Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for IMG and Dear Media
Revisiting your youth can be difficult – especially if it’s a Frankensteined version of a youth that was documented, edited and produced by a television network company for the enjoyment of millions around the world. One imagines it gets harder even if the reason you’re looking back in the first place is that you could do a whole podcast around nostalgia travel. In life, they say, patterns repeat themselves.
Of course I’m talking about Back to the beachthe Laguna Beach rewatch Dear Media’s podcast featuring two original cast members and exes, Kristin Cavallari and Stephen Colletti, who reunite to revisit every episode of the reality TV’s debut hit. Now in their mid-30s, it’s the first time either has seen the show since they were part of the production as teenagers nearly two decades ago, or so they claim- they. The podcast is apparently a direct entry into the celebrity ballooning genre, a simple exercise in brand extension. But if you squint a little harder, you’ll also find that it becomes a fascinating window into the early days of modern reality television — and the price they fetched from its early contestants.
Laguna Beach was among the earliest iterations of scripted reality television, in which ostensibly “normal” people are recruited, semi-staged, and filmed in a mockery of their daily lives. Debuting on MTV in 2004, the show followed a group of wealthy white teenagers from Orange County as they partied, dated, argued and broke up and got back together and sparked all kinds of drama. . (Fun fact: Laguna Beach was created by Liz Gateley, now head of creative development at Spotify.) It was a hit for the network, running for three seasons before spawning an even more popular spin-off, The hills, which revolved around fellow quirky actor Lauren Conrad as she transitioned into adulthood and tried to break into the Los Angeles fashion industry. (The hills also has her own celebrity podcast hosted by Audrina Patridge, but we’ll leave that for another time.)
Laguna Beach stands out for its aesthetics; it was presented as if it were an actual television drama, unlike the celebrity-centric reality shows of the early 2000s like simple life and Newly weds. It was shot with a soap opera gloss; there were no confessionals, nor any obvious visual clues that a camera crew was circling these children. The result was a show that felt contiguous with something like Veronique Marswhich was released the same year, or the CW original Gossip Girl, which followed a few years later, although it was impressed by viewers as a form of reality. (What has been it’s about the 2000s and rich white teenagers?)
Unsurprisingly, much of the talk around the show, then and now, revolves around the question of what was “real” and what wasn’t – that’s usually the case with TV- reality, but especially with Laguna Beach — and it is in this field of questioning that Back to the beach gets much of its juice, at least in its opening episodes. Tune in and you’ll hear Cavallari and Colletti return…to the beginning…and provide a considerable amount of intriguing detail about the staging of it all. The artifice runs the gamut: lines have been fed, different time periods have been stitched together, scenarios have been concocted from scratch. The titular party in the first episode, “A Black and White Affair”? Arranged and paid for by MTV, apparently.
None of this is really a surprise, of course. Reality TV has been around long enough and is now so firmly entrenched in the culture that even the most casual viewer is aware that these productions are mostly fabrications, a variation of professional wrestling. But listening to Cavallari and Colletti reminisce about their experiences — the main story arc of the first season, as the producers point out, involved a heated love triangle between them and Conrad — it’s crazy to realize how much they were all first. fighters from a reality show to a time before the rules, conventions, and boundaries of the game were completely solidified. These days, reality TV contestants tend to have some understanding of what the genre demands and what they’re getting into, which, in theory, puts them in a position to stand a chance. to play the game well enough to extract enough value from it that could outweigh whatever the production does to them. Back then? Not really.
Even wilder: they were teenagers be powered by the first reality TV machine. There’s a haunting quality to the opening Back to the beach episodes. As cheerful and optimistic as Cavallari and Colletti are, you get the feeling that you’re listening to two people analyze how screwed up their formative first experience in show business was. Yes you have the disclosures around Laguna BeachIt’s a lot of fabrications, as each installment of the podcast largely sees the duo move through each episode’s main beats and identify its unreality. But a lot of those episodes also involve asides about how much they, as teenagers, were put in situations they weren’t sufficiently prepared for — and unprotected from. “I was a lost little boy going through a rough time in his life,” Colletti frequently says in early episodes of Back to the beach. Colletti repeats the chorus, part apology and part reflection, as he watches, with slight horror, the obviously stupid things he said and did as a teenager on the show trying to navigate his relationship. with Cavallari and all the other actors.
“We were trying to be team players,” Cavallari said at one point. “When you’re 17 or 18 and producers try to tell you to do something, you don’t really know you can say no.” Imagine the dumbest thing you ever said to your first romantic interest in high school. Now imagine saying it with the sting of reality producers, in front of millions to watch. And then there are the more pointed things, like the question of compensation: there is an early part of the discussion where they disclosed their tiny salary during the first season of the show. “I think [the salary was] $2,500,” says Cavallari. “I don’t even think it was that much, I think it was $2,000,” replies Colletti, who went on to note that he and Conrad had renegotiated for next season that undisclosed sum.
This strange treatment of the past gives an unexpected weight to Back to the beach as a celebrity podcast. It’s a peculiar genre to begin with, blatantly designed to extract value from viewers’ nostalgia for old TV properties – and, if lucky, perhaps rekindle enough interest for a reboot. So far, the category has been more missed than hit. For each office ladieswhich successfully sticks to the objective of periodically revisiting Officethere are countless others Fake doctors, real friends, which mostly appears as an excuse for Zach Braff and Donald Faison to hang out and riff. Yet despite the quality, the genre’s growing popularity has a huge following: these podcasts give viewers a great excuse to revisit beloved older shows with the addition of commentary-style gossip and insider detail. After all, nostalgia is a drug heckuva.
Whereas Back to the beach delivers the fundamental pleasures of the genre (Laguna Beach is available on Paramount+ for streaming, by the way), there’s an intriguing dynamic at play that’s more present here than in most other celebrity podcasts: retrieving a narrative. It is interesting to consider Back to the beach through the lens of what makes athlete podcasts so appealing; in a sense, both are efforts to take control of a public self. With podcasts from athletes like The Draymond Green Show, there is an attempt to counterbalance the narrative around them established by mainstream sports media and the wider sports infrastructure. With Back to the beachthe same is happening in the realm of reality podcasts.
Of course, a cynical counter-argument would be that we’re talking about people who were actively seeking fame at a young age, and it all seems to have worked out eventually, more or less. Today, Cavallari enjoys unambiguous success, having successfully navigated the momentum around Laguna Beach and The hills in more reality TV (including his own featured vehicle, Very Cavallari), various fashion lines and even a cookbook. Colletti launched this early momentum of Laguna Beach in a role on A tree hill (also the subject of his own wildly popular celebrity podcast), and he remains an active actor and occasional TV personality; these days he has a show on Hulu, Everyone is doing very well.
But come on. Sure, it looks like they’ve lived in show business long enough to know how to survive the whole circus. “When you can finally understand that they’re going to get what they want, and you can step back and see it as work, it becomes a lot more enjoyable,” Cavallari says at one point in the podcast. “I don’t regret it,” Colletti said of her time on Laguna Beach. “It gave me tougher skin.” But you have to wonder about the long off-screen, off-mic journey that got them to this point, nearly 20 years later. Hopefully, it’s a narrative they can claim for themselves — or unfold in another podcast 20 years from now.