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Dunzo: ‘Laguna Beach’ 10 Years Later

| Sunday, September 28, 2014

web_laguna beachSara Shoemake

“This is where it all happened. Laguna Beach, California. A small town in the O.C. where I grew up. I just finished my senior year of high school, a year I’ll never forget.” With those words, Lauren Conrad (“LC”) was introduced to the American public on “Laguna Beach” 10 years ago. What began as MTV’s attempt to replicate the success of Fox’s popular, scripted teen drama “The O.C.,” became a cultural phenomenon in its own right.

The show purported to show “The Real Orange County.” “Real” meant an affluent world of gorgeous coastlines, beach bonfires and infinity pools — not that different from the show it emulated. The Cohen family’s Newport Beach McMansion is almost indistinguishable from that of the Conrad family, down to the picture-perfect view overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The show’s cinematic look gave it a high-gloss sheen that made it visually resemble scripted series.

Yet despite its aspirational depiction of Southern California, the first season of “Laguna Beach” relished in the mundanity of high school. It was one of the first shows to cast regular people, not to compete against each other or live in a special environment, but simply to document their actual lives. MTV smartly cast teenagers who were part of the same friend group and filmed the dynamics of their interpersonal relationships.

At its heart was the love triangle between Conrad, brash “mean girl” Kristin Cavallari and tanned surfer boy Stephen Colletti. The show’s main plotlines revolved around the drama of LC and Kristin fighting over the same indecisive guy. This came to a head during their spring break trip to Cabo, where LC and Stephen hook up. When Stephen calls out Kristin for dancing on a bar in that episode, it feels uncharacteristically over-the-top for the show.

This is because the first season’s most memorable moments were the quotidian events of senior year of high school: 18th birthdays, college acceptance letters, prom, graduation, going off to college. In retrospect it is filled with cultural touchstones — trucker hats, flip phones, Blink 182 concerts — that date it unquestionably to the early aughts. It never trivialized the way teenagers treat every life event with such gravity; it instead mined intrigue from everyday adolescent life.

Like scripted series “My So-Called Life” and “Freaks and Geeks,” “Laguna Beach” also embraced the way American teenagers actually speak. Strangely, it has an almost mumblecore aesthetic, with its reliance on natural dialogue. The cast’s California English is filled with colloquialisms like “gnarly” and incessant use of “like” as filler speech. And of course, Kristin famously screams, “My car is dunzo!” when her white SUV breaks down, coining the show’s most famous catchphrase.

It also launched the idea that someone could be “famous” for being a reality star. In the years since, Conrad has gone on to create a business empire with clothing lines, best-selling books and a lifestyle website. She was one of the first to capitalize on her reality TV success, or more pejoratively, being famous for being famous. Similar reality soaps like “The Real Housewives” franchise, “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and of course, “The Hills”— the spin-off that followed Conrad and her friends’ twenties in Los Angeles — have followed in serving as star-making platforms for previously unknowns.

10 years later, the show still stands as an early 2000s pop culture touchstone, establishing the conventions for modern reality TV. Over the past decade, reality shows have become increasingly scripted, as cast members knowingly try to fill certain roles and create drama. It makes the seeming mundanity of “Laguna Beach” even more refreshing and enjoyable. Sometimes reality — even in its privileged Southern California version — is more interesting after all.

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About Matthew Munhall

Matthew thinks everyone should listen to Charly Bliss.

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