[Editor’s Note: As ‘The O.C.’ celebrates the 13-year anniversary of its premiere on August 5, 2003 we are reposting Kayti Burt’s essay about the teen series.]
For a brief, glorious time in the mid-naughts, The O.C. ruled the television airwaves. At a time in broadcasting history when the viewing audience was becoming increasingly fragmented and young people were becoming harder to get in front of a TV program in any number, The O.C. captured a sizable, youthful audience in its first two seasons (the third and fourth seasons, not so much) with its story of a misunderstood boy from Chino who found a family in Newport, California.
That boy was Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie), of course, and that family was the Cohens. And, starting today, you can watch their journey to becoming one big, angsty, complicated, yet ultimately loving family on Hulu where all four seasons of The O.C. are now streaming. In honor of this auspicious occasion, we’re taking the time to honor the series that defined the turn of the millennium. The O.C. wasn’t just a guilty pleasure. At its height (Season 1, let’s be honest), it was one of the best shows on television…
The best found family drama this side of Joss Whedon.
There has always been a fair amount of stigma against teen television. It’s just for kids! It relies on cheap melodrama! It doesn’t care about anything below the superficial! You know, the same sort of things adults often say about the lives of non-fictional adolescents. But, just like any other subgenre of storytelling, there is good teen TV and there is bad teen TV and, for most of its run (sorry, Season 3), The O.C. fell into the former. More than that, it was at the forefront of and/or inspired many themes in TV drama that are still alive today.
I may have tipped my hand in the intro, but, for me (and, I suspect many other viewers), the true narrative power of The O.C. comes with its central through theme of found family. Sure, the romance is great. The quip-age is often laugh-out-loud funny. And the angst is incredibly well-rendered (often to a “Death Cab For Cutie” track). But it all pales in comparison to the story of the Cohen-Atwood clan.
Something The O.C. got right that many less-wonderful teen dramas (and adult dramas, for that matter) often don’t is the complex social context of the teen characters’ lives. In The O.C., Ryan, Seth (Adam Brody), Marissa (Mischa Barton), and Summer’s (Rachel Bilson) family and community is just as important as their relationships with one another. The O.C. actually cared what Seth and Ryan’s relationships with their parents looked like past as one monolithic, collective unit — i.e. how The Kids interact with The Adults.
Remember the time Seth convinced Kirsten (Kelly Rowan) to go to rehab all with his own, desperate plea? Or those times Sandy (Peter Gallagher) and Ryan bonded over being from a less privileged background? Or how about all of the relationships on this show that didn’t even involve the kidlings? Like Gossip Girl after it, The O.C. developed an intricate web of relationships between the characters of its world — and not just the under-25s, and it made the show that much better.
Seth and Ryan, The O.C.’s central love story.
Some people might misidentify The O.C. as a straight-up romantic drama — and, yes, there was a fair amount of (wonderful) romance on this show — but the true love story of this show was the friendship/brotherhood/bromance between Seth and Ryan. Before Ryan came to Newport and moved into the Cohen’s poolhouse, both Seth and Ryan were loners in their respective worlds. Then, they started playing video games together and the rest was history. It was love at first sight. Ryan had someone to snap him out of his tank top-clad brood-fests and Seth had someone who would nod along good-naturedly with his countless pop culture references, even if he didn’t understand them.
Throughout the show, they were one another’s greatest defenders. Romances would come and go, but the love between Seth Cohen and Ryan Atwood was constant. Might I draw your attention to this exchange from The O.C.’s final episode…
Seth: At least I leave you funnier than when I found you.
Ryan: I’m a lot better off than when you found me.
Seth: Me too.
The class issues integral to its structure.
Unlike British fare, American TV tends to skate around class issues. This was not the case with The O.C., which had Ryan’s rocky transition from a low income, impoverished area with few opportunities to the lifestyle of the rich and the reckless in The O.C., built into its very narrative fabric. In addition to Ryan’s own insights into the vast income inequality within a relatively small geographic area, many of the characters who call The O.C. home (especially Sandy and Seth) are critical of the lack of accountability and unchallenged privilege that most of Newport’s population enjoys. Ryan may be the technical outsider when he moves to Newport, but it soon becomes clear that he isn’t the only one who feels like he doesn’t fit in.
Speaking of Ryan, the main character represents just how much of an untapped resource the economically disenfranchised represent. When he is given the opportunities of a safe, stable home and a good education, Ryan soon demonstrates that he is smart, ambitious, and principled. The O.C. wasn’t making any deep insights about income inequality (and, with a very white cast, skating around the intersectional issue of race and class almost completely), but that doesn’t change the fact that American TV needs more narratives that at least recognize that not everyone lives in nice houses — even if almost everyone on The O.C. kind of, well, did. (Yeah, it’s a low bar to jump, but we’re still working on clearing it.)
The soundtrack of our angst.
I had to restrain myself from starting off this article with “Californiaaaaaaa.” That’s how strong the urge to sing The O.C.’s theme song, a cover by Phantom Planet, truly is. It’s impossible to mention The O.C.’s legacy without mentioning its soundtrack. (I’m listening to “Transatlanticism” as I write this…) The show released six soundtrack albums during its four seasons, and music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas introduced countless American teens to bands like Death Cab For Cutie, Rooney, The Killers, Alexi Murdoch, and Imogen Heap — amongst countless others.
More than any visual cue, The O.C.’s soundtrack defined the specific tone of this show, one of The O.C.’s greatest narrative assets. When you hear “California” — or one of the other songs associated with this show, like Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” — a wave of cozy angst will inevitably follow. Cozy angst is where the best teen melodrama dwells, and The O.C. had the formula down: One part pretty people rendered relatable through consistent characterization, one part stakes-ridden social problem, and one part emo indie song. Repeat.
It subverted the mean girl archetype in important ways.
As with any TV drama that knows how to course correct, the most interesting characters to be found on The O.C. didn’t start out as the focal points of the show. Summer Roberts seemed like just another mean girl character. Seth happened to be in love with her, but she wouldn’t give him the time of day. But, over the course of the series, Summer became one of the most likable characters, revealing herself to be empathetic, loyal, and incredibly clever. With Summer’s character, The O.C. took a lazy teenage girl archetype and didn’t stop there, as so many shows do. Summer Roberts joined the great teen girl character tradition that includes Cordelia Chase and Blair Waldorf, and she did it not by being perfect as so many teen girls are taught to be, but by being flawed, fierce, and funny.
It loved pop culture and meta-humor as much as we did.
Now, geek culture is basically mainstream culture, but the rise to the top has been relatively recent. Not so long ago, it wasn’t as cool to be a nerd — not even a straight, white male one. Enter Seth Cohen. Seth was no doubt a character a lot of teen nerds found solace in, and he was one of the first nerd characters in modern TV culture who wasn’t just comic relief or a sidekick, but a protagonist worth shaping his own story. He was a nerd written by a nerd, which is to say he didn’t just make nerdy references (a la The Big Bang Theory), but was imbued with the unabashed passion, the way of loving what you love, that truly defines a nerd.
It’s easy to see the genesis of The O.C. creator Josh Schwartz’ next show, Chuck, or characters like The Flash’s Cisco or Arrow’s Felicity Smoak in a character like Seth Cohen. There’s even an argument to be made for Seth Cohen being a huge moment in the process of normalizing nerd subculture, especially of the comic book variety, in the mainstream. Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC television universe, or the wretched Batman v Superman, there was Seth Cohen, one broadcast TV nerd against the world.
The O.C.’s awareness of how popular and nerd cultures work didn’t stop with Seth. Schwartz once said: “Everybody is hyper self-aware. We live in a post-everything universe,” and it’s easy to see that world view reflected in The O.C. One of the reasons it worked so well as a TV show was because it was so aware of the teen drama tropes, and not only worked to subvert them where it seemed interesting, but use them to make snarky commentary. The Valley was an in-universe parody of The O.C., a show about teens living in the San Fernando Valley that the characters of The O.C. (well, Summer) watched. When The O.C. inspired its own reality-show with MTV’s Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, The Valley got its own reality-show Sherman Oaks: The Real Valley.
Later in the show, Seth made his own comic book based on his life called Atomic County (also inspired by The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay). And then, of course, there is that iconic Seth/Summer kiss that is a direct homage to the upside-down Spider-Man movie kiss in such a blatant way, it shouldn’t work. But, like so many of the other successful moments on this show — meta or otherwise — it thrives on a careful combination of clever self-awareness and sentimental earnestness. On The O.C., you didn’t have to choose between being cynical and sentimental. You could have both.
It was a “watercooler” show when watercooler shows were fading.
The O.C. came around at the beginning of the end for traditional broadcast television. (If you were wondering, we’re in the middle of the end right now. I’m a time traveling TV critic come back from the future where we all just pay vloggers to live our lives for us, so I know these things.) It was before streaming was a really a thing, before TV fans gathered on Twitter to live-tweet their reactions to television shows, and before you could make GIFs. It was truly a dark, dark time.
Now that we know what it wasn’t, let’s talk a bit about what it was. It was a time when the television audience was becoming increasingly fragmented. There were more channels to choose from than ever, Blockbuster and its wealth of attractive narrative options was just down the street, and who didn’t love changing the soundtrack on their Myspace profile page? (Fun fact: Myspace actually launched as a site four days before the first episode of The O.C. premiered.)
But I digress… The point is, in the summer of 2003, The O.C. was the show that everyone under the age of 18 (and, let’s be honest, over the age of 18) was talking about. It was on for a month or so before everyone went back to school, which means we had just enough time to get emotionally involved with all of the characters and storylines before being released back into the general population. I was a junior in high school at the time and — though I have done this for no show previously, nor no show since — I had two friends over my house every week to watch the new episode.
At its most-watched (Season 1, Episode 17, if you were wondering), The O.C. attracted 12.72 million viewers and was the highest-rated new drama in the 2003-2004 TV season, averaging 9.7 million viewers per episode. These days, unless you’re a procedural on CBS, a hip hop show based on a Shakespearean drama, or regularly kill characters with zombies or dragons, it’s hard to attract consistently high numbers. Of course, The O.C. couldn’t maintain its freshman numbers. It burned brightly, but quickly, and after just four seasons, was canceled for low ratings.
The O.C.’s enduring legacy.
Though The O.C.’s reign may have been short-lived, its legacy is impressingly durable for a show that only lasted four years, with a steady, rapid decline in ratings following that first season. It helps that this show cast some major talent. Willa Holland (Arrow’s Thea Queen) was a regular in the fourth series. Ben McKenzie stars in Gotham with Morena Baccarin (who guest-starred on The O.C.), and the endlessly talented Melinda Clarke (a.k.a. The O.C.’s Julie Cooper) is currently guest starring. Other actors who appeared on The O.C. include: Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde, Lucy Hale, Paul Wesley, Amber Heard, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Shailene Woodley, Ashley Benson, Jackson Rathbone, and Nikki Reed.
The O.C.’s legacy doesn’t end with its stars, of course. Its success would have a lasting effect on TV — most notably in the creation of an entire new sub-genre of reality TV (from Laguna Beach to The Real Housewives franchise). But its TV drama I’m interested in and it’s hard to think about the evolution of broadcast TV drama without mentioning The O.C. At its legacy’s most tangible, Josh Schwartz as a creator would also go on to create many more beloved shows, most notably Chuck and Gossip Girl.
At its legacy’s least tangible, The O.C. represented a new wave in self-referential teen TV that could be just as good and clever as its “adult” counterparts, while also tapping into a more genuinely youthful perspective. At 26, Schwartz was the youngest TV showrunner in history, but he has since been joined by some good company. The same year The O.C. ended, Skins started in the U.K., a TV show famous for purposefully hiring young, amateur writers to capture the “authentic” experience of adolescence. Five years after its end, Girls would premiere on HBO, with Lena Dunham, a then 25-year-old as its creator and star.
More than anything, however, The O.C.’s legacy lives on in its mainstreaming of nerd and comic book culture. In a pop culture landscape currently overflowing with superhero narratives both big and small it’s hard to imagine the novelty of a character like Seth Cohen or a show that makes regular references to Brian Bendis, but it was oh-so-refreshing at the time and helped to usher in an era of nerd-friendly narratives. For that, and so much more, we salute you, The O.C.