The low-down on low brow

By Amy Shaunette

Say what you will about low culture, but you can’t deny its success. Top 40 hits, chick lit bestsellers and reality TV shows may not be artistically advanced, but they’re popular. Very popular. It’s a question of quality versus quantity-so why do meritless texts become so commercially successful?MTV’s “The Hills” is the lowest of the low; a spin-off of reality show “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County,” “The Hills” has created its own empire. The show follows a group of very rich, very tan L.A. twenty-somethings. They’ve got fancy jobs, even fancier cars and scandalous relationships, and apparently they’ve got acting skills, because “The Hills” is scripted, taking the reality out of reality TV.

The show is MTV’s cash cow, attracting over 2.5 million viewers weekly. The cast, which includes Lauren Conrad, Audrina Patridge, Brody Jenner and Heidi Montag (now Heidi Pratt), are mainstays of celebrity gossip; famous for nearly nothing, they are a new crop of Paris Hilton-esque partiers. The stars of “The Hills” make at least $50,000 each an episode; some rake in as much as $125,000. And the show is only a launch pad for their cultural domination.

Lauren Conrad designs a fashion line and she recently sold the film rights to her young adult novel, “L.A. Candy.” Audrina Patridge starred in a straight-to-DVD slasher movie-the beginning of what she hopes will be a long film career. Heidi Montag did a playboy cover, recorded a dance-pop album and is slated to guest host “The View” while Elisabeth Hasselbeck is on maternity leave (proving that bitchy, blonde, right-wing women are a dime a dozen). The list of accomplishments goes on. To a certain extent, “The Hills” defines the popular culture of Generation Y, both on screen and off.

What seems to be at the root of low culture is entertainment value. When the novel first emerged, it was criticized for sacrificing moral guidance in favor of sensationalist entertainment. The novel has come a long way since then, but in film and television, rare is the artistic masterpiece that manages to captivate huge audiences. Perhaps it’s an outgrowth of capitalism; art doesn’t always sell, but perfectly packaged drama sure does.

The fifth season of “The Hills” resumed last Wednesday; the new episode, titled “It’s On, Bitch,” is the first produced without Lauren Conrad, who left the show after five seasons. However, the episode marks the “Hills” debut of Kristin Cavallari, the back-stabbing blonde who rose to fame in “Lagune Beach.” When the star of the show leaves, MTV simply finds another. The reality franchise is unstoppable.
Recently, MTV renewed “The Hills” for two more seasons. The network has also created two spin-offs: Audrina Patridge’s forthcoming “The Audrina Show” and “The City,” which focuses on “Hills” alum Whitney Port as she climbs the career ladder in the New York fashion industry.

These shows have little to offer besides escapism in its purest, guiltiest form. Plotlines revolve around love triangles, hook-ups and arguments between friends, all rehashed over salads at posh restaurants and champagne cocktails at Hollywood clubs. The scripts are completely brainless, lacking any trace of depth or sincerity. Probably the only useful aspect of an episode of “The Hills” or “The City” is the fashion and beauty inspiration-and that’s pretty pathetic, if all a show has to offer are creative hairstyles and new ways to belt a dress.

I want to ignore “The Hills.” I never want to see Mtv.com in my Internet history. But every now and then I need to turn my mind off for 21 minutes, and MTV streams “The Hills” online for free. That’s the thing about pop culture. We can criticize it, we can hate its vapid stupidity, but sometimes, we need to escape, and there’s nothing like a healthy dose of low brow.