Laguna Beach

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.

Laguna Beach Info
MTV Laguna Beach site
I Love Reality

Please feel free to comment.


  • a non-viewer’s take

    Unfortunately, I have never had an opportunity to see Laguna Beach, but have been around for animated conversations of fans and critics of the show. The melodramatic aspect of the show seems to be a drawing point for many viewers. In fact, it took me a while when I first heard of the show to realize the fans were discussing reality tv. From the way viewers discuss and relate to the show, it is more like The O.C. than Survivor. I think the fan culture surrounding this show is interesting for that reason and for sheer amazing fact that reality tv is able to create stars out of people with no apparent talent or interesting qualities. It’s taking a new type of fan culture to not be able to remember baseball factoids or number of film credits and instead to be able to copy teenage girls’ mundane catch phrases and clothing styles.

  • Kymberly Hernandez

    a non-viewer’s take 2

    I also have never really watched Laguna Beach, with the exception of 1 episode that I had to watch for my RTF 317 class. My sister and roommate, however, are great fans so I am aware of it’s fanbase and their take on the show. They, along with many others I assume, are reminded of how silly we acted in high school and how mature we THOUGHT we were. This, I believe, is where much of the interest derives from. It is an almost nostalgic, if not funny, look at high school, albeit a rich one with a white majority. Like Brea’s comments above, I think it involves the silly catch phrases and styles of the show’s stars also. And, being modeled after a much-loved show, The OC, doesn’t hurt either.

  • Hey, what do u guyz think about Lo on Laguna Beach?

  • Lo’s Prom Dress

    If anyone knows what brand or where Lo got her sky blue, flowered, tube dress, which she wore to the Prom, please e-mail me.

  • Lo’s prom dress

    dude i really want to know what brand her dress was tooo!! if any one knows pleaseeee email me!!thank you soo much!

  • Wow, I loved this article. I had no idea the depth of production and techniques used in this seamingly shallow reality show. I definitely agree with your thesis that melodrama is how we the viewer interpret the characters interaction and dialogue rather than letting the characters and their dialogue speak for themselves. When I first watched this show last year all I thought of was how fake and scripted it was. I didn’t really ackowledge how the combining of the cinema verte style with a scripted scenes creates a whole new reality feel. Great article!

  • Roosevelt Brown

    Pretty White Kids with Problems

    I would first like to point out that I had never sat back and objectively looked at Laguna Beach before; most of that probably comes from the hidden shame that I have from watching this show in the first place. Anyway, for the most part Laguna Beach is able to incorporate many themes that I hate about popular television today: 1) Reality TV; 2) Spoiled Rich Kids; 3) Overly-Good Looking People. Any passerby that watches this show would think it’s just another glossy teen-drama about kids who are way too rich to have so many issues, and in many ways it is. The ridiculously mean things that some of these kids say to one another, the extravagant trips that they go on, the luxury items like clothes and cars that they are privy to; it’s enough to make anyone “why in the hell am I watching this?” However, just like the original author of this article says, this show feeds off the point that it’s “the real OC” as opposed to the scripted version on television. It’s a real show about real rich kids and somehow that makes for good television. I am apart of the slightly jaded MTV GENERATION, so I am biologically inclined to watch crap like this. Although, no matter how much I might rag on it, there is no disputing how well done (aesthetically speaking) this show is. MTV takes note of the many watered down reality TV formats because it helped bring them about, and they try to visually present something a little bit different with subject matter that has been seen, time and time again. The very thing that makes me dislike reality shows about rich people (I HATE PARIS HILTON) is the very thing that draws me into them. As someone from the outside, it’s rather intriguing to me to be brought into a world of which I know nothing about. So maybe this will help me to understand them better, or maybe it’s just something for me to do for a half-hour (I’m leaning towards the latter).

  • Samantha Garrett

    Welcome to high school

    Indeed, Laguna Beach benefits amazingly from its cinematic style, and, all shame aside, I was uncontrollably drawn to it. A fan of The O.C. for its first season, the tagline alone did not, however, lure me to watch what “really went on” in Orange County. In the previews shown before the show aired, each character would say, “This is not acting.” Viewers are led to believe this is a reality show, but how can that be? One glance at the color temperature and overall visual quality of the frame stumped me. For the entire first episode, I believed MTV was simply playing a cruel joke on its audience. Once giving in to my reality show prejudices though, I also was consumed by the overt emotions exhibited by all the characters. When watching reality tv, one must always remain skeptical of how much the subjects are really “reacting” and how much they are merely “acting.” The degree to which this occurs is a moot point however, and my questioning subsided partly because I felt a relation to these upper-middle to upper class teenagers. “Hey, this is what my friends sound like!” However much ridicule my conscience could project onto the shallow conversations, I don’t deny that I too can remember countless hours spent rationalizing to myself why so-and-so was “such a bitch” when indeed, she really wasn’t. She just happened to be on the wrong team in the social game, i.e. not on my team with my clique of friends. The affinity to these girls and guys helped me enjoy the reality show so much more, and I think this is also why I enjoy The O.C. at that. We watch what we’re comfortable with. I know that is why my friends and I loved the show so much, no matter how guilty we felt while watching it. Whereas The Real World takes a hodge-podge of incendiary folks and throws them into a house to see what happens, Laguna Beach infiltrated their turf. The show achieved a truly observational (with as much objectivity we can account for) documentary. As for the melodramatic aspect of it, welcome to high school.

  • Pretty Entertaining, but reality-yeah right!

    Okay, you caught me-I watched this show. In fact I watched every episode. As a film student you might think me a traitor, but a person can’t help what types of shows they enjoy. Probably one of the biggest reasons that this show appealed to me is because I am also a big fan of the O.C.. I like watching pretty, rich people getting into trouble, having relationship problems, and spending the money that none of them actually earned. When this show was first advertised on MTV, I was confused. Laguna Beach was being billed as a new reality show, but it had none of the features that one would expect from a typical reality show. The lighting was perfect, the people were gorgeous, the scenery was flawless, and the show seemed to be carefully edited as to hide all the aspects of the production. The first thing that I noticed in this reality show was that no one addressed the fact that there were camera’s present. All the “characters” acted as if everything in their life was normal, and gave no indication that their lives were suddenly being recorded 24/7. Clearly, moments that involved any discussion about their current situation in reality TV land had been cleverly edited out, as not to detract from the narrative of the television show. This brings me to my biggest point, isn’t the point of reality TV to make the audience feel as if they are watching events that actually took place? In its essence reality TV draws from a documentary style tradition. This technique gives a reality TV show the appearance of truth and of spontaneity. Even shows like The Simple Life look more like reality than Laguna Beach. One thing that The Simple Life implemented was using “experts” from the small town of Altus, to give the show some credibility. In a few episodes of The Simple Life the mayor of the city was featured as were other elderly people whom one would normally assume would not be trying to “trick” the audience by creating falsified stories to add excitement to the show. Also in The Simple Life Nicole and Paris frequently discussed the situation that they were in. They talked about how hard it was being shipped off to this small town and being filmed here for 30 days. They also discussed the purpose of the show: proving that rich girls were not simply snobby bitches, but could be sweet, intelligent, “normal” people (I’m not sure how successful they were, but hey at least they tried).Laguna Beach however was basically a “reality” version of a feature film like Can’t Hardly Wait. The central question of whether Lauren and Steven would ever get together was raised in the first episode and answered in the last. There were subplots, like where will Morgan go to college? Or will they remain friends after they all graduate? This television show was not documenting experiences it was creating stories, stakes, and relationships. Just as one might ask themselves if they have actually learned anything about the “real” Ashlee Simpon from watching her reality show, I might also ask if we ever got to see a true representation of any of the flawless teens that we were lucky enought to “meet” on Laguna Beach.

  • Audience

    Has anyone noticed the jarring disparity of the audience for which the show was actually intended comment on this article? (see flower tube dress comment).

  • I too get most of my introductions to various television programs through my students !, however I’ve never seen Laguna Beach.

  • I’ve never really watched Laguna Beach, but I also knew some who are fans of it. I also knew about it because of the Hollywood news. I never really thought of the cinematic style of this show, whenever I check on MTV channel and found that Laguna Beach was the show; I just think that it’s another pathetic scripted dramatic program and I’ll just change the channel somewhere else. But I couldn’t help to hear about the show from my friends, the funny thing is it really made me think how mature we thought we are when we were still in high school. Good old days. Haha! Now I’m trying to enter an online MBA program. Thank for this article. It’s really great!

  • Je vous remercie pour cet article riche en informations. Cela me paraît fort intéressant. bonne continuation.

    agence seo qu’est ce que le SEO

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