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Alien Territories: ''Laguna Beach,'' ''Stargate SG-1''

By RD Heldenfels Published: August 17, 2006

There are shows you can fall into without any preparation, like ''Law & Order'' or ''The Closer'' for the most part. The show is there, the characters are defined, you're up to speed immediately. There are shows so rich in history and character, you almost need a primer to watch. ''Homicide: Life on the Street'' comes to mind, as does ''Veronica Mars,'' or ''Buffy'' in its later seasons.

Sometimes shows can help catch you up; ''Prison Break'' has an extensive ''previously on'' at the beginning of the second-season premiere on Monday. But sometimes, when you enter a show you've never seen before, you realize you'll never get the hang of it.

I thought that some with ''Laguna Beach,'' which began its third season this week. My viewing has been spotty at best, although I have held onto the DVDs of the first two seasons for research purposes -- for some dreamed-of, long weekend when we're just kicking back and need a marathon of pure candy. I have seen Kristin -- it was almost impossible to avoid here for awhile there -- and I watched a couple of episodes of ''The Hills,'' which was entertaining enough (especially in its good girl/bad girl dichotomy) that I wouldn't mind seeing the whole thing sometime.

But when I sat down with the third season of ''Laguna Beach,'' I wasn't even sure I was watching a TV show. It felt aimless and unstructured, but not in a documentary way. More like a show that's just been terribly edited. The endless shots of shopping (girls) and basketball-playing (boys) simply underscored the vacuousness of the characters.  At least something like ''My Super Sweet 16'' has an end point. ''Laguna Beach'' was the video equivalent of flipping through a teen magazine, making up stories about the models. Only you could make up better stories than this supposed reality provides.

''Stargate SG-1'' was a better experience, although also a somewhat foreign one for me. Unlike devotees like Maureen Ryan, I have rarely watched ''Stargate'' and, when I did, I wasn't intrigued enough to hurry back. So when I sat down with the 200th episode, which airs tomorrow night, I knew I wasn't going to get most of the jokes in the self-referential story about the making of a movie based on Stargate Command's adventures.

(I should put a joke-spoiler warning here. Still, any ''Stargate'' fan reading this has probably already read about every joke, printed out a copy of the script and found some YouTube-like site with a bootleg of the rough cut.)

Still, I got a fair number of the jokes -- I know, anyone could get the ''Wizard of Oz'' reference, but I also recognized ''Farscape'' -- and laughed more than I expected. My favorite bit was probably the one with the puppets, since it was cross-generational; folks around my age recognized the link to the works of Gerry Anderson, while younger ones connected to ''Team America World Police.'' And even though I saw the string payoff coming, I was pleased that they took it to its logical conclusion. Second favorite: the mocking of the whole ''200th'' celebration.

Did I then go, ''Oh, my goodness! I have obviously been missing a splendid bit of television!''? Um, no.

The pacing wasn't great. The dialogue could be a tad slow. (Waiting for the audience to laugh, perhaps? Nah.) Some of the jokes either didn't work (the nod to ''Star Trek,'' parodies of which should have ended with ''Saturday Night Live's'' sketch in 1976) or were pounded too hard (the replacing-cast-members stuff). And, if I haven't developed enough affection for the characters to have paid more attention during the first 199 episodes, I'm not going to fall in love now.

In the end, I felt like the new guy at a party, hearing shorthand references to past incidents that he doesn't know, or being told stories that are all of the you-had-to-be-there variety. But that's fine. I have other things to watch. Maybe even ''Laguna Beach.'' I keep thinking I can crack that code.

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