Faking it

MTV's The City never gets real
By SHARON STEEL  |  January 6, 2009

090109_city_main
JUST PRETEND: Whitney Port can’t seem to decide whether she’s real or scripted.

The day before MTV premiered The City (Mondays at 10 pm), a new spinoff of its successful semi-scripted reality series The Hills, Herman Rosenblat was exposed for perpetrating an elaborate literary fraud. Rosenblat, whose memoir would have been published in February, claimed that he and his wife had first met as children during the Holocaust, while he was in a concentration camp. Of late, the publishing industry has made a shoddy habit of signing authors whose memoirs are crammed with a charismatic mix of fact and fiction massaged in all the right places to make things look better, super-epic, somehow more triumphant. But if you were Whitney Port, the colt-legged, honey-haired, cow-eyed star of The City, you might not think that what Rosenblat did was so terrible.

The City, like The Hills, bears MTV's tramp stamp: immediately recognizable and exceedingly easy to judge ahead of time. Both shows were created by Adam Divello, and they're marked by the same constants: lush, cinematic, sweeping camera shots; a grandiose emo soundtrack that tells you what to feel; a cast of characters who aren't quite actors but aren't quite living out their own lives.

The City's conceit sees Port ditch LA, home base of The Hills, for New York, after landing a gig as a publicist for iconic designer Diane von Furstenberg. Her co-worker is vixen/socialite Olivia Palermo, who immediately confronts her with the choice that, surely, every recent transplant to NYC must contend with: dirty downtown or society uptown? (Leave Brooklyn to The Real World; on The City, it doesn't stand a chance.) Oh, and there's also a boy, Jay Lyon, a New Yorker by way of Australia whom Port met at a bar where his band were playing. As it happens, this entire set-up took place in last season's Hills finale, so nobody's missed a beat when Port pushes open the door to the polished DVF offices, or falls into a charged embrace with Lyon within the first five minutes.

But The City's orchestrated, semi-scripted æsthetic doesn't come off anywhere near as pleasurably guilty as it did on The Hills, a show I genuinely enjoyed watching. Port is trying to define herself in New York, as all fashionable strivers eventually must; unfortunately, she's up against the likes of Holly Golightly, Annie Hall, Blair Waldorf, and Carrie Bradshaw, characters who are played by better actors or have more interesting backstories. Two episodes in, as is characteristic of Divello's touch, things happen and they don't. Boys snarl douchy threats against Port's reputation in a loutish club in the Meatpacking District. Lyon slurs that he's not cheating on her. Palermo seems soooo mean, then decides to adopt Port into her inner circle. So why is this New York fantasy altogether grim already? Neither MTV nor Port has the inclination even to pretend to be artless and genuine, and the producers can't be bothered to iron out the awkward stiltedness in the editing room.

The redeeming scenes — when Port visits her sassy old boss, Kelly Cutrone, and the few moments where she looks as if, underneath her airbrushed foundation, she were scared shitless of the place she now calls home — don't help much. Now more than ever, you can sense the producers' role in pushing the drama along and ever-so-quietly introducing people who, on camera, claim they've been good pals for ages. Just take Port's "downtown girl" co-star Erin. Which came first, the BFF necklace or the signed waiver? In The City, there's no point in being baffled, because neither answer is any fun.

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