The Way We Get By: Bret Easton Ellis on The Hills and The Crown

The legendary novelist and screenwriter is turning to two very different TV shows as a way of finding a place of calm during coronavirus lockdown.

Most of us are sequestered in our homes, doing our part to slow the spread of COVID-19. That includes some of our favorite artists, so we’re asking them to tell us about one thing — a book, a movie, a record, whatever — that’s helping them get through this difficult time.

If people are looking for things to keep them calm, I would recommend: The Hills, seasons 1-5 (once Lauren Conrad is gone, the show is done). It’s calming, soothing, very beautiful, and it’s arguably my favorite show ever, and that’s really because of the atmosphere. The Hills is the first reality show that really worked, and what’s different from all the other reality shows that followed is that it has a quiet mood — it’s not hyped up (there are no on-camera interviews to comment on the action). It’s actually a very subtle show and there are a lot of silences, and the silences that arrive at pivotal and dramatic moments can rival Pinter’s. There are long takes, subtle innuendo, and it’s filled with beautiful masters of Los Angeles skylines. It captures a certain sunlit sadness that’s unique to L.A. and this affects the group of young people falling in lust with one another or misunderstanding each others motivations or figuring out who’s a true friend and those who doesn’t really care. The characters themselves are not necessarily that interesting on their own, but they become interesting as a collective voice because of the world that they occupy. It’s the atmosphere of the show that casts a spell.

During this season of the virus, I found myself watching The Crown, which I finally caught up with and which, in a strange way, is also on one level very calming, because it’s all about control, order and a British kind of formality and rigor. And in these anxious times it has been very soothing to watch regardless of the sense of imprisonment that many, if not all, the characters experience — there’s a kind of relentless tension to The Crown, but at the same time, there is an order; it’s constantly stressed that the crown represents Order. I’m not sure I would have been responding to the show in this way if we weren’t overwhelmed by this particular crisis, which seems so random and nebulous and dangerous.

When I watched the pilot a few years ago, The Crown seemed overly familiar to me, and I wasn’t as hungry for its casual sense of spectacle as I am now. But it was recommended, yet again, to me recently, and so when the coronavirus lockdown started, I thought, “Why not?” — I’d tried a dozen other shows I hadn’t seen and been burned by them all. I became almost automatically enthralled and just got sucked into it — for an hour every night the anxiety of the moment disappeared. People have accused the show of having a middlebrow, Masterpiece Theater kind of stuffiness, but it’s very well written and there’s a really intense sense of dissatisfaction lurking everywhere and there’s a tension to that, and it has been gripping me.

The Crown is also extremely lavish in ways that most TV shows aren’t, and it takes place in the upper echelons of the privileged and the wealthy, which is a milieu that’s always been interesting to me —unhappy people in palaces. The Hills is also set in a similar milieu — the regal young VIPs of early aughties Hollywood and their own dissatisfactions — and you can tie those two shows together in terms of their investigations of privilege and, to a degree, the limits of it. With the four young women at its center, The Hills is like an Austen novel reimagined to its current moment.

Both these shows bring me a sense of peace, but I guess anything good and well-crafted does — and The Hills was the best crafted of any reality series. When I respond to a TV series, it’s almost always about the aesthetics. I really don’t care what the story is, or who the characters are, or if I relate to or like anybody — all of that’s secondary; for me, it’s all about tone and atmosphere. It’s about mood, about the feeling of the world the creators have built, and how immersive that world becomes. This is what draws me into a show whether it’s The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire or any other show I’ve loved.

When the lockdown in L.A. started, on one level I was really looking forward to it. I thought, “OK, this is going to clarify everything. This is a disaster we have to get through, and we’re hopefully going to come out the other side in a better place.” That was my hope. I said to myself,I’m ready to hunker down. Let’s just make it through. But what I realized is that social distancing and self-quarantining is just what I do as a writer, anyway. My life now isn’t that different. I can’t meet friends for a drink, or go to a restaurant, to a movie or to the gym — and yes, I’m now going crazy because of those things, and there have been bouts of severe cabin-fever induced anxiety — but otherwise, my day-to-day life is basically the same. But I’m essentially an absurdist and it’s hard for me to take things as sincerely as many others do — what my millennial partner likes to point out is nihilism, what he thinks is the worst trait of Gen X. Whether it’s a sense of absurdity or an innate nihilism, I think a sense of humor, no matter how black or gallows, is the way to get through this. And that’s why binge-watching season 10 of Curb Your Enthusiasm (one of its funniest seasons ever) has made the fear of the moment somewhat tolerable as well.

Bret Easton Ellis is the author of six novels including Less Than Zero, The Rules of AttractionAmerican Psycho, Glamorama, Lunar Park and Imperial Bedrooms, and a collection of stories, The Informers. His works have been translated into 30 languages. He wrote the original screenplay for Paul Schrader’s The Canyons, and Less Than ZeroThe Rules of Attraction, American Psycho and The Informers have all been made into films. He also hosts a podcast about movies, The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast, on He lives in Los Angeles.