'The Hills': A Beginner's Guide

Maybe you've seen this Lauren Conrad character on magazine covers at the checkout counter. Maybe you've come across a "Heidi and Spence Split!!!" headline on some gossip blog. Maybe your kids can't stop talking about it.

Regardless, if you haven't watched it, you're probably wondering: What is "The Hills" and why should I care about it?

In short: It's MTV's 2-year-old, ultra-popular reality show about four rich, beautiful 20-somethings trying to find themselves in Los Angeles.

The dialogue will make you appreciate the talents of Hollywood's back-at-work writers and the "reality" it depicts is clearly contrived by producers.

But it's a fascinating look what qualifies for fame in the age of TMZ and how banal the lives of the supposedly fabulous can be.

And it's coming back with a batch of new episodes tonight. So lest you be struck dumb at the proverbial water cooler Tuesday morning, read on to get up to speed on the women of the "The Hills" without sitting through one of MTV's mind-numbing marathons.

The Popular Blonde: Lauren Conrad

It all started with Lauren Conrad, the 22-year-old petite blonde who co-starred in the first two seasons of MTV's reality-soap about privileged west coast high schoolers, "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County."

In 2006, after leaving Laguna to pursue a degree from L.A.'s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Conrad was approached by MTV producers interested in making her the star of a reality show based on her hooking up, going out and furthering her fashion career (pretty much in that order).

And so, in the first season of "The Hills," cameras followed Conrad as she moved into a tony L.A. townhouse with her latest best friend, Heidi Montag (more on her later).

When she wasn't agonizing over whether her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Jason Wahler, was the love of her life or the scum of the earth, Conrad spent her days at FIDM and the offices of Teen Vogue, where she interned, and her nights on the town at L.A.'s hottest clubs.

At the end of her internship (which conveniently coincided with the end of the "Hills" season) Conrad was presented a choice: spend the summer in Paris with her Teen Vogue editor, or waste away in a beach house with Wahler. She picked the guy; their relationship ended for good soon after.

Seasons two and three of "The Hills" focused on Conrad's epic falling out with Montag and her search for a suitor, most notably in playboy Brody Jenner. But her off-screen activities are what's getting her the most attention.

She parlayed her "Hills" gig into a fashion line in which she has full creative power. She paraded her latest collection down the runway at L.A.'s fashion week earlier this month, though critical reception was far from favorable -- New York Magazine called the Paris-inspired line "sadly kind of tragique."

She told The Wall Street Journal that she also wants to launch a line of furniture and eventually, a charitable foundation. She also scored the cover of the business bible and celebrity tome Us Weekly in the same week.

So, while the minutiae of Conrad's every day life may seem yawn-worthy on screen, Conrad's real real life is pretty sweet.

The Popular Blonde's Best Friend Turned Arch Nemesis: Heidi Montag

As Brenda was to Kelly in "Beverly Hills, 90210," Heidi is to Lauren (except she's a bottle blonde as well).

The two started out as inseparable roomies and FIDM classmates. But once Montag dropped out of school to pursue a PR career and got together with player and party boy Spencer Pratt, like a tear in a pair of Conrad's designer leggings, they started to split.

Despite Conrad's disapproval of her new boyfriend (he was caught planning a nude picnic with a group of Playboy playmates while dating Montag), the 21-year-old ditched her roommate to move in with Pratt during season two.

Same old story, right? Girl falls in love with guy and ditches best friend. But it's reality TV, and the tale couldn't be as tame as Conrad drowning her sorrows in Ben & Jerry's and Montag riding off into the sunset with Pratt.

As season three began, a vicious rumor was spreading though "The Hills" and the Internet -- Conrad had supposedly jumped on the Paris Hilton/Kim Kardashian bandwagon and made a sex tape with ex-boyfriend Whaler.

She accused Montag and Pratt of spreading the lie; they claimed Pratt's best friend -- and Conrad's crush -- Brody Jenner had started it.

The fights between Conrad and Montag over the origins of the sex tape rumor were one of the highlights of season three: in one shouting scene at an L.A. club, the two came close to tearing at each other's skimpy dresses.

When Montag later tried to make nice with Conrad and revive their friendship (while still denying she had anything to do with the sex tape rumor), Conrad locked her blue eyes in a cold stare and shot back, "I want to forgive you and I want to forget you."

To paraphrase Cher in "Clueless," it was way harsh.

Like Conrad, Montag has an off-screen life that is more telling than her performance on "The Hills."

Though she broke off her engagement with Pratt late in season three after tiring of his bad-boy antics -- spray painting graffiti on the walls of their apartment, suggesting they nix the plans for her dream wedding and elope -- the two remain a couple and paparazzi flock to them like flies to ... well, you know.

Montag's falling out with Conrad and her manufactured drama with Pratt have made her perfect tabloid fodder. (Her breast implants and new nose also helped.)

And like Conrad, she's parlaying her "Hills" fame into bigger and, presumably in her mind, better things. She released her debut pop single in February and hopes to put out a clothing line soon.

The Popular Blonde's New Best Friend/Token Non-Blonde: Audrina Patridge

Audrina Patridge became part of the "Hills" family back in season one, when Conrad and Montag first migrated to L.A. She went from drinking buddy to new best friend after Montag moved out and Conrad needed a new roommate.

With her long brunette locks, behind-the-neck tattoo, tendency to say as little as possible and job at Epic Records, Patridge seems like she'd fit in better on the tour bus of a Red Hot Chili Peppers cover band than on a reality show with two would-be sorority girls.

But like her two co-stars, she's got boy problems. Patridge, 22, spent much of season three trying to decipher sometimes-boyfriend Justin-Bobby -- an improbably-named, greasy-haired, motorcycle-riding stoner type who spoke even less than she did and made no sense on the few occassions he did.

The turning point of their realtionship: Justin-Bobby abandoning Patridge at a beach house barbeque, choosing to let her know not by telling her but by leaving her now-useless motorcycle helmet on the kitchen counter. She proceeded to cry into it.

The Popular Blonde's Down-to-Earth Co-Worker: Whitney Port

If the rest of the "Hills" girls represent everything that's wrong with reality TV and an entire subset of 20-somethings, Whitney Port is the antidote.

The 23-year-old started off an intern with Conrad at Teen Vogue. When Conrad picked her then-boyfriend over the Paris trip, Port took her place, and after that, scored a job that put her in charge of Conrad.

When Conrad comes into the Teen Vogue offices raspy and haggard from a night of partying, Port is all put together and typing away, nodding and "mm-hmming" at her tales of who hooked up with whom, but clearly more interested in what her Mac screen has to offer.

Like Conrad and Montag, she's launching her own fashion line. And her love life? Apart from a date with a dim-witted personal trainer in season three, it's off-camera, where it's probably best.

When We Last Saw Them ...:

Conrad and Port were off to Paris to help Teen Vogue cover the haute couture Crillon Ball.

Conrad's relationship with Brody was up in the air. She liked him as more than a friend and he seemed to feel the same way about her, but after scrolling through screen after screen of female names in his iPhone (including "Britney Canada Whore") she suspected she wasn't the only such friend in his life.

Patridge had vowed to move on from Justin-Bobby.

Questions swirled around Montag and Pratt. Will they split for good? Will they get married after all? Will they duke it out with Conrad and Jenner in a no-holds-barred Jello wrestling match?

Only one thing's for certain. "The Hills" is very much alive, and with 3.6 million viewers having tuned in for the season three premiere, the women of the show are not going away anytime soon.