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Critical Eye

The Baltimore Sun

Reality starlet Audrina Partridge swears The Hills, MTV's highest-rated show, is real. Truth be told, it has to be. No scribe worth his guild card should lay claim to a show constructed like a doughnut:

The center (bland, goody two-shoes Lauren Conrad) holds scant interest -- it's all the surrounding unhealthy ingredients that tempt us: ambitious ex-friend Heidi Montag; her svengali fiance Spencer Pratt; hanger-on Justin "Bobby" Brescia; stern boss Lisa Love.

Blogs, tabloids and other media have complained in recent days and weeks about fiction in the reality drama, which depicts Conrad, Partridge, friend Whitney Port and Montag living it up in Los Angeles. The evidence: a Conrad date describing the producers setting up a stagey meeting between him and her ex-boyfriend; photos of Pratt "picking up" Montag at the airport minutes after dropping her off; a fellow restaurant diner complaining that Conrad repeated her order five times for the cameras' benefit.

But engineering should come as little surprise in a show that's seen as a hybrid, transcending traditional candid reality shows like The Real World and competitions like Survivor. In light of the Writers Guild of America strike, The Hills shows how far "reality" editing can go -- and where it comes up short.

"You have reality shows in which characters have no writers feeding them lines -- but they look like real drama shows," notes Kim Reed, a Syracuse, N.Y.-based writer for TelevisionWithoutPity.com. "Certainly, if there were writers, I think the dialogue [on The Hills] would be better, instead of long shots of them staring at each other."

In an e-mail, show creator Adam DiVello addressed the marriage of reality and editing, such as "pickup shots" after the initial shoot that provide continuity or a frame of reference -- an example being Pratt "picking up" Montag at the airport.

"And there are times when we ask cast members to rephrase their questions because we don't have the aid of confessionals/interviews ... this helps to put the conversation into context," he writes.

Reed blames some of the listless dialogue on the need for exposition.

"I think they say, 'Whitney, we need you to ask Lauren about what happened last night.' ... [But] there are only so many ways to say, 'So what's going on with you and Stephen?'"

DiVello does draw a line.

"We never ask them to say anything they weren't already saying on their own," he wrote. "Ultimately, we're trying to produce a show that is entertaining, but we in no way affect the reality of the storylines."

In a scripted television drama or comedy, the recipe for a leading lady is complex, often mixing a dysfunctional background, drive, self-awareness, a distinctive personality, wit and quirks. Think of Desperate Housewives' flighty Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher) or The Closer's neurotic Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick). Or even MTV alumnae: The Osbournes' outrageous Sharon Osbourne or Daria's cynical Daria Morgendorffer (voice of Tracy Grandstaff).

The Hills' Conrad, a 21-year-old fashion student and Teen Vogue intern, is depicted as level-headed, well-mannered, caring, pretty and stylish (though not Project Runway material). She comes from a comfortable background in Orange County (the setting for the teen reality show Laguna Beach, before Conrad was spun off into The Hills). Her biggest problems? A predilection for bad boys and a "one-date curse" with potential mates. She'd make a nice neighbor or PTA member.

But Conrad doesn't appear assertive, witty or ingenious. When she meets her idol, fashion designer Marc Jacobs, she can't be bothered to stand up to greet him. Sometimes, she's a passive participant in her own life.

"[Producers] can never make you say or do something," Conrad told Entertainment Weekly. "You can always blame editing, but they can't do magic."

If only they could. There's not enough complexity to her, or enough that the cameras are showing, to make the show a pop-culture behemoth. The Hills is MTV's ratings leader, and it's a top-rated cable show among 18-to-34-year-olds, according to Nielsen data. But episodes from the third season, which began airing in August, have topped out at 4.2 million viewers; that doesn't include Web or On Demand viewing. At its peak in 2002, The Osbournes drew an MTV record of 7.8 million viewers.

Like The Osbournes, The Hills benefits from the reflected glamour of its SoCal setting; Conrad frolics at the pool, frequents hot clubs and has helped run Teen Vogue's Young Hollywood parties. But the producers have to turn to the enemies and peripheral characters for dramatic behavior and entertaining dialogue.

The episodes, airing at 10 p.m. Mondays, don't depict the fame or side projects the subjects have developed: Conrad has designed her own fashion line (with MTV's backing), endorses Avon's mark. line of youth-oriented cosmetics and frequents celebrity-studded events. Montag has recorded pop songs in pursuit of a music career. They have appeared on the covers of Us, Seventeen, Teen Vogue and Cosmo Girl.

But DiVello and the other producers maintain the focus on their jobs and social lives. That choice limits the dramatic options in a season that already lacks on-screen tension between Conrad and Montag, who are not talking. (Previews -- and DiVello -- do indicate a killer confrontation in tomorrow's episode.)

"We try to stick to their day-to-day lives and keep the storylines relatable to our audience without playing up their celebrity," he writes. "Otherwise, it would be more of a diary of a reality star."

In doing so, the show gives up some drama and tells its greatest lie -- but as DiVello grasped, that may be its greatest strength as well. Reed puts it this way:

"The show sells the idea of Lauren as a young woman making it on her own. She used to be always so hung up on Stephen. She went to college and dropped out after a semester. Now she's making it on her own. If the show acknowledges how the MTV connection makes it happen, then it loses some of its arc.

"The show's only 22 minutes a week, and they have a choice of showing what their lives are really like or showing this dramatic stuff."

And as we all know, what our lives are really like bears little resemblance to must-see TV.

anne.tallent@baltsun.com

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