[18 July 2005]
Laguna Beach can’t help but be derivative. Coming after The O.C., and before that, Beverly Hills, 90210, MTV’s reality series about rich and beautiful Southern California teens doesn’t even seem all that “real.”
MTV markets Laguna Beach as a hybrid “experiment”: real lives shot and edited like fiction. But doesn’t all reality TV do that? Using two cameras and a narrator, Lauren (“LC”), the mix of “fly on the wall” style imagery and dramatic storytelling (unrequited love, relationship drama, tension with parents and siblings) is typical. So it falls to the kids to keep our interest, even as theirs are limited to senior year rituals, like college applications, Spring Break, prom, and graduation.
The series spends most of its time on a boring love triangle, which it keeps trying to mine for dramatic tension. Since the whole storyline seems blown out of proportion and repetitive, it plays like a desperate grab for anything interesting. Not since Brenda and Dylan and Kelly have we seen such gorgeous high schoolers so locked into serial hook-ups and betrayals. Stephen, resident heartthrob surfer, breaks up with Kristin, a feisty junior, and then gets together with longtime friend Lauren, the gorgeous blonde pining for him, then juggles both.
Not much changes in these relationships. The series begins and ends its narrative with this vapid trio. The first episode, “A Black and White Affair,” opens with Lauren discussing her hopeless affection for Stephen in voice-over, and the final episode, “Dunzo,” concludes the same way. Stephen and Kristin agree to an “open relationship,” and Lauren leaves with him, as both are attending college in San Francisco. Even though it seems clear that neither relationship has legs, the episode ends with Stephen picking up Lauren from the airport. And this focus on the tepid triangle will apparently continue, as it dominates previews for Season Two (included in the extras), which premieres 25 July. Like this excessive attention to the love story, the series spends way too much time on who didn’t get invited to parties, who’s crushing out on each other, who has nicer clothes, cars or houses.
We do get a few attempts at meatier themes. One that succeeds is an insider/outsider trope with two Christian friends, Morgan and Christina. Morgan’s pledge to remain a virgin until marriage and Christina’s status as a famous preacher’s daughter (her father is the shockingly wealthy head of the Crystal Cathedral) make them feel out of step with the fast set. It’s poignant to see how they’re both attracted to and repulsed by the O.C. scene, and through them we get a mild critique of superficiality and lives devoted to nothing more than the next party. Morgan, for example, has only applied to Brigham Young because she wants to be in a place that supports her values. When she opens the BYU Letter on camera, she’s devastated to learn she’s been rejected, and the series sparks genuine sympathy here. That scene turns out to be especially manipulative, though, because we learn in the DVD extras, which include deleted scenes and cast interviews, that she did eventually get into BYU.
Another attempt to make these kids seem like they’re more than just rich and vacuous is less successful. The show tackles the topic of teen activism but fails to deliver any substance or coherence. Trey, self-described political activist and fashion innovator, launches a non-profit organization called Active Young America, designed to get teens involved in politics. We watch him hold an open mic night and throw a fashion show fundraiser. But we never learn much about his ideas.
In his extras interview, Trey says he auditioned for the show to get national exposure for his organization and to show Laguna Beach in a “positive light,” but it’s never clear what that means. After high school, he’s headed to Bard, where he says he can “make a difference.” Laguna Beach turns his vague political commitments into fashion statements, like the Che Guevara hat he wears for a TRL appearance (also included in the DVD extras). If there’s more there there, we never see it.
The series’ inability to portray “issues” in the teens’ lives is compounded by ethical questions about how cameras and publicity change their subjects’ experiences, in this case, some very young subjects. Since Laguna Beach promises you’ll be jealous of their cushy lives, these kids could be in for some serious hostility from audiences. The executive producer, Nancy McDonald, and crew aim to answer some of those questions, in their interviews with cast members. Most went in with their eyes open to possible negative results, but saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime “opportunity.” Cheeky lothario Talan says, “It’s almost like a diary of my life that I can almost just like take and watch when I’m older. So it’s almost like instead of paying someone to make me a diary, it’s already been made, you know, I mean, so that’s really cool.” Almost, but not quite. Someone else is editing his “diary” for public consumption.
Many castmates see it as an opportunity to, as several say, “find themselves.” Morgan claims, “It helped who I was…. Watching yourself and evaluating yourself is able [sic] to help you better yourself and to grow. And to realize: I do that?!” This idea of reality TV as self-examination or even therapy seems naïve, since these kids are just the newest MTV product. Offering such scary insights, these cast interviews are the best part of the DVD. They provide a more complex view of these kids’ experiences than do the show’s hokey storylines and flashy editing.