Summer TV

'The Hills' Are Alive

...with the sound of nonstop partying, feuding, and backstabbing. In a tabloid-weary culture, what exactly is the appeal of MTV's reality hit?

BFFS...AND HER Hills costars (from left) Lauren, Whitney, and Audrina; Heidi appears too — she's on the mag sticking out of the beach bag
Image credit: PHOTOGRAPH BY MARLA RUTHERFORD
BFFS...AND HER Hills costars (from left) Lauren, Whitney, and Audrina; Heidi appears too — she's on the mag sticking out of the beach bag

Idle girl-talk wafts through Lauren Conrad's cozy L.A. apartment, as she and roommate Audrina Patridge carry on about party plans, boys, and random celebrity sightings (Melissa Rivers!?). They have, in fact, drifted from dissecting last night's exploits into non sequitur land — ''I'm kind of wondering if this is even a dress I'm wearing or just a long shirt,'' Lauren observes of her floaty white number.

But when Lauren suddenly picks up her BlackBerry, the four-person crew that's watching her every move on handheld monitors on her balcony buzzes to life. A producer barks into his walkie-talkie to the camera operators stationed inside, ''See who she's texting!''

As the shot zooms in on the device in her hands, the urgency is palpable: OMG, who is she texting? Then, when she puts down the BlackBerry to admonish Audrina for not getting home until seven this morning, the text message is forgotten. Suddenly, the most important question in the world seems to be: OMG, why was she out so late?

And that pretty much encapsulates the appeal of The Hills — where gossipy little trifles pique emergency-level curiosity until a few seconds later when another shiny bauble deflects attention elsewhere. It's a hypnotizing kind of voyeurism that MTV first cultivated four years ago with high school reality sensation Laguna Beach. But this spin-off, which follows Beacher Lauren, 21, as she navigates the rough waters of handheld electronics, making out, and backstabbing in L.A., seems to have perfected it. And because loyal audiences have known Lauren for four seasons now — and have gotten pretty cozy with BFFs Audrina and Whitney Port as well as estranged former roommate Heidi Montag — they've become familiar with the rhythms of her life. That is, the TV version of her life — which, of course, is totally real, except for...well, we'll get to that in a second.

For now, suffice it to say that 2.7 million viewers were transfixed by The Hills during its second outing last winter, making it MTV's highest-rated series. Season 3, which premieres Aug. 13 at 10 p.m., promises to be even bigger because of the tabloids' incessant coverage of the gals' between-seasons story lines — er, lives. It's a level of buzz heretofore unheard of for MTV-manufactured reality stars and good news for a network that lives or dies by its pop cultural relevance. ''We have this six-month commercial for the show [with the tabloid coverage] that doesn't give away the narrative in full,'' says Brian Graden, president of entertainment, MTV Networks. ''It's a kind of postmodern marketing. We're living in an age of TMZ and Perez Hilton — The Hills indulges that.''

The Hills began in May 2006 as an attempt to capitalize on Laguna Beach — which was peaking in popularity, but volatile to produce because of its reliance on real high school kids. The pitch: Follow the likable narrator of Laguna's first season, Lauren, as she ventures to Los Angeles for fashion school — a small-town-girl-makes-good story, ''the reality version of That Girl or Mary Tyler Moore,'' as exec producer Tony DiSanto calls it.

Lucky for MTV, their Marlo Thomas wasn't camera-shy. ''I said yes right away,'' Lauren says, nursing a strawberry martini at Hills hot spot Lola's with Audrina and Whitney. ''I wanted to do a show with people I liked. For so long I'd done a show with people I didn't like.''

NEXT PAGE: Engagements, ''retirements'' — and that alleged sex tape

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