by: Anna McCarthy / New York University
“Oh my God, didn’t Morgan get pretty?” This was a friend’s response when I asked if he’d seen Laguna Beach, a new MTV reality show billed as “the real Orange County.” He wasn’t actually commenting on a character’s looks. Rather, like everyone with whom I’ve discussed the show, he was parodying its signature mode of dialogue: utterly banal phrases, voiced with blithe serenity, in exaggerated teenage upspeak.
I first became interested in Laguna Beach because my students were talking about it. Like them, I was amazed at the hyperbole of its Southern California teen stereotyping. But after watching a few episodes, my interest shifted. I started to ponder the place of the show — and the place of reality television more generally — within conventional typologies of television melodrama. I became convinced that Laguna Beach has something to teach us about the latter realm. Laguna Beach is only the latest example of reality TV’s resourcefulness in developing new techniques and formats for “unscripted, directorless” television. Yet it seems that regardless of its direction, reality TV remains firmly within the realm of melodrama, dependent for its appeal on the ability of characters to externalize emotions and internal conflicts through speech, expressions, and gestures. I am hardly the first person to consider the relationship between reality TV and the melodramatic imagination. What I hope to contribute, through an admittedly excessive discussion of formal strategies in Laguna Beach, is a sense of how the terms of what Ien Ang calls melodrama’s “emotional realism” are shifting. The lesson of Laguna Beach, I think, has to do with its creative mustering of techniques from the formal inventory of documentary history, techniques it recycles as tools to propagate popular melodramatic conventions.
The subject matter of Laguna Beach — the everyday lives, loves, and rivalries of rich white teenagers — makes it difficult at first to notice the show’s unique formal presentation. According to its producers the show attempts a cinematic style. What does the term cinematic mean in this instance? It seems to involve several stylistic choices, a number of them derived from the conventions of fictional drama on television. The show is not shot on film, but its widescreen aspect ratio suggests an anti-video sensibility. Unlike other reality shows it uses elaborate lighting setups. Blonde hair and tanned skin emit an especially painterly glow in Laguna Beach, distinguishing its interior scenes from the high key studio look of shows like The Real World. In further contrast, many scenarios are clearly staged for the camera. We see teenage boys squirm and mumble as they endeavor to carry on a group conversation on a set topic: will they stay in touch after graduation? And we witness both ends of telephone conversations, a strategy that signals the show’s commitment to narrative form and continuity over the pretense of spontaneous action. These staged moments position the teenage cast as improvising actors rather than sociological subjects. Together with the show’s lush cinematography, they forge a connection between Laguna Beach‘s “real Orange County” and the dramatic show it aims to supplement: Fox’s lavishly shot teen soap hit The O.C.
But there is more to the show’s stylistic project than visual references to celluloid TV drama. The meaning of cinematic in Laguna Beach clearly exceeds conventional usages. At once highly particularizing and endlessly flexible, the term embodies the semiotic promiscuity that, as John Caldwell notes, suffuses almost all of the TV industry’s aesthetic categories. For Laguna Beach‘s producers, cinematic means more than simply the high production values of TV drama. Paradoxically, it also seems to refer to their interest in the rigorous codes of objectivity, as opposed to emotional manipulation, that define documentary form. In this respect, the term seems to carries on its overburdened chassis connotations of seriousness and higher purpose. These connotations are reflected in some strikingly unconventional aesthetic choices. Most reality shows rely extensively on hand held camera. Laguna Beach, in contrast, features an unusual amount of footage shot with a tripod. What’s more, the camera tends to maintain a discreet distance from the interactions it observes, capturing moments in long shot, with one long take. The result is a sense of Wisemanesque detachment, underscored by naturalistic “unsweetened” sound, that seems to invite viewerly comment on the teenage dramas that play out onscreen in such prosaic arenas as the family meal, the bitchy conversation, getting ready for prom, and aimlessly driving from one place to another.
This dependence on the long take and the long shot is more than a nod to documentary tradition. It enacts the promise of unmasking suggested in the “real Orange County” tagline, a promise embodied most concretely in the show’s editing. Take the beginning of the prom episode, where a noticeably unconventional audio transition brings us from the credits to the action. The visual track shows aerial views of palm trees on the coast, followed by an eye-level shot of the cloistered arches of an upscale strip mall where Lauren and Lo shop for dresses. It would be typical in TV editing to de-emphasize this transition from the credits through an audio crossfade in which ambient sound at the mall gradually replaces the theme music. But instead we get an abrupt sound edit, synched to an image cut, in which the white noise of traffic suddenly splices in at the same volume as the Spelling-style theme music that came before. It’s not so different from the sound editing techniques that defined another So-Cal melodrama: Todd Haynes’ Safe.
Indeed, this kind of intrusive editing is the principal technique through which Laguna Beach marks its difference from other reality programs. Time and again the rhythms of Cinema Verité govern the choice of when to cut. In the graduation episode, Kristin tells her friends that she and Stephen will stop seeing each other when they go to college. Although she insists that she’s happy with that decision, a delayed edit allows the camera to linger, exposing this sentiment as rationalization. Similarly, the producers choose to retain elements of the action that The Real World‘s production bible would prohibit, most notably moments when cast members look at the camera. Often, these moments lead us to question the sincerity of the emotions playing out onscreen, as in the scene where Lo’s seemingly loving attempts to comfort her mother, distraught at the prospect of her daughter’s graduation, are undercut by the sly glances she cannot resist stealing at the camera. In such moments, the show reminds me more than anything else of An American Family. Regularly refusing the release of the edit, and focusing on the gestures through which people bottle their emotions (The tight-lipped, pleasureless manner with which Pat Loud sips her drink and Lauren’s brittle, affected laugh, finely calibrated to torture Kristin) forge connections between Laguna Beach and the august history of television documentary.
How, then, does Laguna Beach contribute to the shape of television melodrama? The answer has to do with its instinctual combination of teen emotional preoccupations with Verité style. For Peter Brooks and subsequent critics, melodrama hinges on characters’ ability to articulate their interior states through speech and, at least in the classic formulation, music. The figures of melodrama are immediately self-knowing, fully capable of expressing their feelings to others. When they repress or distort these feelings they communicate that fact too, through gestures and facial expressions. Emoting without mediation, they hold nothing back in their efforts to act out personal history and form ethical insights on the deeds and behaviors of others.
This sounds a lot like what goes on in the tortured and hungry world of The O.C. The difficulty of achieving such emotional facility without a script may explain why reality shows in the past have relied upon interviews or devices like the video confessional as a tool for emotional reflection. In the The Real World, cast members use the confessional to articulate with adolescent confidence their total and complete understanding of themselves and those around them, but especially themselves. Characters in traditional melodrama don’t need the prompt of a video camera to spur their confession — everything they say is confession.
Laguna Beach‘s promise of emotional realism hinges on its ability to achieve melodramatic expression without the confessional, and indeed on its refusal of the artifice of confessional speech in both teen drama and its reality TV predecessors. This refusal is embodied in the graduation day episode, where we encounter the show’s own version of a stock teen melodrama character: the budding filmmaker who confronts people with a camcorder and gets them to say what they’re feeling. Like Brian Austin Green in the first season of Beverly Hills 90210, videographer Claire (clearly a plant) follows the protagonists around asking them how they feel about graduating, what they think the future holds for their generation, and so forth. But direct address to the camera visibly fails as a melodramatic technique in Laguna Beach. Stephen, Lauren, Lo, and the others comply with the request, but what they say bears little resemblance to video confessionals we’ve seen before. Instead of emotional display, their responses range from noncommittal evasions to meaningless platitudes.
Eschewing such conventions, Laguna Beach turns to a tradition that established itself as the opposite of melodrama’s cheesy formulae: the rigorous observational modes of independent documentary film. Is this still melodrama? Yes, in that it results in candid and acutely drawn portraits of emotional conflict. In calling their approach cinematic, the producers imply a desire to connect their work to both the emotional depth of classical Hollywood melodrama and the sociological depth of observational cinema. The show’s thesis might ultimately be phrased this way: true melodramatic engagement emerges not from the speeches that characters make but rather from the degree to which we are allowed to analyze these speeches, reading emotional realism in gestures and acknowledging the fraught subtexts of everyday speech. If this is the direction reality TV is headed, I am happy to leave the flaccid theatrics of The Real World behind.
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