TV & Movies

Never Forget, Laguna Beach Started It All

The franchise didn't just give us Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag, but an entire genre of reality TV

Talk about a throwback. Kristin Cavallari, Stephen Colletti, Lauren Conrad and other castmembers of MTV's Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County in 2004 (Photo: Getty Images)

Talk about a throwback. Kristin Cavallari, Stephen Colletti, Lauren Conrad and other castmembers of MTV’s Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County in 2004 (Photo: Getty Images)

On June 24, The Hills will answer the million-dollar question: Can a small group of affluent white women in their 30s still have fun in Hollywood?

Spoiler: Of course they can. After all, if the Real Housewives (and all of its subsidiaries) can deliver near-flawless programming for nearly a decade, a rebooted series about the L.A. antics of Whitney Port, Adriana Patridge, Stephanie Pratt and Heidi Montag—plus the eyebrow-raising addition of Mischa Barton—will surely offer plenty of drama for us to live vicariously through. And hopefully the answers to all the questions we have now, like, does Justin Bobby still wear combat boots to the beach? Will Spencer’s love affair with crystals eclipse his relationship with Heidi? Can Mischa Barton introduce us to Peter Gallagher? Fans will find out on June 24 when the show returns to MTV, and we’ll get that extra-special glimpse of LA life in a post-Les Deux world.

But we’re not only watching for drama (and answers). The allure of the original The Hills existed less in the soapy plot devices than the lifestyle it used to lure viewers in. And this magic was sparked by its predecessor, Laguna Beach—a TV show that birthed reality TV as we know it, and convinced us of the notion that watching a highly-edited version of someone’s “real” life means that we actually know them. Of course, in 2019 most of us know that personas and persons are two different things. But for some Laguna diehards (hi), it’s as hard to shake that sense of familiarity as it is to quench the thirst for more.

When it premiered in September 2004, MTV’s Laguna Beach was an entity unlike any other. Revolving around a cast of wealthy high school kids from Orange County, it followed a young Lauren Conrad and her friends/enemies over the course of her senior year. And this was groundbreaking. After all, former MTV juggernaut The Real World took place only in a single, production-controlled house, and series like Survivor and Big Brother were based on competition. But Laguna existed solely to expose viewers to day-to-day life in, as the title indicated, “The Real Orange County.” The cast lived in a town-sized fish bowl that was conducive to run-ins and confrontations, perfect for driving the producer-puppeteer plots. (Not that any of us would know about that until well after The Hills wrapped up.)

We loved to see it. The series’ voyeuristic setup gave viewers a window into the lifestyles of the rich and pseudo famous, allowed us to root for personalities we related to most, and also perpetuated the tabloid-sanctioned “Stars! They’re Just Like Us!” ethos of the mid-2000s. Because despite the Laguna stars thriving within a socioeconomic league of their own, they still dressed in mall brands like Hollister or Billabong, went on dates to Dave & Busters and spent an incredible amount of time driving around and using flip-phones. Seamlessly, they sold the myth that wealth and privilege weren’t defining factors in lives quite arguably defined by wealth and privilege. They were just like us (literally just as boring or unable to communicate effectively), with nicer backyards. But when they graduated from the shores of Laguna Beach to The Hills, the cast evolved from ordinary-ish and relatable to relatively fancy, giving us a shiny, new access pass to acceptable voyeurism—which continued evolving into the form of countless reality shows.

And who can blame us for watching? Similar to taking house tours or roaming museums, this then-new form of reality television offered a free form of escapism on top of insight into how the other half lives… Which has always been a social vice because humans are nosy. So Laguna Beach (and The Hills) capitalized on this, granting viewers permission to press their noses against the glass, and then keeping us there by entertaining us with plot points or endearing us to cast members. In fact, it worked so well that other networks took note and lured us in with their own versions of reality, leaving us hopelessly addicted and pining for more.

Granted, this genre is easy to knock, especially since on top of feeding us glorified CCTV footage, Laguna Beach and later The Hills were arguably just shows about nothing. The cast’s lives revolved around nightclubs, they were all shockingly entitled, and their conflicts were fueled by drinking and jealousy. (Hell, even 2004’s The Simple Life posed the question, “What would happen if Paris Hilton wasn’t rich?”) Plus, the more famous the cast became, the more their exploits were covered by blogs and tabloids. And this meant anybody watching The Hills knew Lauren and Heidi’s jobs weren’t actually in fashion or in events—their careers were to be relevant enough to keep ratings high. They were the original influencers, and we championed them tirelessly, in part because it all looked so easy—reality stars were merely existing and succeeding because of it. Which gave rise to an entire genre of television: shows that sold the lie that to be famous, all you had to do was open your life up to anybody willing to look at it.

The Hills was unique in that it also blended the worlds of social media and TV well before reality TV had its own streaming platform and show’s aired with hashtags in the corner. And while the cultural landscape has changed since the 2010 finale, there’s still room for the reboot. In 2019, we’re all well-aware that “reality” plots are staged (or stage-managed), but we’ve yet to see the original cast of women who helped launch a genre of televised blissful nothingness adapt to a climate that demands authenticity on top of high-stakes drama. Between 2006 and 2010, we only knew who Lauren, Audrina, Heidi and Stephanie were from what we saw on MTV or in Us Weekly. Today, we need only scroll through their Instagram feeds to well-acquaint ourselves with their lifestyles. So, the reboot begs the question: can the stars handle Vanderpump-levels of cultural immersion?

I hope so, because as the real world gets worse, reality television is the balm to briefly relieve us from living in a 24/7 tire-fire. In the same way Laguna Beach granted us access to a world we’d only equated to The O.C.’s Ryan and Marissa, The Hills kept the door open, giving us an even more sensational means of escape. And escape is valuable. It’s a coping mechanism. It’s fun (even if no members of the Laguna cast will be on The Hills 2.0). It’s entertaining. It’s also harmless. Because while we may low-key covet the wealth and the cars and the endless dinners out, nobody actually wants to scream “You know what you did!” at Heidi Montag outside a nightclub.

But in the same way we still former high school classmates on Facebook and follow back our teen nemeses on Instagram, we want to see what happened to the people who once defined us. Because for a small, weird while, The Hills did. So, like our former cafeteria contemporaries, we’ll tune in to see if they’re still interesting and still worth following—or worth the credit we give them for our adult neuroses.


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