August 18, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

In a shady suburban backyard perched high above the tony Southern California enclave of Laguna Beach, a scruffy high schooler named Chase settles into a patio chair with a guitar in his lap and begins a round of improvised plucking. Pleasant as his impromptu tune may be, it does nothing to distract the girls seated next to him — Kyndra, 17, a sunny blonde in a lemony minidress, and Cami, 17, a sultry beauty in a creamy, even mini-er dress — from a round of intense text messaging.

Aware that he’s failing to gain their attention, Chase, 18, strums a power-chord progression that finally grabs Kyndra’s ear. She looks up from her cell phone and squeals, ”Cami, he’s playing Ryan Cabrera!” After a good amount of ribbing from buddy Kelan, 19 — who plays guitar alongside Chase in their band, Open Air Stereo, and is flipping burgers nearby — a chastened Chase switches to a slower strum and improvises new lyrics: ”My burger tastes so good/It tastes like it’s in the hood…” Kyndra erupts in a giggle fit. ”You’re like Jimmy Fallon!” (In her defense, this is funnier in person.)

This adolescent tableau is like countless other lazy afternoons happening every day — except for one major difference. Nearby stand three camera operators and a sound technician from a certain music network who are silently recording the kids’ every word. You see, this cozy gathering features key cast members in season 3 of MTV’s hit docu-soap Laguna Beach (which premiered Aug. 16 at 10 p.m.). Following the pampered lives and tortured loves of a group of telegenic, well-off California teens, Laguna averaged 3.2 million weekly viewers last season, making it MTV’s second-highest-rated show after The Real World. Many of its subjects also became superstars: Lauren ”LC” Conrad scored a hit spinoff, The Hills, in which she navigated fashion school and a Teen Vogue internship; and breakout alpha girl Kristin Cavallari hosted UPN’s short-lived Get This Party Started, snagged a guest spot on Veronica Mars, and is a paparazzi favorite on red carpets.

But this time, Laguna boasts none of the original gang (though Lauren’s little sister Breanna, 16, does pop up), and MTV execs are faced with one nail-biter of a question: Can Beach withstand a cast overhaul and become a bona fide franchise like The Real World — or was it just a one-clique wonder? ”For our viewers, something you’re into one year you might not be into the next, so it behooves us to turn the cast over even though it’s a risk,” says Brian Graden, president of MTV Networks Music Group. ”Until we saw the footage from this new season, I was thinking ‘Don’t get ahead of yourself.’ But I think it’s there again.”

From its conception, Laguna Beach was mired in truth-meets-fiction confusion that has been both a boon and a curse throughout its run. Creator Liz Gateley had just joined MTV’s development department in the summer of 2003 when she made the pitch: ”What if we did a show about a clique of high school kids like 90210, but made it unscripted?” Network execs went for it and started courting a number of snooty schools — including Beverly Hills High — but they were turned down. They finally hit pay dirt in Laguna Beach, a quiet Orange County enclave known for its art community, its beaches, and its wealth.

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