The Monitor: So long to ‘The Hills’

And at the end, all that’s left is ash.

This week, MTV’s “The Hills” will come to a halt, four years and six seasons after it began, badly limping and in need of euthanasia. It’s been a mighty fall for a show that, along with its predecessor, " Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County,” helped cement the idea of reality TV as soap opera and also stretched the formal boundaries of the genre.

“The Hills”: A caption under a photo that accompanied the Monitor column in the July 11 Calendar section misidentified Stephanie Pratt on the left and Lo Bosworth on the right. Their positions were reversed. —

This season, though, has been taxing. Every remaining character is minor — someone’s friend, someone’s girlfriend, and so on. Audrina, once the outcast among the Laguna transplants, is now central, and sidekicks such as Stephanie and Lo have become the meat of this show.

Worse, gone are the long, meditative shots that lent structure and dignity to even the most insipid conversations between cast members. “The Hills” is now one quick-cut scene to the next, linking the minor intrigues — and all that’s left are minor intrigues — that, like gas fumes, have carried the show to its inevitable demise. (Among recent shows, only “The Wire” took its minor characters as seriously as “The Hills” does.)

What the sixth season revealed was this: Lauren was truly the show’s glue, a beacon of innocence and gentleness, and someone to root for. When she departed “The Hills” last season, she took with her the show’s claim to warmth. Kristin, who returned from the tabloids to reclaim the alpha female role in the group, embodied only the show’s seamier aspects.

With Lauren gone, everyone else was freed up, or forced, to play to their more craven instincts. Spencer and Heidi, once so central to the series’ narrative, had been fully neutralized by this season’s midpoint, Heidi by her extreme plastic surgery that turned even scenes of her drinking through a straw into clips from a tragicomic adventure show and Spencer by his continuing (and deliberate?) descent into crystal-and-mysticism-fueled madness. “I’m vibrationally tuned in, player,” he shouted this season. Then, a couple of episodes later, he warned, “People don’t know how dangerous I am.” On a show of casual miscreants, Spencer and Heidi might have been guessing that the only way to stand out was to become the real thing.

But “The Hills” loathes extremes. Lo and Audrina, so at each other’s throats just two years ago, competing for Lauren’s attention and loyalty, are now chirpy buddies. Kristin arrived during Season 5 with the explicit task of being a show-wrecker, a reckless cancer to replace sugar-sweet Lauren. But this season, apart from a couple of episodes early on that focused on her alleged drug problems, she’s been an amiable member of the crew, even attempting to reunite Audrina with Justin after she made a play for him last year.

Only the lesser players really suffered this season, the show’s final collateral damage. Holly, Heidi’s sister, still resembles an animal struck by a car on a dark road. “The Hills” hasn’t soured her or thickened her skin, it’s only eviscerated her. Watching her bleat, “I don’t even have your number!,” to Heidi this season bordered on abuse.

Even the nebbishy singer Ryan Cabrera reduced himself to a footnote — a smaller footnote — by dating Audrina and getting summarily dumped midseason after several episodes in which he appeared plainly uncomfortable on camera. (His attempted high-fiving of Audrina’s ex Justin in a nightclub was one of the most awkward moments on television this year.)

Given how only the dregs remain, it’s become increasingly essential for the show to create its own universe, its own logic, lest the outside world test it. This season, more than ever before, scenes existed only as set-ups for future confrontations — nothing of note takes place outside the show’s force field. Also, “The Hills,” the most modern of reality shows, continued to reinforce the idea that all important conversations have to happen in person: countless bars and restaurant lounges have served as locations for empty encounters that could have been more conveniently addressed with a phone call or text message.

Kudos, though, to Brody, who knows when to ignore an incoming phone call, as meaningful an act as any tête-à-tête. This season more than ever, he’s emerged as the most sensible cast member, secure enough in his fame and his swagger that he can treat the show like the advertisement for his lifestyle it was always designed to be. Others had to quarrel to get camera time; all Brody had to do was make nice.

On the group’s trip to Costa Rica — documented last month in the show’s 100th episode — Brody took control like a camp counselor, shepherding his charges through their final activities. In the previous episode, he was the one helping unify the group, leading a toast that sounded a lot like a graduation speech: “Cheers to the fact that we can all still be in the same room together after all the crazy … that’s happened.” And to the fact that they likely will never have to be again.