Tuesday, August 19, 2008
The Star-Ledger's TV columnist and blogger extraordinaire Alan Sepinwall recently got my noodle cooking when he asked, without judgment, why people like The Hills. As a longtime Hillsian (and before that a Lagunaphile), I had no idea. His inspiration was James Poniewozik's recent Time article arguing that people like The Hills because it's pretty, and we all fantasize about our lives as television dramas.
I think Poniewozik's on to something, especially in this brave, new world of overbearing reality television. Everyone hates reality TV, but we all go home and watch it. He's also right about the exquisite production values of The Hills. That classy widescreen and low lighting are major draws over trashier-looking reality show (like the VH1 lineup).
But I like to think I'm stronger than that. At least on a conscious level, I don't just watch The Hills because it's pretty. Also, that theory doesn't account for how often people turn the show on as background noise (which is pretty much how I got through Season 3).
A recent Rolling Stone cover story theorized that most people watch The Hills as a form of escapism. Maybe, but the same could be said of any television show, so it doesn't explain why this one has become a cultural epicenter.
I spent part of my Sunday watching an MTV special "counting down the most epic events of The Hills," and much as the program misunderstands basic definitions, many of its contributors lacked grammar and reasoning skills.
Dina Sansing, Us Weekly's West Coast Entertainment Director (which sounds as professional as Lauren's job at Teen Vogue), says The Hills is this generation's Sex and the City. I wonder what she thinks will be this generation's Sopranos (or this generation's Gossip Girl)? Her explanation is that "they really put it all out there, and that's why we love them." Okay, so that's too vague to really make fun of, but I think it speaks for the overall worth of Us Weekly as a brand.
Next up are Vanessa and Angela Simmons (from Run's House, which is, apparently, a show). Vanessa (I'm assuming she's the one on the left, but again, I didn't know these were people until the special) says her favorite thing is "just, like, the realness of it...To see them just portray that on TV and put it out there" is bold. That's the second time someone's made that claim. I think they mean that we see the cast occasionally fight or cry, but anyone who ever knew a teenager knows how few barriers they have to public humiliation.
More importantly, they certainly aren't putting their entire lives on camera: The Hills itself (which has turned four mostly unknown girls into loaded A-listers) is an obvious omission, as are the existence of the cameramen, their other friends (Audrina and Whitney have closer friends outside the show), their other jobs (LC's fashion line, Heidi's album, Audrina's movie, Whitney's spinoff), and the topic of sex, presumably because they don't mind their parents seeing them cry, but they do mind them hearing about their, um, dalliances.
Angela (or the one on the right) adds that she appreciates how the girls are working and doing everyday things. Yes, honey, Lauren made her millions at her Teen Vogue "internship." Does anyone believe Heidi does anything at Bolthouse other than generate publicity? Girl can barely operate a purse.
Perez Hilton chimed in to self-promote (aren't new money cute?) and discuss how he broke the story of the LC sex tape. He thinks we watch because we feel like the cast is our coterie. These people keep bringing up relatability, when everyone else suggests we watch it for wish-fulfillment. They can't all be right.
(Unrelatedly, but I couldn't resist sharing this nugget, Perez says, "What boggles my mind is that Lauren Conrad decided to be friends with Stephanie Pratt, because the world only needs one Pratt." I don't see the causality there, but then I don't speak flaming poseur.)
Which brings us to Us Weekly's West Coast Bureau Chief Melanie Bromley. "I think The Hills is such a phenomenon, because it's about friendship, and there's not many things now that are about friendship." I have no words. Delightfully, she continues, "The Hills is kind of that perfect storm of a story," and I still have no idea what she's talking about, even though she expounds that it "proves that unscripted reality TV show is far more interesting in some ways than scripted drama on television." I'm guessing she's not much of a Wire fan (too many black people).
If you're just joining us, James Poniewozik of Time Magazine has illustrated the most convincing argument for The Hills' attraction, and MTV's contributors could benefit from thinking before they speak.
Poniewozik's first sentence addresses the required topic of any Hills article: "Let's get one thing out of the way first. Yes, The Hills is fake." As if we didn't already know about Heidi's boob job.
I agree, of course, that the show is fake. But people are missing the point harping on the reshot scenes (making up for paparazzi flash bulbs ruining establishing shots) or looped audio (to replace garbled originals or provide the show's narration). The show's most glaring fakery resides in the characters themselves.
How many times have we seen the girls bond over their independence on girls-nights-out, only to see them instantly drop their friends for a hint of flirtation? In defending the show's authenticity, Lauren often pulls out the unscripted card, as if she thinks people suspect the minimalist dialogue of Audrina coupled with the pseudo-hippie babblings of Justin Bobby are hammered out by a screenwriter. What we really think is fake are the obvious set-ups, like Whitney asking Lauren how her weekend was, or co-workers acting as sounding boards for Heidi. Or to give a more recent example, Lauren's Season 4 boyfriend Doug acting like he doesn't know who Audrina, Whitney, and Lo are.
I think the Heidi feud magnifies the show's fakery. Season 2 was like a Star Wars novel, as Heidi gradually succumbed to the Dark Side, and eventually chose to move out of her apartment with Lauren to live with Spencer. Even then, Heidi and Lauren proclaimed their status as best friends. Cut to the first episode of Season 3, and they are already in the midst of a cold war over allegations that Heidi spread sex tape rumors about Lauren.
We can't be sure, but it doesn't seem like the issue was ever confronted in an adult manner. Heidi claims to be confused as to why Lauren stopped talking to her, but she sure has a lot of bitterness for someone with no explanation for a feud with her best friend. Lauren's only slightly better, believing the rumors at the expense of her best friend without even giving her a chance to explain.
My conjecture? Heidi and Lauren either were never really best friends, or they don't understand what the phrase means (like Spencer and Brody). Maybe I'm being harsh. They've both displayed their prowess brandishing insincerity (with their friends, lovers, and bosses), so maybe they just deluded themselves into buying the strength of their friendship.
Of course, Lauren, Heidi, and their compatriots from the greater Laguna Beach area are playacting. Like many teen girls, Lauren has a knack for hollow melodrama in her life's soapiest moments. "I want to forgive you, and I want to forget you" remains a personal favorite, because even taken at face value that's a blatant lie. But that's what happens when you use tired phrases to express yourself--you lose your intended meaning in favor of euphony. And that's the secret of The Hills: Even the substance is surface. Lauren actually thinks up her dialogue, but it has all the integrity of a script.
(I can't stop with just one, because this show has the best dialogue: "We tried more-than-friends; it doesn't work with us." LC, master of the scientific method. "You're rolling around with my enemy. That makes you my enemy." Bush logic courtesy of Bush-witted Spencer. "Sometimes when you love someone, you want to believe they're good." Yes, only sometimes.)
So, The Hills is fake. I think I'd like it more if they did acknowledge that it's a reality show, or if we got to see Lauren's real life working on her fashion line. But I like it all right in its current form too.
It appeals to me as a serial. I intrinsically enjoy the use of recurring characters, shifting alliances, and plot machinations. The Hills works best as a political drama. And the parallelism rivals The Wire.
Consider: Lauren openly hates Heidi's boyfriend Spencer, but Heidi kept her mouth shut about her distatste for Jason. Lauren later hated Audrina's boyfriend Justin Bobby, but she dialed down the fury. Heidi leaves Lauren for Spencer, and Brody leaves Spencer for Lauren. Jason cheated on Lauren with Jessica, and Brody cheated on her with Bunney. Lauren and Heidi both make poor work decisions and are scolded but still rewarded. Everyone warns Heidi about Spencer Pratt, and everyone warns Lauren about Stephanie Pratt.
Further, and I admit this may not be true for many Hills aficionados, my anthropological side likes to study the social interactions of the characters. I'm also interested in the frustrating reality aspect of the show. And a certain part of me tunes in just to see what the kids are into these days.
But the main reason I watch the show is because it goes down easy (and judging people is fun). I can count on seeing everyone in each episode, and the events are sure to be glossier than in my real life. The moral dilemmas offered up by the young California girls are rarely challenging--although sometimes the lack of a complete picture colors audience responses. I like being able to say without looking back, "She's being a bitch (read: she has irrational demands that she's trying to pass of as reasonable)" or "No! You're so much better than that (read: you're not really better than that, but I have hope for everyone)." I can vicariously side with someone, and even if I'm wrong, no harm done. If there's a place to overreact, it's audience participation in The Hills.
I do have another minor reason for watching, and that's on the off chance that Heidi will wake up today and realize that Spencer is a gross, ugly, abusive manipulator. Heidi may not have made the best decisions in the past few years, but nobody deserves Spencer Pratt.
See what I mean about judging people? Guilt-free opinionating, courtesy of The Hills.
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Friday, August 15, 2008
Yesterday on Jeopardy (Teen Tournament, but I still totally won. Also, nobody got Final Jeopardy while I basked in my own genius: What is the only US state to have a diacritic in its name, when spelled correctly? Answer after the jump), what was I saying? Oh right, Jeopardy had a question about the "New" Wonders of the World. Some of us still sacrifice virgins on the original wonders, thank you very much. Be right back.
Jeopardy answer: What is Hawai'i? Eat it, teenagers!
Back on topic, I must have automatically deleted the forward announcing that the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World had been replaced. Kids today and their made-up history.
Before I go further, let's review the classic wonders and the next generation:
The originals are located in the heart of the ancient world, Greece and the East Mediterranean region. Naturally, they include a Statue of Zeus and a Temple of Artemis, along with the awesomely-named Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, and the Lord of the Rings-ish Colossus of Rhodes. All well and good (what a ridiculous expression that is), but I saved the (empirically proven) best for last: the Lighthouse at Alexandria, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the only wonder still around, the Great Pyramid of Giza! I'm getting worked up just thinking about these masters of their domain.
But one day, some snot-nosed kid comes along and decides a humongous statue of a god straddling a port isn't good enough. So he comes up with a list of the New 7 Wonders of the World, and not one colossus made the cut. Reaching beyond ancient Greece for some reason, he picked three from Asia (the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, and the lost city of Petra, Jordan), and three from South America (Chichen Itza, the state of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, and the spectacular Machu Picchu). The final Johnny-come-lately is the Colosseum in Rome.
By "snot-nosed kid," I am of course referring to the practically not-for-profit New 7 Wonders Foundation, and by "he comes up with a list," I mean the entire affair was put to an international vote, the largest poll ever organized according to Zogby, International. But I don't have time to give these new wonders a fair shake. I'm busy being fair and balanced.
Of course, there are other lists of 7 Wonders. There are 7 Natural Wonders of the World, including the out-of-this-world (and therefore technically ineligible) aurora, which are essentially just persnickety light shows. Someone claims to have established a 7 Medieval Wonders of the World, but nobody can agree on which 7 are the 7. USA Today tried to supplant the New 7 Wonders with their own poll just five impolite years after the New 7 Wonders Foundation made waves, but the USA Today list ended up including the internet, which is like throwing up all over the slaves who built the pyramids.
That's when I thought, 'Hey, if USA Today can create a ridiculous list of 7 wonders, and if the IAU can stop feasting on the flesh of babies long enough to downgrade Pluto (a planet they haven't even been to, might I add), why can't I make my own official list of the 7 Wonders of the World?'
Why, indeed, past Brandon. My research as usual was limited to a couple minutes of brainstorming followed by a minute on wikipedia with the Travel Channel in the background (although for freedom of information, World Poker Tour was on). I figure if I couldn't think of it in that time, it can't be that important. Oh, in case it isn't clear, by "wonders," I've chosen to stick with physical, structural wonders, testaments to human imagination and work, not things like "love" or "Nessie" or "the fact that nobody who voted for Bush will admit they were wrong."
The New Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
1. Machu Pichu - Cuzco, Peru. I'm leading with the most obvious, one of my longtime favorites. It's a city in the clouds, but I prefer to let the picture speak for itself.
2. The Great Wall of China - China. I'd like to open by saying that I don't feel the attraction of many of the most famous wonders, like Stonehenge or the Great Wall of China. However, this is essentially a castle wall with intermittent towers that travels for miles across the hills of north China. It'd be laughable to put a mere European castle on this list instead.
3. The city of Venice - Venice, Italy. As an assertion of my impartiality, there are many European cities I'd rather visit than Venice. But you can't deny the appeal of a city built on water. Never mind that it's sinking; just take in the gorgeous neoclassical vistas from your gondola and relax.
4. Potala Palace - Lhasa, Tibet. A titanic mountaintop capitol that evokes Rohan's palace of Edoras. Today it's just a museum (an unfathomably expensive museum), but it used to be the seat of the Dalai Lama's government.
5. Mont-St-Michel - Mont-St-Michel, France. The Minas Tirith to Potala Palace's Edoras, Mont-St-Michel is a mountain castle in Normandy. The fantastical medieval city rests on mud flats, so at times Mont-St-Michel is an island, which heightens the appeal of such a unique wonder.
6. Angkor Wat - Angkor, Cambodia. I have a thing for the exotic, dark-stoned temple ruins of Cambodia (probably because they remind me of this). Angkor Wat is the best-preserved of these, a 12th Century Hindu temple famous for its three temple mountains.
7. Hagia Sofia - Istanbul, Turkey. Sorry, Taj Mahalophiles, but I prefer the Hagia Sofia. Reputed to be the culmination of Byzantine architecture, the Hagia Sofia is an enormous domed mosque surrounded by fairy tale minarets. But the inside is even grander, shafts of light sneaking in from all directions, like Grand Central Station, protected by marble columns and an epic golden dome.
Unfortunately, I had no way of judging the lost wonders like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but I still had a trove to choose among. My eighth choice was Tintern Abbey, which I prefer in its current form of forested ruins. Oh, and of the pyramids, I'm not deliberately being contrary (though who knows what my subconscious is up to), but I prefer those of Tikal, Guatemala.
Bonus: The New Seven Wonders of the Fictional World:
1. Waterfall City - Dinotopia. It's like Venice, only instead of a salt-water lagoon inhabited by people too lazy to work in a real city, it's built on a giant rock formation with canals to guide the magnificent waterfalls and populated by dinosaurs!
2. Orthanc - The Lord of the Rings. I know the sixty-two towers featured in the book and movie adaptation of The Two Towers can get confusing, but Orthanc is the obsidian tower where Saruman lives. Yeah, that monument of Tolkiendom. Sure, Rivendell is pretty, and Minas Morgul has that sweet laser show going for it, and the good old Shire's full of those cozy Hobbit holes, but I'll take Alan Lee's Freudian castle any day.
3. Hogwarts - the Harry Potter series. I've always believed that if I could live anywhere in fiction, it would be Waterfall City (or the Enterprise), but Hogwarts sure tests that theory. Consider, an untraceable castle with secret passages, moving stairways, ghosts, a potions room, magical beasts, and a staff that regularly puts its students in danger "for the greater good." Honestly, even that last part sounds fun.
4. Cave of Wonders - Aladdin. Piles of gold and jewels in a secret desert cave with a supernatural defense system? Count me in. Genies and flying carpets and Muslim stereotypes? Even better.
5. Santa's Workshop - North Pole. Who doesn't want to live in a magical, wintry village whose main focus is the toy workshop? The elves could be creepy, and I, for one, don't want to face the racial profiling or slavery issues going on up there, but tiny pointy-ears aside, Santa's Workshop is a heavenly place.
6. The Guardian of Forever - Star Trek. The ultimate time portal at the heart of one of Star Trek's best episodes, I'm not positive the Guardian of Forever is a man-made construct like the ruins it neighbors. But you can't canonically prove it isn't, so we'll let it slide.
7. Coruscant - Star Wars. I don't know enough about the Star Wars EU to know if Coruscant has any bodies of water, but I'm pretty sure all of the land on this planet is covered in skyscrapers, the capital of a galactic empire. And not just any old Jenga stacks either. No, Coruscant has the tallest, thinnest, most architecturally unsound buildings that ILM could think up.
It's a personal disappointment that I couldn't come up with a worthy tree-town (Endor, Lothlorien, and Treetown are close), underwater kingdom (Naboo's my favorite), ice fortress, floating pirate ship, or city in the clouds. But like I said, I gave this magnificent subject a few minutes worth of reflection before settling.
I intended to work up a list of modern wonders (Golden Gate Bridge) and natural wonders (Great Barrier Reef), but I had trouble being original. On the other hand, if you have any ideas that aren't the usual (Everest, Grand Canyon), please share.
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Posted by Brandon Nowalk at 12:07 AM
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
The Mole ended its Batman Begins season tonight, and I enjoyed the finale as much as I have the rest of this middling season. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, get out of my head. But it's not my fault The Mole airs on the same night as the summer's most glorious show The Middleman. Find out who the mole is after the jump and about three commercial breaks with ambiguous reaction shot teasers.
The mole is Craig! (I think my tactic of propping up the lead beneath neon lights could teach reality television producers a thing or two about satisfying their viewers.)
My personal choice for the mole has been Mark for some time. How did I come to such a ridiculous conclusion? One day about two months ago (give or take), I realized that Mark was the only one I was positive was not the mole, given his adamant desire to win, his obsessive note-taking, and his general competence. Seconds later came the realization that Mark, then, had to be the mole.
When we got down to Mark, Craig, and Nicole, my suspect was still in the running. I knew I was right. Nicole was screaming for attention from Day 1, which isn't necessarily a bad strategy since that's the same reason everyone wrote her off. But I had a hunch the producers wouldn't go with someone so obvious.
That reasoning also discounted Craig, who I assumed was too obvious from the very first mission. On top of being conveniently absent when the rest of the contestants' notebooks were burned, the final exemption was at his favorite site in the city! And it wasn't just obvious to me: the final two episodes before the reunion were riddled with contestants observing how much money Craig has lost them and how he was their prime suspect. As we learned in the finale, that's because everyone from Paul on up to Mark, who won, knew Craig was the mole!
So yeah, I 'm a little deflated by the anticlimax. I got my hopes up that the producers were aiming for a surprise reveal. And at this point, I would have considered Nicole a surprising mole, simply because of how obnoxious she was.
Nicole went through a tremendous change somewhere along the way. She started the game so annoyingly that I wanted her gone, but about halfway through, her humor started to show. She could still be a bit of a shrew, especially around Paul, but she was also a smart, hilarious competitor. I appreciated how proud and sad she was to be the final girl. She was playing a character in the beginning (and occasionally thereafter), but toward the end we got to see more of the real Nicole, as her game face dropped, and I enjoyed having her around.
I'm excited for Mark to enjoy his $420,000 though. His motivations were a little Lisa Frank, but it's nice to see hard work and determination pay off every so often. Of course, we learned how much luck played into his win, tying with the executed player three times over the course of the game! Mark's win this summer is a microcosm of the American dream. Yeah, I went there. The Hills is Aristophanes for the 21st century. What are you gonna do about it?
While I wasn't piddling in my panties (to steal a phrase from Daniel Vosovic) about the Craig reveal, I can't help but admire his game-playing. Even though I'm just an audience member, I'm a little honored to have a mole that was so surreptitious while such a likable guy. Mark was right: Craig cloaked himself in affability.
I'm not sure I want to see any more of this show. I liked The Mole in the past because the games were more interactive or at least so foreign to my mundane life that I got to play vicariously (remember when they had a team navigating other players through an abandoned town via walkie talkie while other players shot at them from rooftops for an exemption?). This year, whenever they had riddles or number games that could feasibly be played by viewers at home, the producers gave us no time or didn't show us (as when they revealed the answer to the doublet before even the players got it, which is as ridiculous as if Jeopardy subtitled the answers instead of letting us shout at our television sets).
You could argue The Mole is more a reality show than a game show, and the game shouldn't steal focus from dissecting personalities and behaviors. In which case I definitely don't want to see future seasons of The Mole. If I can't stroke my ego by correctly predicting the winner, then I want to do so by out-solving the players. "I could so win this show!" needs to be my nightly refrain. Think on it, ABC.
I'm not sure what the consensus is on Jon Kelley's work as host, but I found him generally awful. He just doesn't have the charming ease of Anderson Cooper, and frankly, I don't see what's so important that Andy can't come back to his roots for a month of filming.
But barring the return of the youngest silver fox this side of the asteroid belt, I'm content to be done with The Mole. I have no idea about its ratings, but my guess is ABC will bring it back next summer to fill time between Wipeout promos (there, I've now referenced one metric assload of reality shows in this post). And for all my gripes, I'll be there. And for the fourth time (no joke, and I didn't watch the second celebrity season), I will predict the eventual winner is actually the mole.
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Posted by Brandon Nowalk at 3:20 AM