and commanded the magnificent midnight blue Guy Laroche be brought forth and placed upon her?

Andre Leon Talley himself validated our growing Whitney-love, Andre the Giant of all that is Vogue on any and all coasts, saw some ineffable something In her sweet everyday face and proclaimed that our Whitney would walk.

Gracing and graced by the elegant drapery of the very gown in which Hilary Swank had accepted her Oscar, it was our Whitney who would walk, while LC, the undisputed Queen Regnant of Reality Television looked on with a clearly heartfelt joy for her friend, in contrast to the poorly-concealed glowering of Emily the SuperIntern, despite the fact that she, too, was walking, and Lauren was not!

It was an unforgettable day, a day on which something actually happened on The Hills - and what a something!

The now-famous stumble was the moment that sealed forever (or so we thought) Whitney's place in the box section of our affection.

What happened?

How can it be that a mirror-image of DiVello's Hills, matched shot for shot, scene for scene, ham-handedly lyrically relevant popular pop songbyte for ham-handedly lyrically relevant popular pop songbyte, trendy restaurant for trendy restaurant, with even more celebrity cameos and even more Real Couture because it IS New York, and starring our beloved wholesome fresh-faced Whitney, for whom the writers have even gone the extra mile, positioning her character as if she were the quintessential ingenue just arrived farm-fresh from some hamlet in the heartland instead of a seasoned Teen Vogue Paris returnee intern born and bred in the affluent SoCal enclaves and forged in the world capital of glamour, can fail to captivate us even as much as watching yet another meaningful Look form in the void behind those opaque eyes of Lauren Conrad as she huskily confides news of yet another phone call from someone the innocent-looking girl at the next desk has never met?

How do we, who have faithfully watched, for four seasons, every excruciatingly substance-free second of every still-life-paced, soul-sucking episode of The Hills, dare to complain that this DiVello creation, if possible more Hills than The Hills, is just not very interesting and that nothing really happens?

What audacity we have! And what short and fickle memories, to sulk at the just-opened box in which nestles the gift we asked for, the Whitney show we wanted!

The very WhitneyStar we created with our praise of her blandness, we whine, is too bland.

It is early days still for The City. It may find its zone yet.

Even if it tanks, if DiVello has ever had a moment's doubt of the rare jewel he has in Lauren Conrad, or ever questioned that he should move heaven and earth to hang onto her, he can consider the millions spent on the City as a good investment, because if it does nothing else, it will put those doubts and questions, whether they have actually occurred or not, to eternal and definitive rest.

Scarlett O'Hara, wrote Miss Margaret Mitchell, "was not beautiful, but men seldom realized that when caught by her charm..."

Lauren Conrad may be neither beautiful nor charming. She may not be the crispiest fry in the bag, or even interesting. One young man who had a small one or two episode part on The Hills described her "odorless."

**If she were not famous and therefore accompanied by a large and obvious entourage and jostling horde of paparazzi, It would, I think, be difficult to find Lauren in a crowd, in the context of the milieu in which she has lived her life, for instance, in a mall or at a concert in the SoCal enclaves. Had she not, as a young girl, made that fateful decision to sign on for Laguna Beach, it is very probable that today she would be virtually invisible.

I have seldom uttered more than two sentences about her without using the word "accessible," meaning that she is ordinary enough so that millions of viewers, diverse of age, culture, economic status and just about every other trick in the demographer's bag, can identify with her on some level.

Whatever she does not have, Lauren Conrad, we now know, just in case it might have been we and not DiVello who was having those doubts and questions, does have some indefinable and ephemeral quality, a je ne sais quoi that somehow confers on her the mystical ability to cause us to watch her, whether with reverence or lulz, as she does the same thing - which is basically nothing - week after week, year after year - that is, at least, as long as she is one of those parts whose sum is less than their whole.

**(Ironically, I can't say any of that about Whitney. I bet I could find her in a mall within minutes).

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