Watching the new opening credits of this last season of The Hills (a new episode premieres tonight) as Natasha Bedingfield wails about feeling the rain on your skin, we're struck by a new and slightly jarring sight: Juxtaposed with current images of each character (Heidi, Lo, Audrina, and Kristin) is a faux-grainy video clip of each of them from earlier in the show’s four-year run. This isn’t a new device. From Growing Pains to Parenthood, TV shows have long drawn on old photos for opening-credit rolls (connecting the audience to the actors as only baby pictures have the ability to do). But this time the point isn't to make you coo, but rather cringe at the stark photographic evidence of what reality TV does to a person.
Disguised in a warm and fuzzy package, the flashbacks are gut-punching visuals of just how drastically the four lead women have changed their looks since joining the popular series — and it must be noted that the oldest (Audrina) is a mere 24 years old. The most dramatic example is, of course, Heidi Montag, whose well-documented obsession with plastic surgery borders on mania. She looks, sadly, like a freak, and to see the cute-as-a-button pre-surgery Heidi smiling in the opening credits just brings that point home. But the other three — Audrina, and to a slightly lesser extent, Lo and Kristin — have also aged from fresh girls next door into Real Housewives territory in less than five years. Their features are more defined, their breasts enlarged, their faces taut. They've changed from individuals into manufactured reality-TV fembots.
So, instead of filling us with nostalgia, the opening credits make us swallow hard; the speedy time lapse of their metamorphoses is like the beauty-treatment cautionary-tale equivalent of those anti-drug photos showing the speedy degradation of meth users. One group looks eerily mannequinlike, the other is missing their teeth, but it feels like two sides of the same coin.
The juxtaposition in these credits is so glaring that it seems like they had to have been constructed by MTV precisely to point a finger and tsk-tsk at the stars. That would be an especially cruel blow by the network, considering that by putting these women on the show in the first place, MTV kick-started the very vanity that led them to look like they do. In providing a visual wink to the girls’ ever “improving” physiques, MTV has unwittingly exposed its seamy underside. And as viewers, ourselves participants in the spectacle, we wish that they’d put it where we couldn’t see it so clearly.