“Reality television is now a way of life,” says Justin Robert Brescia, the hirsute heartthrob better known in the late aughts as Justin Bobby. Huddled in white terrycloth robes next to a swimming pool in Beverly Hills, Brescia and his former MTV castmates have been reunited in anticipation of The Hills: New Beginnings, a reboot of the reality show The Hills (2006–2010), which was a spin-off of another reality show called Laguna Beach (2004–2006), itself a loose interpretation of Fox’s sudsy teen drama The O.C. (2003–2007). If the franchise made celebrities out of Brescia and his band of maudlin merrymakers, it also turned them into test pilots for today’s round-the-clock strain of rampant exhibitionism.
But the biggest difference between “reality” then and now has less to do with the players and everything to do with the audience, whose bullshit detector has evolved considerably since the passing of the torch from Sharon Osbourne to Kris Jenner. There was a time when Spencer Pratt, the anti-hero of The Hills, would make money for ratcheting up the drama at the expense of documentary— take, for instance, the moment when he kicked his future wife, Heidi Pratt (née Montag), out of his car during an argument, a scene they actually filmed ten times before going to dinner. “We got a million-dollar ratings bonus if we got to [a certain number of viewers], so whatever they wanted from me, I had no problem doing it,” says Spencer. “But that’s not the case this time.”
In a camera-ready culture, where everyone is the star of their own feed, it’s no longer necessary for producers to shoehorn personalities into 22-minute narratives. As cast member and self-described reality superfan Whitney Port puts it: “The audience is okay with just watching people gossip at lunch. They want to see people’s personalities as opposed to being entertained all the time. Reality television allows me to veg and not think about anything else. Some might look at it as a shallow version of meditation.”
The Hills is being revived at a time when the genre has produced America’s most successful mogul family — and, arguably, its president. To snark at reality television today is to snark at reality itself. Diving head-first into that juggernaut of meta-ness, The Hills: New Beginnings has replaced its former star, Lauren Conrad, with Mischa Barton, the actress whose introduction to fame came as Marissa Cooper on The O.C. “I swear to God, I got thrown into this last minute,” she says. “I was approached from every angle, by everyone I know. I ignored it at first, and then I got on a couple of calls with the producers and MTV. Then before I knew it, I was in serious talks with them.” For Barton and the lot, the rest is still, gloriously, unwritten.
“I think I’ve been stereotyped as a person who is here to listen — the girl next door. That is a part of who I am, it’s true. I’m not necessarily going to bring the drama, so that’s the role I play. And these days, I’m definitely a bit more guarded. When you’re 20 years old, you don’t have a career yet and you can be very raw. But now I think everybody is more conscious of how their behavior is going to affect their family or their work.” Says Whitney.