A new form of reality TV emerges from the sands of Laguna Beach 

A new form of reality TV emerges from the sands of Laguna Beach 

Welcome to the  TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. The theme for the next eight installments is “competition.”

“A Black And White Affair” (Laguna Beach, season 1, episode 1; originally aired 9/28/2004)

In which the idle teens of “the real Orange County” start a revolution by doing nothing at all

Meredith Blake: Although it was eventually overshadowed by its spin-off, The Hills, Laguna Beach is, in my humble opinion, the far superior reality series—easily one of the best of all time. (At least the first two seasons are, anyway. The less said about season three, the better.) For you reality naysayers out there, this will sound like faint praise, but I happen to think that Laguna Beach is, in its own highly manipulative and semi-scripted way, a brilliant show.

At the time Laguna Beach premièred, Orange County was having a cultural moment fueled by Josh Schwartz’s witty teen soap, The O.C. At the height of the real-estate bubble, affluent SoCal suburbs like Laguna and Newport Beach succeeded in taking over Beverly Hills’ long-held dominance in the collective imagination as a bizarre, sun-soaked parallel universe populated by trophy wives and sexually precocious teenagers with designer wardrobes. Of course, looking back on the era, Orange County stands for everything that was wrong with the early 2000s, which is why is part of the reason I find Laguna Beach so riveting—and so repellent.

At the center of Laguna Beach is the rivalry between “good girl” Lauren “L.C.” Conrad and “bad girl” (and chronic lockjaw sufferer) Kristin Cavallari. Reality television has a reputation for being manipulative and highly produced—and rightly so. But Laguna Beach is a reminder that the very best reality shows capture lightning in a bottle—an apt descriptor of the competition between these two terrifyingly pretty SoCal blondes. As we learn in the opening voiceover, L.C. and Kristin are engaged in a bitter rivalry for the heart of teenage lothario Stephen Colletti. There are staged moments all over this show—like the phone call Kristin conveniently gets while she’s lounging in the pool in a tiny bikini—but you simply can’t fake the pure, adolescent antagonism between the show’s female stars.

We’re obviously supposed to side with L.C., who’s not only the narrator of the series, but is also cast throughout as the “nice girl.” During the party at Trey’s house, Lauren says it might not be a very nice thing to pour bubbles into a hotel Jacuzzi that someone else will have to clean, and her friends Dieter and Polster as if she had just donated a kidney to a stranger. In a pow-wow with his bros, Stephen says Kristin’s a “great girl to hook up with” while Lauren is more “girlfriend” material. And later, at the black and white party, Lauren herself says it’s “ironic” that mean girl Kristin is the only one wearing a white dress, while L.C.’s in black.

We also repeatedly hear about Kristin’s penchant for drama. (One of the peculiarities of reality TV lingo is the use of the word “drama” as an adjective, and it’s all over this show.) But I’m not entirely convinced that she’s the only one who likes to stir the pot. I got hooked on Laguna Beach during one of those highly dangerous weekend marathons MTV is so fond of. I was in my mid-20s at the time, but even still, every time Kristin came on screen, she struck fear into my heart. L.C is pretty and all, but Ms. Cavallari has the kind of preternatural self-assurance that I only wish I had at her age. It’s the kind of confidence that easily gets misconstrued, especially by less secure rivals, as bitchiness. Possibly my favorite scene in this episode is when Kristin and her minion, Alex, are sitting around painting their toenails, when Alex observes, apropos of nothing, that Kristin and Stephen would have really “good-looking babies” because “Stephen’s hot.“ Kristin agrees. “Stephen’s really hot.” Of course what Kristin means is, “Yeah, I know. So am I,” but she doesn’t have to say it. Her smug smile says it all.

As much as Laguna Beach wants us to side with Lauren and her quest for Stephen’s heart, I honestly don’t know what to think. One of the things I love best about this show is how is ambiguous it is, despite all the heavy-handed music cues and deceptive editing. For me, it conjures all the painful confusion and emotional inarticulacy of adolescence in a really vivid way. We never really know the most basic information about Stephen and Kristin’s quasi-relationship. Lauren tells us Stephen is “kind of” Kristin’s boyfriend, but we have no idea how long they’ve “kind of” been dating, or if they’re “kind of” having sex. Part of the mystery comes from the fact that many of these kids are underage, and MTV can’t be too explicit—but, like so many teenagers, they’re also terrible communicators, more prone to shrugging and eye-rolls rather than sardonic observations à la Seth Cohen.

Whatever their relationship status, it seems clear that Stephen is the real villain here, not Lauren and especially not Kristin. He thinks nothing of lying to Kristin in order to spend the night with Lauren, and in her company, he of course acts as if Kristin doesn’t exist. (Note the moment when Lauren points out Kristin’s house and Stephen just mumbles, “Where? Oh,” like he hasn’t been there a thousand times.) Later, over dinner, Kristin catches him in a lie. But, pathetically, Stephen pretends not to know Lauren has feelings for him. “I guess that’s not the way she feels or something like that,” he says meekly. It’s hard to believe this guy had two girls in such a tizzy over him, isn’t it?

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I’d never laid eyes on this show before, although I did watch at least one episode of The Hills, and remember nearly losing my mind from waiting for something to happen. That was no preparation at all for gazing upon the original mothership. It reminded me of the first time I heard Neil Young’s “Cripple Creek Ferry.” In both cases, I waited patiently through the slow, steady buildup—or what I took to be the slow, steady buildup—then got to the end and felt a little explosion of firecrackers go off inside my head. When the closing credits started flashing onscreen, I sat bolt upright, looked at my watch, and then I went back to the beginning and watched it all over again, except this time I really bore down on it with the kind of laser concentration usually reserved for Russian novels and The Mahabarata. 

On the second pass, I did finally pick up glimmers of some kind of rivalry between two of the blonde girls: The really completely uninteresting one who later became notorious as the girl on The Hills who didn’t go to Paris, and Kristin. I couldn’t tell you which one is Kristin when her name isn’t superimposed on the screen alongside her face, but she’s my favorite, because the really uninteresting one says that Kristin “thinks she’s hot,” and then concedes that Kristin is, indeed hot, which means that, among the members of this brain trust, Kristin at least gets points for self-knowledge. But, probably  because I went into the episode with “competition” on the brain, I started thinking about it in a larger, more abstract sense: It’s as if this show and the people who populate it are challenging the world outside its boundaries, saying to everything that matters, everything that is funny, everything that is beautiful and wise and spiritually uplifting, “No! You will not hold the world’s attention—we will!” At the risk of boring all you good people blind with my political obsessions, it does make it seem like the perfect pop-culture craze for the moment when George W. Bush was re-elected and rewarded for his “Who cares what you think?” approach to domestic policy and international diplomacy. The fact that they were able to get millions of TV viewers to agree with their estimation of themselves, however briefly, is pretty impressive. On Breaking Bonaduce—to cite another reality show that drew viewers in by daring to risk repelling them—even Danny Bonaduce couldn’t do that just by standing there and radiating unearned privilege. He had to resort to slashing his wrists. 

Donna Bowman: I’m no reality naysayer. I enjoy the prestige reality competitions mostly these days, but I’m a longtime fan of the “serialized documentary” version of reality television, like Lifetime’s Cheerleader Nation (2006), or more recently All-American Muslim on TLC.  But you’ll have to color me way confused on Laguna Beach, Meredith. I’m aware of The Hills (mostly through The Soup), and of The O.C., and I understand how they all fit together. But I can’t for the life of me understand the appeal of the quasi-reality soap opera that this seems to be. To my old, crotchety eyes, it looks like a string of awkwardly engineered conversations designed to force these supposedly real people into delivering exposition about the simplified camera-ready versions of their lives that the producers have scripted for me.

And I’m also not sure how this choice fits into the “competition” theme of our Roundtable, except for (possibly) the two girls fighting over Stephen, or (more abstractly) the competition for the attention of the American public that Phil reads into it. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not knee-jerk against trash TV, or fetishizing the lives of the leisure class, or even massaging people’s real-life complexities into storylines that fit into a TV Guide synopsis. But the competition that I thought about while watching Laguna Beach was the fight behind the scenes among agents and labels and music supervisors about who would be featured on the soundtrack. Because isn’t that the real, lasting impact of shows of this ilk—the scores of bands who got attention because they could add “featured on The O.C.” to their press kits?

Ryan McGee: Look, I’m all for spending 22 minutes with Jay Cutler’s baby mama. That’s my right as an American, dammit, and more power to Meredith for taking us out of our collective comfort zones to look at this show, even if most of us would elect to view a solar eclipse instead if given the choice. 

But what I found genuinely fascinating about this journey back to the start of Laguna Beach is just how much this series serves as the blueprint for a specific strain of reality program that now dominates MTV’s sister station, VH1. In terms of “competition,” I think Phil is right to note that what’s riveting about this show is the way in which each person strives to serve as the protagonist for this particular program. It’s almost a bit like watching the first season of Survivor, in which the participants make up rules on the fly in order to see what sticks on the proverbial wall. I’m not sure the combined intelligence of the cast of Laguna Beach matches the intellectual prowess of Richard Hatch, but that almost makes their efforts to write their own story into the prefabricated world of this show all the more interesting.

It’s both fascinating and embarrassing to think back to the heights of this show’s popularity, during which its veracity was constantly in question in the popular media. People poured over Lauren Conrad monologues the way historians pour over Zapruder film. But while Conrad and Cavallari had to make on-camera mistakes in order to hone their brand, dozens (if not hundreds) of celebrity wannabes have studied the ways in which these characters portrayed themselves onscreen and “improved” the genre by highlighting conflict over verisimilitude. It didn’t matter if Lauren and Kristin hated each other. What mattered was who got more screentime. Kristin is indeed a force of nature in this pilot, and her energy essentially marginalizes Lauren for the majority of the episode. Rather than steering away from conflict, Kristin steered directly into it. It’s a lesson that countless housewives, mob wives, and celebrity wives have taken to heart in the decade since this show aired. It’s easy to dismiss this contribution to popular culture as slight at best, corrosive at worst. But the format has only grown in strength, not diminished. While there are plenty of other options for programming within the reality genre, more shows are based around people tearing each other down rather than building each other up. And we have two sun-kissed blondes from the O.C. to thank for that.

Erik Adams: Don’t call it that, Ryan.

Noel Murray: I’m not an especially big fan of this subgenre of reality TV either, largely because of those half-scripted expository conversations that Donna mentions. They just come off like badly acted improv, with the gaps filled in by portentous music and reaction shots. That said, it was interesting to see the first episode of the show that could be seen as Patient Zero for this whole line. It’s just such an odd and striking hybrid, between the teen soaps that I’ve always secretly loved (oh how I miss you, Fifteen) and something… almost real? I too like Phil’s reading that this first episode is secretly about the various Laguna Beach cast members fighting to become the show’s breakout star, before anyone really knew what that meant. And yet I found myself looking behind the stars-to-be to the kids filling out the cast, some of whom have moments that do seem legitimately of-the-moment, like when the one drunken boy says, “Remember when I used to be the smart one?” and his friends legitimately laugh.

I have a harder time speaking to the competition between the two rivals for their favored lad’s heart, because all these guys and gals kind of look alike to me. (Is that classist?) But Ryan, I think if I’d been watching Laguna Beach at the time, I would’ve been one of those people poring over it to determine what was true and what was made up, not to try to prove any point, but just to figure out whether it’s okay to be amused when one of these young lotharios says, “Skinny dip sesh… later.”

Erik Adams: About halfway through “A Black And White Affair,” it dawned on me: This was the first time I’ve ever watched Laguna Beach on purpose. The show served as a calming white noise throughout the middle of my college experience, but back then I mostly tuned in for a good larf at the way Stephen (Who went on to be a regular on One Tree Hill?) was portrayed as what cartoonist Brad Neely would call a “badass new god.” At times, Laguna Beach pushed Stephen’s mythic status as the epitome of SoCal cool so hard, it was easy to forget that the show was ostensibly about the rivalry between Kristin and Lauren.

To extend Phil’s observation: More than anything, the Laguna Beach première is a show competing for viewers’ attention. In the mid-2000s, MTV had a lock on documenting the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but the success of The Osbournes, Newlyweds: Nick And Jessica, and Punk’d pushed the network’s reality programming away from mirroring its viewers’ lives the way The Real World and Road Rules did in their early seasons. As such, “A Black And White Affair” has a lot of work to do to convince us that these kids are as interesting as Ozzy Osbourne or Jessica Simpson, doing so by hitching its wagon to the Conrad/Cavallari rift. Because there’s no actual confrontation between the two parties in the episode (just a lot of catty words exchanged behind each other’s backs), this stage of the feud is wildly boring. But that dullness hit a nerve with a generation of kids learning to treat themselves like celebrities on social networking sites (¡Viva Friendster!), whose own petty rivalries looked not unlike those playing out on Laguna Beach. In a bizarre instance of reality—the state of being and the television genre—folding in on itself, the Laguna Beach kids found fame by acting just like you and your high-school friends. When they left home for The Hills, their exploits remained small potatoes, but were treated with even more gravity—because, [Huffs.] Los Angeles. [Gazes longingly across table.] For a short period of time, Laguna Beach won its competition with the rest of reality TV, to the point where, as Ryan said, personalities with more legitimate claims to fame now get their own television shows by acting like a group of spoiled kids.

Todd VanDerWerff: I’m legitimately at a loss with this. I’d watched an episode of Laguna Beach back when the show was big and couldn’t make heads or tails of it, and I was even more confused by the popularity of The Hills. (A friend once explained it to me as The Hills filling a void for young women that Sex And The City had once occupied, since everybody could relate to one of the people on the show. Except I couldn’t. I met my wife at 18. I didn’t know anyone like these people.) But here’s the thing: Once I finished this episode of television—again, in which absolutely nothing happened—I very much wanted to watch another. It was all I could do to keep from clicking the “next episode” button on Netflix. Maybe that’s because the series is the perfect background noise for when you want to do something else, or maybe it’s because everybody on it will constantly tell you what’s happening, so you don’t have to pay attention. The program is vaguely, disturbingly hypnotic, in the way that it takes something that feels almost like real life, heightens it just a touch, then comes up with a mix that is, I guess, real-ish, until you feel like this is something you might just stumble upon one day out there on the street.

Or maybe the whole thing is so interesting to me because it’s such an accurate time capsule of 2004. Hillary Duff is the Disney girl du jour (and gets the theme song). Real estate remains a terrific investment. The characters have all the money they could possibly need and no real concerns. The whole thing made me want to see a follow-up documentary, one filmed 10 years later, which shows what happened to these people in the years that happened after high school, after the TV crews folded up and went home. But I realized that would never amount to anything, because these people are still living off their fame from these programs, weird sort-of celebrities that you see every once in a while and say, “Oh, right, her,” even if you never watched this program in the first place. (I remember watching an episode of Dr. Phil in which Cavallari tried to help teenagers learn to stand up against bullying. The mind reels.) What we really need is something fully scripted, some sort of Big Chill movie about people who grew up into adults from spoiled teenagers who didn’t know they were living on the edge of an abyss. Come to think of it, I might need to go order Final Draft…

Stray observations:

MB: The scene where L.C. shows Stephen around her family’s “gnarly” new home, perched high atop the hills of Laguna Beach, is just about the most pre-2008 thing ever, isn’t it? My favorite detail is that her father is having an enormous palm tree dropped down into the property via a crane.

MB: The names on this show blow my mind. I’m not sure which is worse, Talan or Polster. 

MB: One of the other things I love so much about this show is the way it’s filmed, apparently using long-distance cameras in order to make the cast members feel at ease. At times, like that amazingly voyeuristic scene of the girls primping in the bathroom before the party, it plays less like a reality series than a nature documentary about wildly spoiled teenagers. There’s something almost anthropological about it.

PDN: When the girls are talking about paying homage to Truman Capote with their black and white party, one of them mentions that they’d previously done “the Aristocrats party.” I assume that, at this party, everyone vied to perform the most elaborate re-enactment of this joke, and I deeply regret that this show didn’t go into production a few weeks sooner, so that clips from that shoot could now be all over YouTube. (If I’m guessing wrong and they did something else, please don’t tell me.)

PDN: In the most action-filled scene, the guy whose hair has since been passed down to Matty on Awkward. rolls his grotesque big-ass driving machine over the “expensive thing of cologne” that the kid who looks like an 8-year-old Udo Kier stores in his driveway, and Li’l Udo is appalled. He asks Matty if would he just run over a baby, if it had been placed next to his car? Matty, deeply confused, asks why anyone would place a baby next to his car, and his debating partner replies, “Why would I put cologne next to your car!?” That’s the fastest I’ve ever seen somebody lose an argument to himself.

PDN: Funny thing: I happened to watch this right after seeing Beasts Of The Southern Wild, another surreal visionary fantasy with a cast of untrained, nonprofessional actors, and it’s really amazing to see the different kind of results you can get with similarly raw material, depending on your aims and what you have to work with. One difference is that, where Quvenzhané Wallis, the 6-year-old star of Beasts, seems too completely who she is to ever come across as self-congratulatory, the people here seem awfully impressed with their ability to come up with such lines as, “This is gonna be the best party of senior year and “Those look more appropriate with the outfit.” (My favorite is the guy who, in the same scene, says both, “Dude, this is so gnarly,” and “Dude, you have the sickest view,” without at any point actually addressing someone who is, in fact, a dude.) Mind you, Wallis’ I.Q. is probably twice the collective I.Q. of everyone on this show.

RM: My favorite person in this show? The teenager who looks like Jackie Earle Haley. (Not teenage Jackie Earle Haley. I’m talking 2012 Jackie Earle Haley.) I don’t know who he is, but Stephen is sitting on his lap at 18:40.

RM: If you want to see how deeply embedded Laguna Beach is in the DNA of current VH1 shows, just watch that first scene. The four girls sitting around drinking, gossiping, and planning parties describes 90 percent of the action on a typical basic-cable reality show.

TV: Team Kristin. No doubt about it.

Next week: Ryan McGee gets us all wound up about winning Veridian Dynamics-branded junk with Better Off Ted’s “Swag The Dog. (Available on Netflix Instant.) After that, Todd VanDerWerff makes a strange wager with Peter Lorre in Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ “Man From The South,” which you can watch on YouTube