Summer Breaking: When a Show About Selfies Becomes Something More

Entertainment, Personal Blog

The show that started with an extended sequence where two characters attempted to take selfies with a plane is ending its freshman season in a much different place. @SummerBreak, the social media series about LA kids during their last summer before college, is coming to a close with tonight’s 51st – and final – episode.

I became far too invested in @SummerBreak when I wrote a feature about it for LA Weekly. I had every intention of watching just enough to write my piece, but something kept me around. No, I wasn’t hooked, like vlogger Grace Helbig confessed to being when she reviewed the show for her Daily Grace series. I was, however, fascinated by the show’s constant evolution into something much more complex than a series about selfies. It was becoming a real-life drama – and was accruing for its cast a substantial emotional cost.

Late Friday night, the @SummerBreak casting tapes were uploaded. It was a good move on the producers’ part – get some extra buzz going headed into the finale – but what’s so striking about the tapes is how energetic and excited every member of the cast is. They haven’t looked this enthusiastic on the show in some time. Some, including Kostas and especially Ray, looked positively exhausted by it all on the cast’s recent road trip to San Fran.

And yet, the show has been more compelling in the last three weeks than I ever imagined it would be.

Sure, some of the drama got ridiculously repetitive. Alex’s vague references to drama with Whitney that basically amounted to nothing seemed like the show’s pale effort to make Whitney less winningly charming than she is. Choosing a side between Lena and Zaq wasn’t fun, because no matter which side you thought was wronged, neither of them came off particularly well. (Props to the show for airing this episode that more or less salvaged any likability the two had left.)

But even those annoyances are minor when you look back at the early episodes. Yes, the cast was happier, but almost nothing ever happened. It took until Episode 17 to have any sort of conflict occur. Watching the same shit get stirred over and over is way more interesting than a string of non-events – and frankly, there was plenty of new plot to be hashed out.

I do worry somewhat about the cast, though. Yes, they’re all adults or near-adults, and there have been reality shows with similarly-aged casts for years (Laguna Beach, the show’s spiritual predecessor, being the primary example). But Twitter didn’t exist when most of those shows were on. Instead of just being shown for a 13-episode run, these kids have been broadcasting themselves basically 24/7, and even the number of episodes has been much higher than normal.

When I shadowed the male cast members (minus Kostas) for my feature, Connor told me that one of his primary motivations for doing the show was to have a virtual record of his last summer. I’m sure there will be plenty of good memories to look back on, but what of their errors, like Zaq threatening to throw Lena off a bus? Or Alex’s constant smack-talk about her friends with Karli?

No, the cast weren’t always super-likable, but the show made you care. And personally, I really do hope they all wind up happy with how they will be forever remembered in this first season.

Headed into tonight’s finale, we have six main cast members still around. Connor exited in Episode 48, Trevis in Episode 28 with a cameo in Episode 47, and Nia was sent to Mandyville long, long ago. Though we might get final quick appearances from side characters like CBass or Karli, I hope they don’t take up much of the spotlight. They’re not anywhere near as compelling as our core six, who the audience has had time to really connect to. Here’s where each of the main cast has been so far on the show, and where I personally hope they end up.

Regarding photos: It’s my understanding all these photos are courtesy shots from @SummerBreak, but if they aren’t and you want credit for them, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email!

Kostas

KOSTAS
A round of applause to Kostas, the consummate professional of the series. A good-looking guy with even better style, Kostas coasted (say that three times fast) on his charm and ease on camera, developed after time on the YouTube series Teens React. He had the largest fanbase entering the show, and his laid-back approach to things kept him a fan favorite throughout.

Since he was so low-key, it made the points where he did have plot all the more jarring. Take the romantic subplot with Raina. I cannot begin to describe how perplexed I was by Raina. The whole thing boiled down to: they were hooking up, they decided to stop hooking up, they went on this really terrible date (seriously one of the worst episodes of the entire run; it was painful). Then, Raina literally disappeared from the show.

It was so curious: Though Raina was ostensibly just another side character, everything about her placement in the episodes felt like she was replacing Nia (she even gets her own phone camera confessional in her introductory episode). Yet as both a replacement friend for Clara when she was fighting with Lena and a love interest for Kostas, Raina didn’t bring much to the table. After she left, Kostas resumed hanging out with CBass, his best friend, and not making much noise.

Where he should end up: Still not making much noise. It works for him! I sincerely wish Kostas all the best in Wisconsin – though he was never the most riveting cast member, he never failed to be a refreshing palate cleanser amidst all the drama.

alexALEX
You know the girl in high school who always said she wasn’t about drama, yet would somehow always become embroiled in drama? Throughout the show, Alex proved herself time and time again to be that girl. As executive producer Billy Parks told me, “Alex is a bad bitch. … Don’t fuck with Alex.”

I don’t mean to assume anything about Alex personally. For all I know, the show could have simply portrayed her in a really bad light. (Her tweets on July 31, culminating in the angry one above, indicated that she certainly thought her edit was unfair.) But when someone consistently declares herself to be outside of drama – then somehow finds herself embroiled in a battle with the show’s most likable character – you have to wonder.

Early on, Alex felt like she was comfortable in her own skin. Watching that audition tape, she’s certainly outrageous, but she sounds very purposeful about everything. Flash forward to her stilted makeup with Whitney – it’s a nice, raw, emotional moment between the girls that Alex then makes sound entirely different when speaking with Lena and Clara the next morning. It speaks to a discomfort that I didn’t know Alex had – and had she let that side shine through more, she might’ve been more sympathetic.

Still, I admit that Alex was, in her best moments, one of the most interesting characters. Even when everyone was milquetoast at the start of the series, she was willing to be blunt. Reality TV needs Alexes – but viewers don’t need to like the Alexes.

Where she should end up: Enjoying the next phase of her life away from the spotlight. Above all else, Alex is a charismatic – if divisive – person, and I’m confident she’s got a lot ahead of her.

claraCLARA
“Clara looked like the Lauren Conrad to the show’s Laguna Beach at first – sweet, smart, above the fray – but soon enough indulged in her fair share of drama.”

That was, in short, my character summary of Clara for my feature. I stand by that, but I can also admit that Clara quickly became the most compelling female on the show. She got a great focus episode – Episode 40 – that showed her willingness to work, even when things don’t come easy. That, in many ways, does make her the Lauren Conrad; unlike on this show, where too many of the cast members are simply listlessly enjoying their summers, the girls on Laguna Beach and The Hills had dreams. Seeing Clara’s dream made her more sympathetic at a time when the audience was clearly being pushed toward not liking Clara.

Speaking of, the whole Clara/Zaq/Rain love triangle in many ways humanized Clara more than anything else. The person who came out of that looking the worst, frankly, was Zaq (more on that below). Clara came off as genuinely apologetic and in a moment of real soul-searching. It was endearing and, quite frankly, a series highlight. So Clara’s original casting as the good girl turned out to be true – we just had to travel a bit to get there with her.

Where she should end up: Working hard in culinary school, making great new connections and surrounding herself with the right kind of people. What can I say, Clara made me a fan.

zaq copy

ZAQ
Zaq, Zaq, Zaq. What is there to say about Zaq? What isn’t there to say about Zaq?

I’ll start with a quick bit of background. When I was riding along with the guys, Zaq consistently came off as the star of the show. He asked a couple in the same restaurant as us for some of their cake, then effortlessly promoted @SummerBreak. He was the first one to introduce himself to me on set, and he even openly questioned why they were shooting the guys shopping when nothing was happening. (A bit that never made it to air, I’d note.)

In other words, Zaq was a natural. He was, in many ways, the consummate professional reality TV character. He was also, to be honest, too headstrong to not cause problems for himself.

I’ve tried to figure out Zaq’s breakdown near the end of the series, particularly the dinner in Episode 47. Was he truly having a moment of honest emotion, or was he, as Trevis pointed out, still blurring the line between jokes and seriousness? What about when he burned Clara’s picture in Episode 37? He looked terrible, frankly, both by not talking to Clara directly and incorrectly fingering Lena as the one who had started the drama. How about all the way back in Episode 4, when he was caught with his mic on during a call? He called it a “rook move” when we talked, a new way of saying “rookie mistake.” For what it’s worth, the executive producer Parks seemed to think Zaq was very aware his mic was still on.

Honestly, I can say that after 50 episodes, and even meeting him in person, I don’t quite know if Zaq is just hyperemotional or always putting on a face. And I’m not even sure I’m that interested.

Where he should end up: Exiting the series. Even if there’s a @SummerBreak 2, Zaq has done nothing good for his reputation in the last two weeks of episodes. He threatened Lena with physical violence – provoked or not, and apology or not, that’s scary. There’s been much talk about Zaq needing to mature (he’s even admitted it on his Twitter), but that maturation can’t happen in front of the camera. It’s going to be tempting to have a star for season 2, should it happen, but there’s a better solution. We’ll get back to that.

lena

LENA
In the bio I had drafted for Lena during the first 20 episodes of @SummerBreak, I called her, more or less, the quiet girl. Of course, once Episode 21 hit, I had to totally revamp that. Past that point, Lena continued to be herself, for better or worse, and I can’t fault her for that one bit.

No, she wasn’t always graceful with her words or actions on camera. Much of the late-series conflict with Zaq could have been avoided had she taken the high road – as someone older and living on her own, that would almost be expected. But unlike with Zaq, she never felt false. Lena consistently felt like Lena, and she wasn’t afraid to fight the battle – on an episode, on Twitter, etc. – to make sure her voice was heard.

Though she’s not likely to come back for a second season due to her age, I’d recommend finding someone very much like her in the next casting cycle: unabashedly genuine, even in her worst moments. Truly, Lena coming out of her shell helped sustain the series after its early days, and thank goodness for it.

Where she should end up: Still fearlessly being herself in whatever endeavor comes next for her. Maybe we’ll get to hear her sing tonight?

ray

RAY
In truth, Ray was always the star. No matter how much attention would be diverted to Alex and Kostas’ brief, almost nonexistent flirtation, or the sometimes vicious triangle of Lena, Clara and Zaq, Ray remained the show’s compelling, human heart. He didn’t suffer from Trevis’ lack of screentime or Connor’s shyness on camera. He had a great romantic plot with Whitney, but kept that very separate from his interactions with his other castmates.

Recently, he’s seemed highly ambivalent on camera – having both Whitney and Trevis, his two closest connections on the show, move away forced him to be shoehorned into a bunch of inorganic appearances. Look no further than when he and Alex randomly played golf in one episode. In a show that doesn’t normally seem like it’s forcing the plot, this was a gross exception.

If I had to guess, I’d say the cast trip to Big Bear – and subsequently having to watch his hookups with other, non-Whitney cast members – made Ray retreat a little bit. It was the one time Ray seemed really uncomfortable with how he was being portrayed (he dodged the topic when Whitney asked him about it in San Francisco), and I’d bet that if he could change one thing about his time on the show, it would be that trip.

Besides that one slip, however, Ray conducted himself with grace and class throughout the entire season, yet never dared make himself boring. He wasn’t cast to fill a “type” – he was simply cast to be Ray. And @SummerBreak wouldn’t have been half as good without him.

Where he should end up: Moving on to a senior year of undoubtedly great things – and a return to season two of @SummerBreak. Like I’ve mentioned, I bet the producers are eager to give the series another go, but are likely going to put Zaq front and center. I’d really recommend pushing the pause button on that. Zaq, though certainly dramatic, just comes off as someone who needs to mature off camera. Ray is the same year in school, yet he’s so much more assured of himself. He may not be willing to do @SummerBreak again, but I’d argue the show will be hard-pressed to go on without him.

In the end, what was so striking about the show was how the drama naturally evolved. Reality shows often seem too polished these days, but in this case, these kids slowly came out of their shells more and more. Did they always like what they saw? No, and seeing their reactions play out in real time made things all the more fascinating. As a show, you could argue about how “good” @SummerBreak really is. But on a meta level, it’s absolutely fascinating.

I’m going to miss @SummerBreak, not just because it gave me a great professional opportunity, but because I think we need more shows like it. A social media series was daring, and I’d argue it didn’t quite work out as planned – the audience was clearly hungry for longer episodes than first imagined – but isn’t daring exactly what we want from our reality shows? Whether or not there’s a @SummerBreak 2, I think this form deserves further exploration. When that comes along, I’ll be watching.

Speaking of watching, I’ll be tweeting during and after tonight’s finale.
Follow me on Twitter to read my thoughts and share yours!

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