Reality TV and the return of The Hills: Culture Club with Conor Behan

With the rise in popularity of reality TV, can the original champ reclaim its place at the top?

The cast of The Hills at an opening overlaid with writer Conor Behan

Reality TV has gone through some changes over the last few decades. Whether it’s the 24/7 cameras of Big Brother, or the relationship dramas on Love Island, reality shows adapt and change with their audiences.

In the annals of the reality genre The Hills was one that perfected a certain kind of storytelling just as it was becoming obsolete. But with a returns as The Hills: New Beginnings, can it recapture its soap-y cinematic magic?

The Hills is returning during an era of reality TV being bigger than ever – Love Island is a cultural juggernaut that ignites endless conversation, while Hayu runs a dedicated streaming service for big name reality shows. 

A spin-off from the MTV hit Laguna Beach (inspired by teen drama The OC), nobody could have predicted just how huge The Hills would be. A reality show shot like a glossy Hollywood movie, it made Lauren Conrad and her perfectly coiffed pals megastars in a blank but oddly compelling soap many of us couldn’t resist.

For me, a college student who had MTV on heavy rotation all day, The Hills soon became the perfect pop culture obsession. Sure, it was an addictive slice of TV cheese but trying to figure out how it was made was half the battle. How much of it was fake? How much of the frequent drama was genuine hurt and not just made for TV? And how do you shoot a show about real people doing normal things but have everything look so glossy? It toyed with the idea of performing everyday life years before Instagram turned into a sport we all engage in at brunch.

The news the show is back (albeit without some key cast members) created buzz for a simpler time in reality land. Sure, we may not have Lauren or Kristin but Audrina, Justin Bobby and Spencer and Heidi alone are worth a gawk. Throw in Mischa Barton adding a through-line to The OC and adding newcomer Brandon Lee – son of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee – and you’ve enough fodder for an interesting reality return. At least in theory.

At time of writing I’ve caught two episodes of the show and it’s hard to get a read of just how The Hills works in 2019. Interviews to camera form a key part of the format, as is de rigueur for reality shows now, but that wasn’t ever a factor in the original series. Things feel significantly less set up, perhaps a reaction to cast members revealing much of the original series was often fake. But there’s an energy missing. It’s meant to be a more grounded take on the lives of people we know but there are no stakes. Potentially dramatic plot points fade to a whimper.

There’s the potential to tell a really interesting story here. One about sudden fame and what you do when the flashbulbs fade. But as it stands The Hills: New Beginnings feels both too earnest to be gleefully trashy TV and also too stilted to offer any real insight. It’s the TV equivalent of scrolling through Instagram: nice to look at but ultimately not offering much depth. 

MUST LISTEN: Having spent time in Lisbon getting re-inspired, Madonna comes out swinging on Madame X. Her 13th album contains moments of inspired, forward thinking, pop and also clunky moralising that feels like the sound of an out-of-touch megastar. Still, the thrills are worth the ride, with Madonna mixing disco, Latin music and sharp 2019 pop trends to great effect. Love her or loathe her it’s clear that a newly reinvigorated Madonna isn’t ready to hang up her microphone just yet.

MUST LISTEN: Podcasting is a crowded field (Have you listened to the one I co-host? Popsessed drops every Wednesday! Plug plug!), but there’s nothing better than two palls mixing insight and humour. Sloppy Seconds definitely fits in that category. Drag star, Meatball, and rapper, Big Dipper, talk sex and relationships with an interesting roster of guests from the queer community. It’s silly, insightful and, like all the best podcasts, sounds just like friends shooting the breeze. 

a young woman with folded arms standing in front of a white background.

MUST READ: 2019 has been a year of discussion – from the merits of straight popstars performing at Pride to asking ‘how did Pride get so corporate?’ In a sea of never-ending takes, Amelia Abraham’s Queer Intentions stands out. Abraham sets out to reconcile parts of her own queer narrative by also travelling the world to explore topics as diverse as “what’s changing as drag goes mainstream?” and exploring the reality of life for LGBT+ people from Sweden to Syria. Nuanced and thoughtful with a sly sense of humour, Queer Intentions brings fresh insight and heart to meaty topics.


Along with Holly Shortall, Conor is the co-host of Popsessed – the unmissable pop culture podcast. Check it out here.

This story originally appeared in GCN’s July 2019 issue. Read the full issue here.

© 2019 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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