TELEVISION: THE DOCU-SOAP

There’s a revolution brewing in The Hills
Saturday, September 29, 2007
KATE TAYLOR
Are Lauren and Jason really through? Is Spencer sincere when he tells Heidi he’s never loved like this before? And why is Heidi allowing this relationship to alienate her from her friends? Surely, the most pressing question of all is whether Heidi and Lauren can ever be pals again.

Sounds like a soap opera. Well, it is, but Lauren, Jason, Spencer and Heidi are real people, the tanned young Californians whose lives are the subject of the popular “docu-soap” The Hills, which made its debut in 2006 and is now in a third season on MTV in the United States and Canada.

If you are a 15-year-old girl, you probably don’t need to be told that Lauren Conrad, Heidi Montag and their circle, who are followed as celebrities by young Americans in particular, are real; in fact, if anything, you might need to be administered with a good dose of skepticism about how much of their “real” life might be manipulated by the producers of The Hills.

If you are an adult, however, you probably do need to be told: Anyone reared on conventional television casually tuning into The Hills might mistake it for fictional drama.

From its slick opening credits to its richly filmed action and hip soundtrack, that’s what it looks and feels like. Meanwhile, its characters’, er, subjects’ dialogue, mundane conversations full of the repetitions and ellipses of real speech, achieve a kind of naturalism David Mamet or Robert Altman might envy.

Along with the Laguna Beach series that spawned it, The Hills is revolutionizing the dramatic form on television. So far, however, it’s been a pretty quiet revolution because, while the kids deconstruct the details of Lauren’s and Heidi’s lives, the adults probably aren’t watching. The industry and the media adopted the “docu-soap” tag for MTV’s new invention, and critics do give the occasional nod to the stylishness of The Hills, but they are unlikely to attribute much artistic importance to a package so devoid of content: Variety, for example, has dubbed The Hills “an exercise in unrelenting vacuity.”

The show is not, however, without discerning followers.
“What I enjoy most about The Hills is seeing things represented on television that I have never before seen represented on television,” writes Justin Wolfe, a recent English graduate from Florida State University, who keeps a blog about the show. “… I mean in the micro sense: the small gestures and body movements, the casual poses, the verbal tics, word repetitions and vocal inflections; all the things that colour the fabric of everyday existence. The Hills, by foregrounding what is unnoticed, defamiliarizes it. It makes what’s completely normal feel strange.”

Wolfe has compared The Hills to the work of the Italian modernist filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni for the beauty of the cinematography and for the lingering close-ups recording the minutiae of the performers’ expressions.

The real-life O.C. Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County was spawned in 2003 when executive producer Liz Gateley suggested to colleagues at MTV that they create a reality-TV version of the 1990s teen drama Beverly Hills 90210. The youth channel had already enjoyed a great success with its reality shows following minor celebrities, including aging rocker Ozzy Osbourne, but this show would go further. When it premiered in 2004, its subtitle revealed its dramatic ambitions: It was to be the real-life version of The O.C., the popular fictional drama chronicling teen life in the suburbs of Los Angeles.

“The idea was to see if we could do a reality show in the visual language of narrative film, to see if we could throw out the language of documentary film,” says Tony DiSanto, the head of new-program development at MTV and an executive producer on Laguna Beach.

Many of these innovations were purely technical: Laguna Beach (now in its fourth season, moved further up the Californian coast and renamed Newport Harbor) and The Hills, a spinoff created by Adam Divello, are shot in wide-screen format on film rather than video. Multiple cameras allow for less panning during shots. Like a feature film, an entire second unit shoots the street scenes and aerial views of Los Angeles, and sweeping vistas of the Californian coast that give the shows their visual scope.

Only professionals would be able to name these technical differences, but for an audience, the subliminal message is instantly understood: One is watching drama, not documentary. Indeed, the producers have had to add a bit of introductory text explaining that these scenes were shot in Laguna Beach, Newport Harbor or Beverly Hills over a series of weeks or months as a signpost to the uninitiated.

Even more importantly, the docu-soaps do away with the confessional interviews that are the standard in reality-based programming about everyday people, from the heights of Michael Apted’s Up series to the lows of Big Brother. The result is that viewers only know the people on screen through conversation and body language, and are left, just as they would be with fictional characters in television drama or on film, to speculate about true motivations and desires.

“With these shows, the challenge is to show motivation through faces and eyes,” DiSanto said. “It’s part of the reason Lauren was so attractive to us as a character … She was so expressive in her eyes and her body language. When you are trying to tell a story without the exposition you have in a script, or the confessional interview of a documentary, someone like Lauren is very useful.”

Indeed, Lauren, who started out in Laguna Beach and was the chief catalyst for creating The Hills spinoff as she moved to L.A. to start a career in fashion, seems like a natural. If many of her cohorts appear merely facile, her wide-eyed gazes and happy grins somehow suggest hidden depths, making her self-absorption more forgivable. Her conversations with her friends, full of speculation about potential boyfriends and outrage over former ones, perfectly capture the airy talk of the young.

“There’s never any direct address of the camera by the characters. There’s never any discussion of the fact that they’re on a television show,” blogger Justin Wolfe observed in a recent e-mail interview. “So, in a way, the show relies on traditional cinematic illusionism; there’s none of the fourth-wall-breaking you see everywhere else, no shaky hand-held cameras or badly lit scenes.”

Laguna Beach and The Hills represent a dynamic hybrid: If you consider them reality shows, they achieve a remarkable cinematic sweep; if you consider them dramas, they achieve a remarkable realism.

The rise of naturalism
The quest for naturalism in the illusion that is drama goes back at least to the 19th century when playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen and Bernard Shaw introduced bourgeois settings and contemporary social issues to theatre. These plays required a less bombastic and speechifying performance style than the aristocratic tragedies and overblown melodramas that preceded them, and the search for realistic acting began. Konstantin Stanislavski would codify the quest with his infamous “method,” a philosophy, still popular in Hollywood today, that teaches that the actor must live the role.

In the 20th century, the visual realism made possible by film and then the domestic intimacy of television seemed to demand even greater naturalism. Since the Second World War, directors have experimented with improvised dialogue and amateur actors – filmmaker Robert Altman once said all professional actors overact – while script writers such as David Mamet have striven to reproduce the hard staccato of everyday American speech.

In contrast to the weighty achievements of these modern masters, some of the most provocative work being done in this area in recent years can be found in television comedy. Ken Finkleman’s The Newsroom on CBC, Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO and, in Britain, Ricky Gervais’s The Office and Extras all use passages of improvised dialogue to create the languor and interruptions of contemporary speech. Not coincidentally, these shows often take as their theme and source of comedy social awkwardness: the audience’s sense that the dialogue is unpredictable, unscripted and may actually run out heightens tension. In the case of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Extras, the confusion between reality and fiction is then pushed further because both David and Gervais are playing versions of themselves.

Are these really real lives? Lauren and Heidi don’t have to live their roles, of course. They just have to live their lives, for they too are playing themselves. But what version of themselves? Since the 1990s, reality TV has introduced a host of amateur performers speaking without a script and, following the lead of the documentary tradition, sold audiences the notion that this work is somehow more honest than fiction.

“Our goal with these shows is to tap into real people and tell real stories,” DiSanto said.
Nonetheless, television producers make choices and life in Laguna Beach or in The Hills is surely a highly manufactured version of reality lived by a few financially – and climatically – privileged youth. The teens on Laguna Beach and now Newport Harbor seem to be on a perpetual holiday with the clothes, the cars, the shopping and the parties presumably all paid for by those parents who occasionally appear against the backdrop of their spectacular houses. Meanwhile, for the young women on The Hills, aspirations to become fashion designers and event planners appear to be a minor distraction from their social lives and romances.

If most previous experiments with naturalism were driven by an artistic or political agenda that sought to deliver some kind of hard truth, the docu-soaps use their innovative form to deliver precious little of anything.

For his part, DiSanto cheerfully acknowledges the attraction of the shows is voyeuristic.
“There was no conscious effort to make it wealthy,” he said, “but from a TV aspect, it didn’t hurt that the location [of Laguna Beach] was so beautiful … You almost feel like you are getting a tan while you watch it.”

DiSanto says the young protagonists of the docu-soaps were all friends before they were cast, and the developments in their relationships are completely unscripted. He points out that the producers need a working relationship with these people and can’t jeopardize the shows by intruding or pushing. Still, you have to notice these young socialites of the text-messaging generation all seem suspiciously fond of face-to-face encounters and you have to ask if there wasn’t more than one take when Spencer proposed to Heidi on the beach.

Do the young fans ask such questions? Wolfe argues that the viewers are a sophisticated generation raised on the vocabulary of reality TV and are completely aware of how it is manipulated. He believes, for example, that the dialogue on The Hills is sometimes looped – that is re-recorded separately after the original scene is shot, a technique used to improve sound quality in traditional drama but used here to edit lines – and that audiences know and accept this.

Maybe. Still, when fans get together, it’s the ins and outs of the characters’ lives they discuss, not the machinations of television producers. Speculation about Lauren and Heidi has become its own mini industry: Canada’s contribution to the docu-soaps phenomenon is The Hills After Show, a Toronto-based talk show produced by MTV Canada and recently picked up by MTV.com in the United States, on which the hosts and guests discuss the episode they have just watched. Last week, for example, there was great discussion about the rights and wrongs of an embarrassing encounter between Heidi and Lauren, but nobody asked how the feuding former friends came to be in the same restaurant on the same night.

Famous for being famous It is no urban legend that soap-opera stars often get approached by fans who make no distinction between the performer and the character: For example, the young actors who play gay characters on Degrassi: The Next Generation, the fictional Canadian drama that is a competitor for The Hills‘ teen and young-adult demographic, are often stopped and asked for advice by gay teenagers.

“We really have to remind them to tell people they are a character,” says producer Linda Schuyler. “[The fans] do get confused.” Schuyler says the actors are more often approached in the United States (where Degrassi is a popular cable offering) because, she speculates, unabashed American fans feel a more direct ownership of celebrities. “There is a hunger for celebrities in the States. I don’t think it’s as strong here,” she said.

In the docu-soaps, this confusion between illusion and reality is complete: If some private Lauren and Heidi live different, “realer” lives off camera, their audience need never acknowledge it. Brad and Angelina have to make fictional movies and then balance their need to promote the work with their need for privacy, but the stars of The Hills are Warholian celebrities, famous for being famous, helpfully offering up their lives to the scrutiny of their fans.

“For viewers now, it is less relevant, is this real or not,” observes DiSanto. “It’s ‘is it great TV?’ “
Critical adult viewers wandering into this twilight zone may justly feel that no one, except perhaps their actual families, should care whether Heidi marries Spencer or Lauren reunites with Jason. Before they dismiss The Hills, however, they may want to ask whether a generation raised on docu-soaps will ever watch conventional drama again.

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