critic's notebook

Looking for the Realest Part of Reality TV? Try a Rewatch Podcast.

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for IMG and Dear Media

Revisiting your youth can be hard — especially if it’s a Frankensteined version of a youth that was documented, edited, and produced by a TV network corporation for the pleasure of millions all over the world. One imagines it gets harder even if the reason you’re looking back in the first place is so you could make a whole podcast around the nostalgia trip. In life, they say, patterns recur.

I am, of course, talking about Back to the Beach, the Laguna Beach rewatch podcast by Dear Media featuring two original cast members and exes, Kristin Cavallari and Stephen Colletti, who reunite to revisit each episode of the early reality-television hit. Now in their mid-30s, it’s the first time either of them has seen the show since they were part of the production as teenagers almost two decades ago, or so they claim. The podcast is seemingly a straightforward entry in the ballooning celebrity-rewatch 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 modern reality television’s earlier days — and what toll they extract from its earliest participants.

Laguna Beach was among the first iterations of scripted reality television, in which ostensibly “normal” people are recruited, semi-staged, and filmed in a simulacrum of their everyday lives. Debuting on MTV in 2004, the show followed a group of white, wealthy Orange County teenagers as they partied and dated and fought and broke up and got back together and kicked up all sorts 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 spinoff, The Hills, which revolved around another original cast member, Lauren Conrad, as she shifted into adulthood and attempted to break into the Los Angeles fashion industry. (The Hills also has its own celebrity-rewatch podcast hosted by Audrina Patridge, but we’ll leave that for another time.)

Laguna Beach stood out for its aesthetic; it was presented as if it were an actual TV drama, unlike the celebrity-centric reality-TV shows of the early 2000s like The Simple Life and Newlyweds. It was shot with a soap-operatic gloss; there were no confessionals, nor any overt visual cues indicating that a camera crew was hovering around these kids. The result was a show that felt contiguous with something like Veronica Mars, which came out in the same year, or CW’s original Gossip Girl, which followed just a few years later, even if it was impressed upon viewers as a form of reality. (What was it about the 2000s and rich white teens?)

Unsurprisingly, much of the discourse around the show, then and now, revolves around the question of what was “real” and what wasn’t — this is usually the case with reality television, but especially so with Laguna Beach — and it is in this area of questioning where Back to the Beach gets much of its juice, at least in its opening episodes. Tune in, and you’ll hear Cavallari and Colletti go back … to the beginning … and dish out a sizable amount of intriguing detail about just how staged everything was. The artifice runs the whole gamut: Lines were fed, different time periods were stitched together, scenarios were cooked up from scratch. The titular party in the first episode, “A Black and White Affair”? Staged and paid for by MTV, apparently.

None of this comes as any real surprise, obviously. Reality television has been around long enough, and is nowadays stitched so firmly into the culture, that even the most casual television viewer is ambiently aware that such productions are principally fabrications, a variation on professional wrestling. But listening to Cavallari and Colletti recall their experiences — the primary narrative arc in the first season, as emphasized by producers, involved a heated love triangle between them and Conrad — it’s crazy to realize how they were all early combatants on a reality show at a time before the rules, conventions, and boundaries of the game were fully solidified. These days, reality-television participants tend to have some understanding of what the genre demands and what they’re getting into, which in theory puts them in a position of having a shot at playing the game well enough to extract enough value that could outweigh whatever the production does to them. Back then? Not so much.

Even wilder: They were teenagers being fed through the early reality-television machine. There’s a haunting quality to the opening Back to the Beach episodes. Cheery and upbeat as Cavallari and Colletti may be, you get the sense that you’re listening to two people processing just how screwed-up their early, formative experience in show business was. Yes, you have the disclosures around Laguna Beach’s many fabrications, as each installment of the podcast largely sees the duo moving through the main beats of each episode and identifying its unreality. But much of these episodes also involve asides about just how much they, as teenagers, were placed in situations they weren’t adequately prepared for — and protected from. “I was a lost little boy going through a trying time in his life,” says Colletti frequently across the opening episodes of Back to the Beach. Colletti repeats the refrain, part excuse and part reflection, as he watches, with mild horror, the patently dumb things he said and did as a teenage boy on the show trying to navigate his relationship with Cavallari and everybody else on the cast.

“We were trying to be team players,” Cavallari says at one point. “When you’re 17 or 18, and you have producers trying to tell you to do something, you don’t actually know you can say no.” Imagine the dumbest thing you’ve ever said to your first high-school romantic interest. Now imagine saying it with the goading of reality producers, in front of millions to see. And then there’s the sharper stuff, like the matter of pay: There’s an early chunk of the discussion where they disclosed their minuscule pay in 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,” responds Colletti, who went on to note that he and Conrad had renegotiated for the next season, that sum undisclosed.

This uncanny processing of the past gives unexpected heft to Back to the Beach as a celebrity-rewatch podcast. It’s a peculiar genre to begin with, one blatantly designed to extract value from TV viewers’ nostalgia toward older television properties — and, if lucky, perhaps revive enough interest for a reboot. So far, the category has been more miss than hit. For every Office Ladies, which successfully sticks to the goal of episodically revisiting The Office, there tends to be countless more Fake Doctors, Real Friends, which mostly comes across as an excuse for Zach Braff and Donald Faison to hang out and riff. Still, quality notwithstanding, the genre’s surging popularity has a huge audience: These podcasts give viewers a great excuse to revisit beloved older shows with the addition of commentary-track-style gossip and insider minutiae. After all, nostalgia is a heckuva drug.

While Back to the Beach delivers on the genre’s fundamental pleasures (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-rewatch podcasts: the reclaiming of a narrative. It’s interesting to consider Back to the Beach through the lens of what makes athlete podcasts so alluring; in a sense, both are efforts to take control over a public self. With the athlete podcasts like The Draymond Green Show, there is an attempt to counterbalance the narrative around them set by traditional sports media and the broader sporting infrastructure. With Back to the Beach, the same thing is happening in the reality-podcast sphere.

Of course, a cynical counterargument would be that we’re talking about people who were actively seeking fame at a young age, and that everything seems to have worked out in the end, more or less. Today, Cavallari is unambiguously successful, having effectively navigated the momentum around Laguna Beach and The Hills into more reality television (including her own starring vehicle, Very Cavallari), various fashion lines, and even a cookbook. Colletti rolled that early momentum from Laguna Beach into a role on One Tree Hill (also the subject of its own wildly popular celebrity-rewatch podcast), and he remains a working actor and occasional TV personality; these days, he has a show on Hulu, Everyone Is Doing Great.

But, come on. Sure, it looks like they’ve lived through show business long enough to know how to survive the whole circus. “When you can finally understand they’re going to get what they want, and you can step back and look at it as a job, it becomes way more enjoyable,” says Cavallari at one point on the podcast. “I don’t regret it,” Colletti said of his time on Laguna Beach. “It gave me tougher skin.” But you have to wonder about the long path off-screen and off-mic that got them to this point, almost 20 years later. Hopefully, that’s a narrative they’ll get to claim for themselves — or come clean about in another podcast in 20 more years.

The Realest Part of Reality TV? The Rewatch Podcasts.