“The Hills: New Beginnings” reconvenes the cast of “The Hills” as if undertaking a case study in the dysfunctions of self-exploitation. It is a haunted sequel to the original series, which aired between 2006 and 2010, and remains both a decadent summit of summertime reality soaps and a glowing ill omen of spiritual rot. “The Hills” was itself a spinoff of “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County,” and presaged the dramatic methods and presentational styles of “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” on Bravo, and of vast tracts of reality programming across basic cable. Most crucially, “The Hills” furthered the profession of reality-TV stardom: the moment when it stopped being a thing one did in the spirit of a gap year, or a turn on “The Price Is Right,” and started becoming a show-business calling and a path to the Presidency.
The dramatis personae of “The Hills: New Beginnings,” legends of the game, were barely adults when we met them. Now they are approaching the cusp of a “Real Housewives” ripeness and “evolving” in their interpersonal lives and entertainment careers. Mostly, they are chatting about attempting to evolve. The new show retains the original’s Warholian purity of inaction and its languid tension: nothing much happens, and it is not happening at a soothing pace, under a glazy gaze. The castmates communicate in lucid plot summaries, upspoken gossip, small-talk complaints about L.A. traffic, passive-aggressive ultimatums, devastatingly accurate behind-the-back analyses of other people’s problems, and exchanges guided by an approach to psychology espoused in group sessions at Passages Malibu. A prelude to the new series caught these people primping in their mirrors, putting on their faces. The camera was up in their pores like a dermatologist’s magnifier.
“Time changes everything,” Audrina Patridge says, and she is only half right. It is true that she is now a divorced woman and an openly terrified single mother, but her taste in men remains deeply unfortunate, as attested by her renewed flirtation with Justin Bobby. “New Beginnings” muses upon the passage of time often. It is a show about kindling old flames and stoking aged beefs. Each of the most dynamic castmates is returning from some sort of exile. They touch down at LAX, speaking about patterns of avoidance and confrontation, wheeling designer baggage copped from gifting suites. They reckon with their past mistakes, which often are plentiful, owing to the producers’ need for dramatic conflict and the players’ personal inventories of chemical and emotional dependencies. Take the moment when the arch-villain Spencer Pratt becomes distraught that his old friend Brody Jenner, of the Calabasas Kardashian-Jenners, is now married and presumed henpecked. Jenner, who has mitigated his partying ways over the years, set Pratt off by declining to join him and a pod of young models in any of several rounds of tequila shots downed around lunchtime on a Tuesday.
Pratt and his wife, Heidi Montag, are a couple whose bond was forged in the crucible of a paparazzo’s flashtube. Pratt is a savant of the reality-TV form, and he was, back in the day, skilled at inhabiting a nasty character, with his muscular tantrums and tremendous ego trips. But it went to his head; seemingly addled by the off-gassing of his notoriety, he became a monstrosity. He looks back at the boom of money and fame and says, “We were living the dream. But it was just a dream. It wasn’t real. That’s the problem.” A montage establishing the flavor of his home décor includes a shot of the saddest chalice in the history of commemorative cups: a trophy honoring Pratt and Montag’s joint entry, under the checkout-line portmanteau “Speidi,” in the Reality TV Awards Hall of Fame, in 2015.
Montag, looking back at her ascent, says that she regrets her impulse purchases of plastic surgeries, but that she is at peace with those regrets. Pratt, too, has mellowed into self-knowledge and moderation, while retaining enough spiciness that he still inspires his closest friends and family to storm out of night clubs. The two of them have a son now. Some of Pratt’s fans will attribute his new stability to the grounding effects of fatherhood, others to his dedicated regimen of crystal healing treatments.
One major plotline concerns whether Pratt will reconcile with his sister, Stephanie, who has returned to California from London, where she plied her craft on “Celebrity Big Brother” and the like. The siblings’ feud—with its snubs and counter-snubs, with its profound energies manifesting as petty spats—combines the substance of an interfamilial Facebook drama with the verbal sparring style found on a bad night at a bar on the weekend of Thanksgiving.
Whitney Port, calm and chic, rolls her round eyes at such drama, but neither Lauren Conrad nor Kristin Cavallari has deigned to grace this revival. In recompense, the new series fills out its cast with faces including the actress Mischa Barton. Here is a twist: Barton—a legitimate actor, derailed It Girl, and erstwhile gossip-column character—settles among the performers who only play themselves. In keeping with the theme of reckoning, “New Beginnings” contrives an opportunity for Barton to speak her mind to Perez Hilton, the erstwhile Walter Winchell of WordPress, who was misogynistically rude to her back in the day. “I think he talked a lot of shit about her weight and stuff,” Port explains to a colleague.
“New Beginnings” also brings us the celebrity scion Brandon Thomas Lee, introduced as the twenty-two-year-old son of Mötley Crüe’s drummer and “Baywatch” ’s undying pinup. His role is to be a wise man and a lucky boy; he is clean and sober and levelheaded, focussed strictly on studying scripts and on hanging out with flocks of Instagram bikini models, whose indistinct chatter fills the back of the soundtrack like an excitement of songbirds. Lee views Pratt and Jenner with detachment: “They’re like bickering exes now.” His mom makes a cameo that puts the show in its proper context. Lee has bought himself a house, and Pamela Anderson has come to see it. She frowns at his pantry briskly. “Lucky Charms,” she says, with a resigned sigh, and burns some sage to bless the space, for the house must be clear of bad energy, especially if it is to be a home studio.