“Want to do a ride-along with some of the cast members of this series?” It was an innocuous idea pitched to me by my L.A. Weekly editor, Zach, while I was interning there last summer. The series seemed fun enough – a reality series about graduated high school students enjoying their last summer – and it was a good opportunity for my first big feature.
@SummerBreak, a social media reality series that made its name as an almost-real-time Laguna Beach update last year, announced its return date for season 2 yesterday. In two weeks, we’ll have a new cast of L.A. kids to meet. And though some were as obsessed as I was last summer, there’s plenty of room for the show to grow in this new crop of episodes. Now’s your chance to catch up before the premiere – the show feels poised to break out in a big way this season.
Initially sold as a cross-platform series, with equally important action happening on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and YouTube, the format became much more video-heavy as the season went on. With the show expanding onto new platforms like Snapchat this season, the original social media mission may become more relevant, but catching up on season 1 only requires YouTube.
The first season has a lot of episodes, even for a web series – most are just a couple minutes, but several are upwards of 20. Of the 51 (not including character introductions or bonus content), six are pre-summer preludes, and 10 are at least 14 minutes long. That’s a lot to watch! Plus, not all of it is necessary, especially considering you’re probably still absorbing season 2 of another web series. With that in mind, and considering we’re just 13 days away from the announced start date, here’s a breakdown of the essential episodes you need to watch to catch up and still enjoy the first season for what it is: an often messy, yet strangely compelling, social experiment.
Note: I’ll be embedding individual episodes as we go along, but to watch all the essentials mentioned in chronological order, check out this YouTube playlist.
Despite how addictive @SummerBreak would become, its strength is not in its first 12 episodes. The series was very much still finding its footing, and cast members who would steal the show later on (Lena first and foremost) took a bit of a backseat. Of the “before summer” episodes, it’s best to watch the premiere and the fourth episode (embedded above). The premiere gives you a pretty good sense of what you’re in for, while the fourth episode features good moments with most of the main cast, the introduction to supporting player Whitney – my personal favorite and a likely main cast member in season 2, if social media is any indication – and the show’s first bit of real drama from breakout star Zaq.
Once the series proper begins, episode 7 gives a nice introduction to the more meta elements of the series – since there was a filming gap between episodes 6 and 7, there’s time for cast members to react to what’s already happened. Episode 8 continues the single best plot in the season: regular cast member Ray’s flirtation with Whitney. Though the next four episodes introduce some new cast members (including previously absent main cast member Kostas), the only one needed for the plot is episode 12 – easily the best of the early season.
You may enjoy the idea of watching L.A. kids frolicking on Catalina Island! I don’t, particularly, and this stretch feels a little forced. Skip the first two episodes and just believe me when I say they went to Catalina Island for fun and drama. (The behind-the-scenes reason: Producers felt they weren’t getting enough out of the kids so far, and wanted to put them all together for an extended period to push things forward a bit.)
The episode embedded above, 15, is the first “classic” episode of the series, not because of any particular quality spike, but in how well it distills the show’s themes. A conversation about team members subtweeting might sound ridiculous to a non-teen, but for these guys, it’s serious business. That’s what makes @SummerBreak so fascinating and, to me, worthwhile: It’s a view into a world that otherwise is often walled-off and personal, and a much more intimate one than the heavy production and editing on Laguna Beach allowed that show to be.
Beyond episode 15, only 17, the conclusion of the trip, is interesting. It also features the final appearance of Nia, an original cast member who barely appeared on the show and wasn’t filmed after this point.
The middle season
This is a large chunk of episodes that don’t belong to a particular themed “arc,” instead featuring a broad range of subplots. Some continue throughout the series, while some fall off a bit – victims of an almost-real-time production schedule where crafting narrative can be difficult. Start with episode 18, which gives you your first real taste of cast member Alex’s deliciously bitchy friendship with Karli. (Karli’s ex-boyfriend is Connor, another main cast member, but if you don’t know who that is by this point, I really can’t blame you.) Then, strap yourself in for the first real fireworks of the season in episode 21, embedded above.
Episodes 22 and 23 both feature solid romantic subplots, so they’re in. Jump to 26 and 27 next and welcome back a beloved recurring cast member (hint: it’s Whitney, we love Whitney), then to 29 for their date. Between the episodes, original cast member Trevis heads to college. I liked Trevis a lot – he was one of my favorites when I followed the male half of the cast around – but he never quite worked as a character on a reality show. He was a bit too well-adjusted for this group, and good for him. But we don’t need to watch him depart, really. Bye, Trevis!
Skip the hilariously bad episode 30 – or if you’re a fan of train wrecks, watch it. New supporting cast member Raina was a clear ringer brought in to create romantic tension between the flirty Kostas and Alex, and when the twist failed to do so (she had no chemistry with Kostas), she was dropped. For a production team that edited so much of the series with a light touch, this engineered plot thread was all the more egregious, and should be treated as a sign of what to avoid in season 2. Wrap up the middle stretch with episodes 31 and 32 for plot, plus a chaser Alex/Karli bitchfest in 33 to transition to the next road trip.
Hoo boy. Depending on your taste in reality TV, this is either where the show got juicy or went off the rails. Facing a quickly evaporating main cast (only six of the original nine were still routinely involved with the story), @SummerBreak turned to its bench – and found drama to spare in its supporting players.
Honestly, the entire stretch is worth watching (including shorter episodes 34 and 35), but 36, embedded above, is the crown jewel. Don’t tune out before the last two minutes of it, either – the stinger rivals most Marvel movies’ post-credits twists.
With one exception, the next five episodes are easily @SummerBreak‘s best. The most overwrought, ridiculous scene of the series – one cast member delivering a monologue to his phone while burning another cast member’s photo – takes place in episode 37, embedded above, and it is the best. Episode 38 doesn’t feel important in the moment, but it pays off on the next road trip.
Skip 39 – Kostas doesn’t work in his own plots – but make sure to watch 40. Episode 41 is the next big advance in the plot, but 40 is a pretty distinctive five-minute installment largely because it focuses on a character’s hopes and desires instead of just who’s hooking up with whom. Remember: Lauren Conrad wanted to get into fashion above all else on The Hills. Such a display of passion was often missing from season 1 of @SummerBreak.
Unfortunately, after such a strong stretch, the story loses some narrative heat here. There were too many episodes spent getting to the meat of the SF trip, and only one – episode 43 – is worth your time, and even then, it only illustrates exactly how tense things were between some cast members.
The cast’s stay in SF is a two-parter, and it’s easily the most plot-filled 30 minutes you’ll find in the series. Episode 46, embedded above, features the show’s scariest meltdown, while 47 features this incredible Lena face:
Unfortunately, the SF two-parter proved to be a momentary rise in quality, as the last few episodes failed to spark much interest. Episode 49 was likely a producer’s saving throw to try to redeem Zaq from SF, since they knew they wanted him for season 2 (although I did – and do – think bringing him back for another round is a bad idea).
The finale is the longest standalone episode, infamously posted a full day late during the season’s original run, and it’s an utter mess. It’s a game show and reunion show fused into one ugly hybrid, and the only bits of plot are related to the show’s two main couples (Zaq/Clara and Ray/Whitney). The final moment of the series is fantastic, though I can’t help but feel skeptical about its inauthenticity. All in all, the series didn’t end on its best foot. But at its best – which I’d say was from episodes 21 to 41 – it was far more compelling than it had any right to be.
So there you have it! Twenty-nine episodes, cut down from 51. This cut will take four hours to watch in all – one third of Orange Is the New Black, I’d note – and should give you all the information you need to enjoy season 2 to the fullest.
For the full compilation of the essential episodes, watch the playlist below: