Series finales are notoriously hard to pull off. As viewers, we expect the last episode of a beloved show to remain true to the heart of what made it great while also managing to still surprise us. But while expectations of series finales have grown exponentially over the last couple of decades, none of them have come close to matching the genius of The Hills, which was a meta-masterpiece that forever cemented its place in television history.
The Hills first aired in 2006 as a spin-off to Laguna Beach, and over the next four years, it became a cultural sensation. The show initially centered around the friendship of Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag as they left the OC behind in hopes of finding love, happiness and success in L.A. Along the way, they made new friends like Audrina Patridge while navigating romances with a rotation of guys, including Justin Bobby, Brody Jenner and Spencer Pratt, who eventually married Montag during the show’s fifth season and became among the most hated men in America when he became the primary source of Conrad and Montag’s friendship falling apart. From such feuds to Montag’s infamous plastic surgery debacle, the show managed to blend the grounded feel of a simple coming-of-age story with the over-the-top drama that naturally comes with the territory of reality TV.
But by the summer of 2010, the show had reached its natural conclusion. Conrad had already departed to focus on fashion and writing (though most believe she actually left due to her fractured relationship with Montag); Whitney Port headed to NYC to star in The City, a spin-off that nobody watched; and Montag became the barely better half of the most toxic couple in reality TV history (Jax Taylor can’t hold a candle to Spencer’s destructive scumbaggery). So it was decided that the sixth season in four years — cable reality series will squeeze several seasons into a year to maximize popularity — would be the show’s last, and up until the very final scene of the series, it seemed like The Hills was playing it safe with its ending.
The major plot of this last season was whether or not Kristin Cavallari, who replaced Conrad as the show’s lead despite previously playing the heel on Laguna Beach, would leave L.A. to move to Europe. She eventually decides to bid California adieu in the finale but not before having one last emotional goodbye with Brody Jenner, her on-again, off-again love interest.
The entire scene nails exactly what we’d come to know and love about The Hills, with the magic of formulaic, slightly manipulative production and editing transforming a relatively low-stakes situation into a dramatic, life-altering goodbye. Jenner tells Cavallari he doesn’t want her to leave, but she says she must. They share a bittersweet hug, and Cavallari hops into a car to head to the airport while an acoustic version of Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” plays over a montage of the cast from the first season to the last. It’s the ending we all expected, a heartwarming bit of fan service that pays tribute to how much everyone had changed over four years.
But then, out of nowhere, The Hills managed to pull off a twist that makes The Usual Suspects look like The Happening. As we see Jenner longingly staring at Cavallari’s car driving away, suddenly the Hollywood sign in the background starts moving, revealing that it was just a backdrop on a standard Hollywood backlot. The camera pans out to show that Cavallari’s car had really just driven her a few feet. Once the director yells cut, Cavallari gets out of the car and shares a friendly hug with Jenner before casually declaring she’s heading out. In short, the entire thing was staged.
At the time, the decision to pull back the curtain and reveal the manufactured illusion of reality TV was met with mixed reviews. TV Fantatic’s Steve Marsi called it “the most confusing ending to a series” he’d ever seen, while Vulture’s Emma Rosenblum offered the faint praise of calling it “an interesting twist.” Even years later, critics still aren’t on board with the ending, as Nicole Pomarico of Refinery29 wrote in 2019 that an alternative ending where Jenner heads back to his apartment to find Conrad waiting for him “should have been the real ending.”
With all due respect to those critics, they’re dead wrong and their opinions are bad. The Hills series finale was the most impressive display of meta storytelling in TV history — a level of self-referential humor that Community’s Dan Harmon and Arrested Development’s Mitch Hurwitz could only dream of reaching.
Sure, by this time, we all kind of knew that reality TV played pretty loosely with the term “reality.” There were stories about the drama being staged and that some of the relationships were cooked up for the sake of intrigue. There were rumors of Conrad only attending Montag and Pratt’s wedding for the show, along with Montag’s job at Boardhouse Productions and Bobby and Patridge’s entire relationship being fake. Even Enzo, Speidi’s adorable young neighbor, was believed to be a child actor who didn’t actually live near them.
But while people are right to think reality TV is mostly fake, they’re wrong to assume that means it’s dumb. For the show’s entire run, joyless, smug assholes felt the need to point out The Hills’ flaws, calling it a vapid, pointless show that wasn’t even real. But in its final moments, The Hills proved how smart reality TV can be. To have the very last episode of an incredibly popular reality TV show shout out its own manufactured storytelling in such an overt way is pure, unadulterated brilliance. Even as reality TV has evolved, no show has ever managed to come close to such a daring display of smirking self-awareness.
In its final moments, The Hills gives a middle finger to all those who couldn’t see the show for the masterpiece that it was, serving as an almost Brechtian way to acknowledge the show’s own complex relationship with reality as it sails off into the sunset, never to be seen again.
Of course, that wasn’t technically the ending of The Hills, as MTV has recently tried to recapture the magic with The Hills: New Beginnings. However, the sequel reboot feels more like a desperate cash grab featuring cast members who haven’t done much since the original show ended. So rather than watch Speidi cling to what little fame they have left, I choose to believe The Hills ended with that perfect moment, revealing the series’ climactic goodbye had been completely staged and forcing viewers to look back on the entire show and wonder, “Was any of what I watched real?”
Even a decade later, the answer isn’t entirely clear.