Why ‘The O.C.’ Was Teen TV at Its Very Best

     August 6, 2019

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[Editor’s Note: As ‘The O.C.’ celebrates the 15-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 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. Given the availability and evergreen quality of the show, 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…

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Image via Fox

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.

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Image via Fox

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.

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Image via Fox

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.

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Image via Fox

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.)

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Image via Fox

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.

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Image via Fox

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.

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Image via Fox

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.

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