MTV's reality TV juggernaut—in which young pretty things become terrible human beings—has become a meta genre: we know they're acting, so those questions about whether it's scripted are older than the Juicy Couture they wore on Laguna Beach. Viewers have abandoned the idea that the lives presented on The City and The Hills are anything close to the lives of Whitney Port or Heidi Montag—they just want to believe that the plot lines are close to anything they could be going through.
The network succeeds in furthering this anxiety: they amp up the drama during the off-season, and this summer—in between season 5 and 6 on The Hills and season 1 and 2 on The City, a New York spinoff—the theatrics were especially trenchant. In Los Angeles, Lauren Conrad left the show she helped create, and Kristin Cavallari (who any Laguna fan will remember) was hired by MTV as the show's new ingénue. In New York, Whitney Port and Olivia Palermo were given real jobs (imagine that?), respectively working on a fashion line, and taking a seat at Elle magazine. The details sound silly if you don't watch these shows, but for the millions of dream-filled young viewers who shriek to this stuff weekly, those are important changes: New friends! Career progress! Some new clothes! Sounds just like the first day of school.
For two weeks, I've been watching both shows, half-expecting the same drivel that MTV traffics in. Last year, they started playing both shows back to back and it was a tragedy of American television. The Hills was winding down—there was a fake wedding between Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, for God's sake—and The City hadn't quite ramped up: it was clear the girls were faking their way through the city I call home. I expected the same issues this season, but instead I got something far worse and far better than I ever expected.
On The Hills, the absence of Lauren Conrad is surprisingly noticeable. "Surprising," really, because L.C. was a sad human being, someone that most viewers seemed to hate, if only because the best way she could express her emotions was by curling up her face. But without this emotional overload (as churlish at it was), you're left with the evil elements: Kristin, the new narrator, says things that you imagine from the mouth of Megan Fox's meanest characters: in the second episode, a friend stands Kristin up for lunch so she decides it's OK to steal said friend's ex-boyfriend. Classy. And speaking of classy, the absence of Lauren Conrad means even more Heidi and Spencer time, with America's favorite Us Weekly couple fighting over new homes and potential children. In the most manipulative moment I've ever seen on reality television, MTV uses the neighbor's kid to create matrimonial fights between the newly-married couple: watch as Spencer shuts off the kid's video game, then tells him to say "bye bye forever," as he pushes him away. It may be fake television, but for a 6-year-old, you wonder if that translates as easily?
None of them have jobs in Los Angeles, apparently, so they spend more time shopping, and many more words on clothes, than the girls from The City, which is odd considering that the second show is actually about working at a fashion magazine and designing a clothing line. Who knows how much work Olivia and Whitney are actually completing, but despite that, many of the show's minutes are spent clearly discussing "the work" they're doing. Somehow, that serves to legitimize the series. In the first two episodes, The City has translated from the doldrums of a long Manhattan vacation (while holed up in a really nice apartment) to something that will appeal to twentysomethings.
The drama circles around a bunch of young girls who are basically figuring out how to avoid screwing up their jobs. The best part about this is that they actually screw up a lot, and the addition of Elle has only helped spur expectations: when Olivia acts entitled, she's not given a pass for being a reality star. Instead, a new character constantly tries to get her fired, refusing to compliment her when she does a good job on an assignment. It may be staged, but it is a classic office scenario (and straight from the scenes of The Devil Wears Prada) so it works in a familiar way: who hasn't wondered whether their boss hates them? Even for people in the best jobs, who hasn't dreamed of doing something bigger?
Of course, The City isn't perfect: it's a part of MTV's massive manufactured-reality machine, which means that blank stares are abundant and certain conversations seemed forced if only to further the plot. But this show could sing if MTV spent as much as time thinking about their line-up, as these girls do about their outfits. When Laguna Beach was deemed too juvenile, it made way for The Hills. Now, as that show enters a territory so banal it's unwatchable, it's time to give The City a shot. By keeping the Los Angeles plotlines up in the air—no less, reminding Americans who Spencer and Heidi are on a weekly basis—the network is failing The City at its finest moment. Let Heidi and Spencer go have a kid, then get divorced. Hell, give them Tom DeLay's spot on Dancing with the Stars. Either way, dear ladies from The Hills, it's time to move on: there are some new gals in town. And by town, I mean New York.