February 1, 2009
kate taylor of the globe and mail wrote a piece about the city for saturday’s edition. she asked me a few questions about what i thought about whitney and was nice enough to quote me a few times. since i haven’t written anything about the city in this space besides my thoughts on the trailer and song #2 about whitney and you people are probably putting up with all my personal essay crap (which more to come soon!) because you hope that eventually i’m going to return to discussing pseudo-reality in all its faux-glory, here are most of the thoughts i sent her:
Lauren has two important characteristics as a reality performer which Whitney simply doesn’t seem to have. The first is that she creates drama and narrative, she does things — this is the most important trait for a reality performer. Whitney, on the other hand, seems to just be floating along — any of the (minor) drama of the show is created and developed by other characters.
The other thing is that Lauren is so expressive — there is a very real sense of angst in her which she, through her eyes and face and tones of voice, projects in a resonant way. Whitney’s performance, on the other hand, has almost about always been about authenticity signifiers and not about emotion. I think, as a person, I identify with Whitney more than Lauren, yet, as a television character, I care about her less. In other words, Whitney seems much more authentic and “real” than Lauren but, perhaps because of this, the emotional reality she creates for the viewer is ultimately less affecting. She seems incapable of inspiring anywhere near the sort of devotion which either Lauren or Heidi, in their prime, could — this is because she is less of a fictional character than either of them is.
(To play devil’s advocate, maybe Whitney’s normality makes her a more perfect Everygirl, a blank screen upon which the feelings and dreams of her audience can be projected.)
A more fundamental issue than the difference between the Whitney/Lauren cult of personality, I think, is that the narrative drive and dramatic structure of The City are completely different than that of The Hills. The central focus of The Hills was on female relationships. Excluding Spencer, who elbowed his way into the story by sheer force of personality, men in The Hills were peripheral characters at best, accessories like so many handbags. The City is much more of a traditional romantic comedy, in which Whitney’s romantic relationships take center stage. The commercials constantly try to play up the conflict between Olivia and Whitney but the conflict between the two of them is incredibly minimal so far and has nothing on Heidi and Lauren or even Audrina and Lo. The only writing I’ve done about The City was some speculation last year inspired by the show’s trailer — in that, I found a lot of similarities between it and The Devil Wears Prada:
in other words, the plot of season one of the city of the city is the plot of the devil wears prada. i’ve discussed resonances that the hills had with the devil wears prada before (lisa love vs. meryl streep’s anna wintour, portrayal of intern life, going to paris etc.) but the city takes this referencing to a whole new insane level. in the devil wears prada, andy moves to the city, works a demanding job in fashion, and vacillates between the sweet, dependable boy she dated before she moved to the city (adrian grenier) and a bad, dangerous boy who intrigues her but will obviously fuck her over (that guy from the ring two). in the city, whitney moves to the city, works a “demanding” job in fashion, and vacillates between the sweet, dependable boy she dated before she moved to the city (the guy in the hat in the trailer) and a bad, dangerous boy who intrigues her but will obviously fuck her over at some point (the ugly australian guy in the trailer)
yet, for all my worries about the city being the devil wears prada made real, this could also be the key to the success of the show. the hills and the city are as much fantasy as sex and the city and the devil wears prada, but all of those stories are fantasies that girls across the country want to make into their reality and are actively trying to make into their reality, trying to turn these images that they’ve watched in suburbs and small towns into real lived life. the city is just this, whitney taking a popular fiction and making it into her actual life. there’s very real potential for that to resonate with the aforementioned consumed consumers.
the problem i see with the show is the potential lack of conflict to drive the narrative. the devil wears prada is suffused with conflict, both the external conflict of andie trying to do this insane job for this insane boss and the internal conflict of her trying to reconcile the image she has of herself as an intellectual with this job she is doing at a “brainless” fashion magazine. i just don’t know if either of those conflicts can exist in the city. i don’t think diane von furstenburg is going to be playing a cartoony wintourian powerbitch like lisa love and kelly cutrone did. and in terms of the difficulty of the job and the stress and stuff, that drama is undercut by the clear fact that whitney is obviously not struggling to get by, that she is a popular television star. there’s the sense the DVF job needs her more than she needs it and that’s a drama killer. so without the catty girl drama, without the insane boss drama, and without any soapy romantic drama, the question I’m left with is what is this show going to be about?
The conflict between the two boys didn’t really amount to anything but I still think some of these points stand. I think a reality show inspired by The Devil Wears Prada, a sort of playing out of that narrative in real life, has a great chance to succeed. The problem with the City is that there’s no Anna Wintour figure — I’m sure you saw DVF’s appearance in the most recent episode — she was interesting but she wasn’t exactly Meryl Streep. As a replacement for that drama, which drove The Devil Wears Prada, all the creators of the show have managed to focus on is Whitney’s relationship with this pretty average and boring guy whose most interesting characteristic is his accent.
All the things I’ve heard about Whitney’s job make it seem like much more of an actual job than Lauren’s (I don’t have any sources handy, sorry) (we have to remember that Whitney was an actual intern at Teen Vogue whereas Lauren came to Teen Vogue as part of her TV show). It’s interesting, though, because I think the job, which is probably more real than the Teen Voge job, feels much less real than that. There have been a few small moments (like in the (4th or 5th) episode when Whitney comes back from her lunch date and gossips with the girls) in which the work experience seems real, but overall the representation of work is much less complete or convincing. The Hills, especially in the earlier seasons, focused intensely on its depictions of work. Work wasn’t just a place to talk about stuff, it was also a place where Whitney and Lauren did things that tested them as characters and had dramatic ramifications. So far, work on The City is just a different backdrop in which Whitney can talk about boys.
Like I said, irregardless of whether Whitney is actually “working” or not, I feel like the representation of work is much more flimsy in The City. Scenes like that and basically all the work scenes feel very rote, I agree. I think the tension between Olivia and Whitney, between the old money (I’m assuming) socialite who feels entitled to her fame versus the “self made” middle class reality star who came to it almost accidentally but then decided she liked it, is theoretically very interesting. The problem is that Olivia is so icy and seemingly bound to notions of etiquette and formality that I doubt she’d ever do anything filmable to advance the conflict and even if she did, even if there was a conflict, it’s just hard to imagine Whitney getting truly angry and doing something about it. Like, that scene in the season 3 premiere in which Lauren is drunkenly screaming at Heidi about the sex tape rumors at a night club — is it possible to imagine Whitney and Olivia in a comparable dramatic situation?
I don’t know if the use of setting is a weakness but it’s definitely not the strength that it was for The Hills. For me, it’s hard to think of a default aesthetic template for Los Angeles before The Hills — it’s nondescript, a backlot city without any definitive identity. The Hills, borrowing from Laguna Beach, changed that — its sheen and color made Los Angeles seem glam in a way which was unique to the show — it was the televisual equivalent of glossy spreads in tabloid weeklies like Us and People.
The City, on the other hand, doesn’t do anything new with the image of New York. I mean, it’s just as well shot as The Hills but fundamentally there’s something less satisfying about the visuals. I’m not sure why. It could be due to the fact that there are so many more “definitive” representations of New York (even just within the subset of contemporary women’s film and television – SATC, Lipstick Jungle, etc.) that The City has to compete with. It might be that the aesthetic which seemed so groundbreaking in Laguna Beach has, four years later, become tired. Or it might be as simple as the color palette — the magic hour hues of The Hills’ Hollywood may be on some gut level less satisfying than the blues and grays of The City’s Manhattan. All those big buildings block out the beautiful light which was central to the visuals of The Hills.
Something Sex and The City did really well was create this sense of “Only In New York,” the sort of feeling that inspire tourist bus tours of the city’s locations and generally enables fantasies of a place. The City doesn’t create that at all — Whitney eats at restaurants, goes to clubs, and goes to work, just like she did in LA. In a sense, the title’s vagueness seems appropos – the show isn’t about New York, it’s about a faceless, nondescript modern city which just happens to be New York.
to finish up, i also talked to someone else recently, the most insightful hills/city watcher i know. from a communiqué with her (it’s weird and oversharey and uncomfortable posting things from e-mails, even though they’re things i wrote — now i know how gossip girl would feel if she had a soul), here is a point about the episode this past week, which i thought was the only really good episode of the city so far.
So, the main thing about that episode of The City is how the controversy over Allie’s boyfriend’s kiss or not kiss is a total remix of the controversy about whether Justinbobby kissed that girl in front of Audrina and everybody at the bar in TH season 3. I think it crystallizes the difference between Lauren and Whitney as narrators/heroines. As you so brilliantly pointed out back then, Lauren immediately took over the JB situation as narrator. Not only was she right in the middle of the situation as it was happening but she also defined it for both the characters in the show and for us as an audience. Whitney, on the other hand, wasn’t there when the kiss happened and the kiss itself wasn’t shown in scene. At the art gallery (!) where the confrontation went down in this episode, Whitney was on the periphery, not even gossiping herself but listening to other girls gossip. When Allie and BF had their fight behind the gallery’s door (which I loved the lack of visuals and video noise from the low light), Whitney, ever meek and polite, left the room (I can imagine Lauren shaking her head in disgust).
Earlier in the episode, it was supposed to be such a major bitch moment when Olivia told Whitney that she didn’t need to hear about all her high school drama (and it was, a little — I love her weird conventions of deb (or “soc”) etiquette), but the thing is, Whitney herself doesn’t seem to really care about whether he kissed the girl or not. This is the opposite of LC, of course, who would make any friend’s problem immediately central to her being. Whitney is just kind of going through the motions of pretending to care because she thinks she’s supposed to as a friend (or to fill screen time). I have done this many times and can identify, but as a person, not a viewer. She’s like a peripheral narrator of her own story, which is both fascinating and a little disappointing.