Ten years ago this weekend, an awkward, glittery gumdrop of a reality show called Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County premiered on MTV.
Named for the idyllic, canyon-scraping pocket of sand and surf in Orange County, California, the show followed affluent, blonde, honey-skinned beach teens who hit the ender sweet spot between aspirational and likable — they were rich and good-looking enough to make you want to watch, but not talented enough to land bountiful acting gigs or three-song music careers, hence the reality show.
There was the stiff, dead behind the eyes Lauren Conrad (LC) who eventually blossomed when given her own show. Stephen Colletti was the pillow-lipped object of Conrad's affection. Standing in the way of their love was the maleficent countess of Laguna, Kristin Cavallari, with her pristine, sandy blonde locks, her craggy Southern California surfer speak (ste-VAHN), and her mutant ability to cut people down with a fake laugh. There were also a few supporting teens, like Lo, a voice of reason for the mumble-mouthed LC, or Morgan, who actually read her rejection letter from BYU, the only college she applied to, out loud on cable television:
Each episode began with LC narrating what happened in the last episode (not much) and outlining the possible scenarios of what would happen next (also not much). The teens would fill the spaces in between the initial narration, the credits, gorgeous B-roll of Orange County, and catchy songs from Hilary Duff's discography with stilted, staccato conversations peppered with lengthy pauses and blistering insights like "We'd have really cute babies, because he's tan."
Some way, somehow, the show achieved a following and would change the texture of television — reality, scripted, and scripted reality — altogether. Here are seven shows that either inspired or were inspired by Laguna Beach:
The OC (2003)
This soapy teenage drama is the reason Laguna Beach was made and, accidentally, the reason we have so many reality shows about idle rich people doing nothing in particular. Audiences were introduced to Orange County by The OC (hint: no one from Orange County calls it "The OC" because that sounds really weird, like saying The Los Angeles) and began to think of it as a wonderland of rich, broken, alcoholic, drug-abusing, good-looking, smart, mature, teenagers living off of their parents money. Orange County was intriguing to viewers.
Laguna Beach was a stab at a "real" version of Josh Schwartz's fictionalized Orange County (hence the words in the title after Laguna Beach). The series did pretty well with the casting. The teens were almost as good-looking as the OC actors, and a couple of them actually did live in mansions.
The Hills/The City
Laguna Beach was an anthology of sorts, thanks to its its rotating cast of students. When LC and the first set of characters graduated from high school, Kristin took over. And after Kristin graduated, a whole new set of characters were introduced. Eventually, the production company left Laguna Beach High School and set up camp up the road at Newport Harbor high school for two more seasons of the show.
But the show's original stars didn't fall out of the public eye. Laguna Beach eventually begot The Hills, a Los Angeles spinoff featuring Lauren Conrad, who was finally allowed to be called Lauren now that she was the only Lauren on the show. It was basically just Laguna Beach — the same swooping B-roll, the same awkward conversations, the same narration — with characters who were allowed to drink, go to college (sort of), and have snazzy internships at Teen Vogue. We were introduced to characters like Heidi Montag, who would go on to burn the phrase "scooped out my back" into the tapestry of pop culture; Audrina Patridge, who had a habit of speaking in questions and looking into the sky; and Whitney Port, who seemed like a capable young everywoman and voice of reason.
Like a Russian nesting doll, The Hills created its own spinoff show called The City, where Port was the main character. That wasn't nearly as fun.
Kell on Earth
The main crux of Laguna Beach was that it was supposed to be the story of Lauren Conrad. But it wasn't until The Hills when she began opening up (and the show became more scripted), that Conrad's life became more interesting. Even then, the most riveting parts of Lauren Conrad's life were her friends, her enemies, and her bosses. One of shining beacons of realness on The Hills was Kelly Cutrone, the head of People's Revolution PR where Conrad interned.
Cutrone was introduced as a Devil Wears Prada-ish character, equal parts taskmaster and wrecking ball, who, nevertheless, came to respect Conrad. She was eventually given her own show on Bravo where she terrorized people who weren't Conrad.
But Laguna Beach influenced more than just shows featuring its cast or the cast of its spinoffs.
Laguna Beach was built on selling a place full of rich people and the teens who live there. Gossip Girl had the same premise, just applied to the incredibly rich of New York. As much as the show liked to sell viewers on the mystery of a person who was everywhere and updating a blog, the real beauty of that show was the campy acting, the mean girl dynamics (which often seemed like a hat tip to Laguna's Kristin) and the blunt, even mordant, perspective on class and status.
My Super Sweet 16
Laguna Beach desensitized the audience to filthy rich teenagers to the point where you expected every character on the show to be living in a hillside mansion. In order to shock us again, MTV decided to go bigger, younger, and blunter.
Laguna Beach became an appetizer for My Super Sweet 16, a reality show that regularly showcased teenagers spending five-to-six figures on lavish birthday parties. Of course, there was nowhere to go but down from this point, and now we have the Teen Mom franchise.
The Real Housewives of Orange County
The main problem with Laguna Beach is that Laguna Beach High School would not allow producers to film there. In addition, the cast members were too young to live on their own or go have a drink. That's a recipe for some aggressively non-riveting television. As a solution, we'd often see the cast at the beach, at someone's house party, or at a restaurant that got some nice product placement out of it. At least this provided some nice visual opportunities.
Bravo leaped on this by going after OC moms and housewives from Coto de Caza, a second tier Orange County town. In these housewives, Bravo found people old enough to drink, yet materialistic enough to be teenage catty on cable television. And, lo, an entire franchise of reality television was born.
Laguna Beach was excellent at selling a stereotype. Jersey Shore perfected that formula when it brought us Ronnie, Snooki, The Situation, Sammi, JWoww, Vinnie, and Pauly D. They were as Italian and flashy as the Laguna kids were blonde and rich, and their show would go on, unexpectedly, to be one of the biggest hits in MTV history.
The characters of Jersey Shore were more fully realized, but also more of a punchline than the Laguna kids were. There was a sense of aspiration with the Laguna kids that was absent from Jersey Shore, where many of the series' fans were tuning in just to see how messy these people could be.
Keeping Up with the Kardashians
Laguna Beach died so Keeping Up could live. Keeping Up is what happens when you have parents (or just one) who want nothing more than to take full advantage of the Laguna format and get their kids on TV. The conversations on Keeping Up — boys, shopping, boys, cars, parents being dumb, boys, questioning something obvious like the color of the sky and asking an idiotic question about it — as well as the episodic format — the narrator explains something, then the characters meet at a restaurant or the mall — are the same plot devices used on LC and company a decade ago.
But where Laguna only lasted three seasons (and two more in its Newport Harbor iteration), Keeping Up has proved remarkably resilient, somehow running for nine seasons and counting. The Laguna Beach format could last for just as long as any other TV show — it just took complete shamelessness and an audience appetite for the banal. And if the original couldn't quite get there, well, Bravo and E! were only too happy to swoop in.