'Hills' scandal is most real

Special to The Times

An "is it scripted or isn't it?" storm is brewing around this season of "The Hills."

Some sloppy editing in recent episodes, reported in several newspapers and blogs, have raised the question. And last week an online expose by its star Lauren Conrad's onetime date Gavin Beasley sent "Hills" fans into a tizzy trying to figure it out.

MTV has always 'fessed to doing "pickup shots," staged scenes that address issues of continuity, not storylines. But in an interview last week, Beasley divulged the level of manipulation that goes on in "The Hills." (Interestingly, the interview was conducted with the blog www.BestWeekEver.tv, a product of MTV sister network VH1. Et tu, VH1?)

The posting is perhaps the most incriminating evidence yet to surface supporting the -- let's face it -- fairly obvious allegation that the show's drama is largely manufactured by its producers. Beasley divulged behind-the-scenes details of his cameo, including how producers asked him to get Conrad's phone number and listed questions he should ask her. "They wanted me to ask her about the runway show, how long she had worked that day, when would she get off, stuff like that," Beasley said.

Thursday, an MTV rep responded that producers "overheard" that Beasley was planning to ask Conrad out on a date. And while maintaining that the show is not scripted, the spokeswoman acknowledged the producers sometimes help guide dialogue along for clarity. "Since there are no confessionals or interviews on 'The Hills' to put questions in context (as there are in shows like 'The Real World'), the producers sometimes ask cast members to rephrase to help tell the story clearly."

Beasley had also said that producers set up a barbecue party for the gang, specifically so Brody Jenner and he could meet, thus providing the fodder for an episode that would revolve entirely around Jenner becoming jealous of Beasley. MTV denied this, saying that it was the cast who organized the party.

Scripted or not, watching L.A.'s most popular layabouts bicker has been the definition of guilty pleasure since its launch a year and a half ago. You can't write someone like perpetual backstabber Heidi Montag, who made herself so fun to hate during the second season. Montag, however, has been sidelined this season by the considerably more bland Conrad, so can you blame the producers for trying to stir the pot? Especially when their subjects, with the exceptions of Montag and her fiance, the archvillain Spencer Pratt, are pretty and passive, but dull? At least Team Heidi is trying to live up to the role as bad guys, as evidenced by the routine calls to Ryan Seacrest's radio show, People magazine and TMZ.

If producers are in fact helping things, er, roll along, though, then why is this season so boring? Sure, with former best friends Conrad and Montag on the outs, the series has split in to two so-so shows. The producers have also made the mistake of promoting Whitney Port and Audrina Patridge to being Conrad's chief sidekicks. Unfortunately for them, both are more venting boards for Conrad than anything else. (But, it must be said, thank heavens for Patridge's love interest, Justin "Bobby" Brescia, and his Taoist sayings. On relationships: "We can either kick rocks and be acquaintances . . . or let truth and time tell all.")

Humbly, we offer some suggestions for the producers for the future.

As long as you're manufacturing things, let's not give the girls their space. Remember this season's first episode when Conrad and Montag got into a screaming match at the nightclub LAX? We like that. Their run-in at Ketchup? Gimme more!

Maybe an 18-episode season wasn't the best idea. We know the show is MTV's bread and butter right now -- "Kaya" had a lukewarm reception Tuesday, and "Making Menudo" tanked -- but you're stretching things thin. Monday's episode, inaccurately titled "Stress and the City," sent Conrad and Port to New York, where (a) Port gave a horrible presentation to the Teen Vogue staff and was soon relieved to find that as a "Hills" regular no harm can befall you; and (b) Conrad did a some grunt work for her idol Marc Jacobs (only to play it a little too cool when they were introduced).

We'd settle for 13 episodes where, ya know, better stuff happens.

Also, acknowledge "The Hills' " popularity on the show. Follow them to nightclubs. Watch them address the press. Crash the photo shoots of Conrad and Montag (dueling magazine cover girls last month). Get in on Montag's and Pratt's publicity strategy sessions -- you know they have them -- and their calls to Seacrest. All this reality behind the reality is what's made the show a hit, right?

Then again, that might be a little too real for this reality show.

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