I was inspired to watch The O.C. from the beginning after seeing the unauthorized musical version of it a couple months back. While I was certainly familiar with the show, having seen many scattered episodes over the years, I had never sat down and watched the entire thing from beginning to end. Let me tell you, it has proven to be a great decision.
There are so many delightful things about this show. For starters, despite only running for four seasons, it is basically iconic in terms of early 2000s high school pop culture. There are a few reasons I think this show caught on the way it did. For starters, the characters are great, witty, and easy to root for despite the fact that they are hot messes more often than not. The pilot episode is very well done, setting up multiple romances, tropes, and conflicts in a way that really hooks you. But most importantly, this show understands how to create a moment. One of the most lasting legacies of The O.C. is its music—it inspired six soundtracks during its time on the air, and many of its most talked-about moments revolved around an inspired song choice (mmm whatcha say, anyone?).
Let’s rewind for a second and talk about the pilot. Enter Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), an optimistic public defender assigned to the case of Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) and his brother, Trey. Sandy ends up rescuing Ryan from his broken, abusive home in the ghetto, aka Chino, and whisking him home to live in the pool house of his Newport Beach mansion. His wife, Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), a wine-drinking, real estate CFO with major daddy issues, is skeptical at first, but grows to accept Ryan as a second son. Sandy and Kirsten’s first son, Seth (Adam Brody) is a comic book-loving, video game-playing nerd with a witty comeback for everything. Ryan’s short fuse and wrong side of the tracks background plus the Cohens’ Orange County affluence? It’s a classic set-up. Ryan is barely at the Cohens’ for five minutes when he has a meet cute with the troubled girl next door (as in, she literally lives next door), Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton). “Who are you?” she asks him, fascinated by his bad boy mystique. “Whoever you want me to be,” he replies in a way that is somehow more charming than sleazy. Seth, meanwhile, is hopelessly crushing on popular girl Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson), who also happens to be Marissa’s best friend.
This show made some very smart choices in season 1 and evolved based on what was working and what wasn’t. For example, Summer was initially not conceived as a major character, but her chemistry with Seth (the two actors dated in real life for almost the entire run of the show) made them a fan favorite couple almost immediately. The show also found ways to adjust to its shortcomings—particularly in season one, Mischa Barton is not a good actress. While I think she gets better as the series goes on, you have to wonder how that may have affected things. The show is also incredibly self-aware, constantly poking fun at itself, often through the lens of The Valley, an O.C.-like show the characters watch and obsess over. Later, they even reference the reality show it inspires, Sherman Oaks: The Real Valley, which is undoubtedly a jab at Laguna Beach. The show is a very soapy dramedy—while there are certainly some very serious situations, everything is tinged with an air of melodrama and humor.
Speaking of melodrama, there are some storylines in the first two seasons that are downright ridiculous. Like that time in season one where Ryan and Seth go to Vegas, we learn Ryan can count cards (although this is never utilized or mentioned again), he wins thousands of dollars on a black market poker game, and Seth accidentally spends it all on hookers. Or that time when a bunch of high school kids casually go to Tijuana (or, as they call it, TJ) for a pre-school weekend of debauchery. Or when Seth runs away and somehow sails from Orange County to Portland? I may not be a geography expert, but this has always seemed sketchy to me. There’s that time when Kirsten’s penchant for wine drinking rapidly devolves into serious alcoholism in the span of about four episodes (as well as Marissa’s ongoing, largely ignored and less subtle alcoholism). And of course we can’t forget Oliver, Marissa’s stalker she meets in therapy, or Luke, who has the most bizarre arc in season one. Marissa loses her virginity to him, he cheats on her in TJ, he finds out his dad is gay, his classmates feel sorry for him, he starts having a secret affair with Marissa’s mom, Julie (Melinda Clarke), and nearly dies drunk driving when she upsets him. I mean…what? It makes no sense, but it’s fun to watch.
Something I’ve found amusing and occasionally frustrating while revisiting this show is realizing how little time the two central couples actually spend happily together. It seems Ryan and Marissa nor Seth and Summer can go more than two episodes without getting into a fight or becoming embroiled in some sort of love triangle or literal tragedy. While the show loves throwing conflict at them, when they are on they are on. I mean, who can forget Seth and Summer’s upside down Spiderman kiss in the rain (set, of course, to “Champagne Supernova”)? Or Ryan and Marissa’s first kiss on the ferris wheel, or him running in to kiss her on New Year’s Eve at the stroke of midnight?
For a show primarily about teenagers, it also does a fantastic job of making the parents interesting, well-rounded characters whom you care about just as much as their kids. I think I get more upset when Sandy and Kirsten fight than when Seth and Summer fight. Even Julie Cooper, mess that she is, never fails to entertain. The show makes me laugh, it makes me cry, it makes me Youtube songs from it to play on repeat, it makes me cringe, it makes me both miss and not miss being a teenager. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have more episodes of season 3 to watch.