I have this theory that people are always making fun of. Here it goes: MTV's reality show The Hills is the most important TV show of our generation; indeed, it is our era's equivalent of a Gustave Flaubert novel.
The show is about vapid, gorgeous, seemingly mindless young rich kids in L.A. who pretty much do nothing besides shop, eat in nice restaurants, and navel-gaze...all of it rendered in monosyllabic dialogue.
A typical exchange goes something like this:
HEIDI: Umm, did you see Lauren at the club?
LO: Uhh, yeah.
HEIDI: Was she, like, saying stuff? About me? Or, like.
LO: Umm. No, she was like. We were there with a bunch of guys, and she was just. I guess maybe? We all...
HEIDI: That is so not. Just, not like, what you do.
LO: Oh, I know. Sort of just.
HEIDI: Because, you know?
LO: Want to go out tonight? Because, like, I just want to not deal.
On and on it goes, endlessly, episode after episode, for three entire seasons now. And I can't get enough of it. In fact, I own seasons one and two on DVD. Why, you ask? I'll tell you. Because there's something so true about this show -- despite its being a fake reality-show all about the fakest people our society can possible produce. It reflects our youth culture as a kind of savage mirror...and in that regard, reminds me of the great Flaubert, who set about in the mid-1800s to "write the moral history" of his own Parisian lost generation.
Wikipedia describes his landmark novel Sentimental Education quite well:
The characters of Sentimental Education are marked by capriciousness and self-interest...unable to decide on a profession and instead (living on) inheritance...Without their materialism and "instinctive worship of power", almost the entire cast would be completely rootless. Such was Flaubert's judgement of his times, and the continuing applicability of that cynicism goes a long way in explaining the novel's enduring appeal.
And that, folks, is as good a description of The Hills as any. The modern ironic twist is that The Hills is not the result of a novelist's calibrated "judgement of his times" -- it's just a record of what happens when we point cameras at rich kids in Los Angeles. The snake is eating its own tail, and producing a document that condemns our times every bit as ruthlessly as Flaubert did his own.
(It's worth noting that my interpretation of the show has popped up in some other places, though minus the specific Flaubert analogy -- most notably as the cover story of a recent Rolling Stone. So I'm not totally crazy here. Bottom line: this will be taught in university courses someday.)
Now for the punchline: on Wednesday, at a party in L.A. during the annual E3 games convention, I ran into Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, the appalling couple with whom all Hills fans are the most fascinated. We watched a game demo together; I was within ten feet of them for the better part of half an hour. And I have to say, it was completely shocking to face these two in the stark light of actual reality. I've encountered plenty of celebrities before, but never have I experienced a dislocating "can this be real?" moment like this one. Because Spencer and Heidi (collectively known as "Speidi" in gossip circles) represent something far more powerful to me than mere celebrities -- to me they are living, breathing characters out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, and standing next to them was a bit like glancing sideways in an elevator and discovering that a bloody-faced Patrick Bateman is in the elevator with you.
The party organizers had a camera crew shooting Speidi the entire time, and given where I was standing I'm positive that I ended up in some of the footage. And that's a surreal thought indeed; that somewhere, in the digital cutting-room of whoever edits that footage, I will be eternally embedded in a frame with Speidi, blending me at long last into the meta-fiction of postmodernism. Reality TV is coming for us all.