I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
I have, for some time now, had trouble discerning what is real. Both our cultural and political reality seem to be the result of obvious Twitter jokes made manifest. My new favorite show answers the question “what if the characters from the Archie comics had sex?” A series of sheriffs in ever-larger cowboy hats appear nightly on cable news to defend the actions of the president, who is Donald Trump. None of the things that are happening seem like they could possibly be happening, and yet they are. This state of affairs would be more alarming were it not a feeling widely shared — although maybe its ubiquity makes it worse. Either way, it explains why I can’t stop thinking about a certain iconic moment from an important cultural touchstone: the final scene of the reality-television show The Hills.
When I mention that this scene has been on my mind to people who did not watch The Hills, they generally ask if the show was good. This is the wrong question. The Hills aired from 2006 until 2010, before streaming, and back then it was harder to tell if a show was good or it was just on. It also happened to be that strange but fun period in reality-television history when you could openly admit you watched it, but before people started overthinking everything and mentioning Baudrillard.
Truth be told, I’d be hard pressed to tell you what actually happened on the show. There were a lot of pretty blonde girls and one brunette? They ate salads? They definitely lived in L.A. and got into clubs. And there was for sure a love interest named Justin Bobby who had a man bun and a motorcycle and my affection for him explains every terrible romantic choice I made before and after this show. The one thing I remember clearly though, and with increasing regularity, is how it all ended. After six seasons laboring under the premise that the real lives of these young, pretty people were more interesting than scripted television, in the final scene the cameras pulled back to reveal … a sound stage. We had been had. Reality was fake, up was down, Justin was Bobby. People, as they are wont to do, lost their shit.
While it would be nice to claim that I — a reasonably intelligent person who was in grad school when that episode aired — remained unconcerned by this revelation, my shit was similarly misplaced. In this moment, two things had become abundantly clear: the TV had lied to me, and this was deeply upsetting. The reason for my reaction comes down to a couple of simple facts that go a long way to explaining how we live in the world now.
The first is that the biggest lie we tell ourselves is that we don’t want to be lied to. People think they want the truth, of course — but that is simply not borne out by human experience, which is really just a series of hypocrisies. For example, it’s my ardent belief that to better love the world we should endeavor to describe it accurately. It is also my belief that if I ever came upon a room of people describing me accurately, I would literally turn to dust and be carried upon the winds forever repeating “she is honestly not as funny as she thinks.” And while my petty narcissisms are fairly harmless, the larger trend of people being only interested in a truth that absolves them is, well, you see where I’m going here. It’s not upsetting to be lied to, only to be told that’s what has happened — which is why, given the option, people will avoid watching the camera pan back to reveal a sound stage.
The second fact that the series finale of The Hills made me confront would go on to haunt me throughout my brief stint in grad school and probably will until I die. It’s that, on the whole, people would rather be clever than wise. If you’ve ever noticed that a lot of smart people are total dicks, this basically explains why. Wisdom may grant you grace or serenity, but cleverness lets you feel better than other people and it’s hard to compete with that. So when I, a clever person, began watching The Hills, of course I understood that it wasn’t all real. The scenes where these people “went” to “jobs” were obvious bullshit; I saw through that right away, in my cleverness. And once I could pat myself on the back for spotting how they were trying to pull one over on me I could relax, cleverly, and enjoy the ride. When the camera pulled back in that final moment, what it revealed wasn’t just a sound stage, but my own foolishness. In spotting the smaller lies I had missed the big one.
And this is why I keep thinking of that scene. It has come to represent, for me, all the moments wherein the world is revealed to be something other than you thought, or maybe just more itself than you could have ever imagined. Since the 2016 election and all that has followed, in my head, the camera keeps pulling back. Veils lifting forever in a nightmarish recursion. Reality cannot possibly be this dumb, I insist to myself while remembering the six-season show about wealthy white girls doing nothing. It just can’t. Donald Trump, who is the president, tweets once again about fake news. And so I sit here waiting for the camera to pull back and reveal that Justin Bobby has been named surgeon general. It’s only a matter of time.