How The O.C. subverted everything we knew about teen TV


The O.C

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The O.C. aired its big finale 10 years ago, and it left an impressive legacy behind: not only in that it was the number-one rated new TV drama in 2003-2004, but that in over four years and from its very first episode, The O.C. changed our expectations for teen TV. The O.C. took a genre previously looked down on and turned teen drama on its head; it appealed to both men and women, received praise, sparked parodies, had books written about it, but most importantly – it was very good. Of course, if you’re reading this, you probably don’t need convincing; in the hearts of 20-somethings everywhere Newport Beach lives on, and despite being cut short halfway through season 4 an entire decade ago, we still love The O.C. as much as we ever have. Regardless of its obvious mid-2000s signifiers (the fashion, a Paris Hilton cameo) it stands the test of time as a funny, sharp, and properly good piece of TV. Many of us think about Chrismukkah every December, start to well up when we hear Hallelujah, still curse the name Oliver as if it were 2003. To celebrate (or grieve) the anniversary of the world’s objectively greatest teen TV show in history leaving our screens, here are just a few of the things it got right.

SUBVERTING THE FAMILY UNIT

The pilot of The O.C. sees Ryan, poor boy from Chino, get arrested for stealing a car. Lawyer Sandy defends him, and after Ryan’s mother abandons him, takes him into his fancy Orange County mansion for the night.  Wife Kirsten is reticent at first, but after some bumps and then realising the sorry state of Ryan’s future, she agrees to let Ryan stay with them permanently. What follows is four years of Sandy and Kirsten calling Ryan their son, Seth calling him his brother, and traditional family dynamics being challenged. Creator Josh Schwartz said: “the Ryan-Sandy relationship, we found was a source of great wish-fulfillment for a lot of people”.

Many of the families in The O.C. are reasonably non-traditional: there’s single parents, the tumultuous Cooper fam father revolving door, and emancipated children. Though Kirsten is the breadwinner (early 2000s TV didn’t allow this too often), the Cohens, the beating heart at the centre of The O.C., are just about the only ‘traditional’ family in the show; but they take in multiple lost souls over the four years and constantly support everyone around them. This was of course very much intentional: Josh Schwartz said: “I think for a lot of kids they looked at the Cohens and thought, ‘I wish I had a family like that, I wish I had someone who cared about me as much as they care about Ryan.’”. He’s not wrong. The Cohens’ willingness to call literally anyone family is heartwarming at the very least, and promotes the idea that family isn’t just about who you’re blood-related to.

SEX WAS TACKLED FROM MULTIPLE ANGLES

Not content with simply shaking up family dynamics on screen, The O.C. also had a pretty non-conventional attitude to sex and relationships. There are a few things that made it stand out: firstly, that the parents are people, and that they fuck. Sandy and Kirsten have a complete, healthy relationship and are fully-fledged characters with their own desires away from their kids. This was another move in an effort to separate The O.C. from the usual teen drama schtick; Josh Schwartz said he wanted viewers to say, “this is not just a show about the kids. It’s also going to be very much about the adults”.

The relationships in the show cross lines and blur boundaries and show the audience that yeah, sex is messy. Relationships can be anything. They can be between old men and young women, teen men and adult women, social chair princess and Chino pauper. Additionally, there isn’t that much importance placed on the societal construct of losing virginities. Far from the huge buildup usually associated with the sex between characters in teen TV, there’s the understanding that sex just happens, and sometimes (as with Seth and Summer) it’s bad. Finally, there’s the lesbian relationship between Marissa and Alex. On the pairing, Josh Schwartz said they wanted to, “not make too big a deal out of the fact that it was another girl” – and they succeeded, although it wasn’t easy: “it was an extremely conservative time in our country and everyone was freaking out”. Seth’s initial assumption that any ex of Alex’s must be male is a Scott Pilgrim-esque play on his own ignorance and stupidity rather than a punchline at her expense. Marissa may or may not have been using Alex to rebel, but their brief and tumultuous relationship was full of actual desire and enjoyment.

THE LAUGHS COULD GET DARK AND DIFFICULT

The O.C. has often been unfairly lumped in with its perceived predecessors and contemporaries as a melodramatic show about rich white teens; which would almost be fair, except for one key point: it’s extremely funny. Even its title was a joke – Josh Schwartz said: “when I was at USC, there were all these guys who referred to Orange County as ‘The O.C.’, so it was always a bit of an ironic title for us”. For all of the times that The O.C. was overwrought and melodramatic (which it was, thank you Marissa) it was saved by the fact that it was always full of self-referential jokes and sharp writing. It wasn’t just the dry observations made by sarcastic nerd Seth Cohen and his dad, either – the women were allowed to be funny. The smartest lines in The O.C. often came from Summer or Julie, two characters who were often as cutting and cruel as they were lovable. For every melodramatic slanging match between Marissa and Ryan (usually culminating in Marissa downing vodka alone in a bathroom) there were two well-written, comedic scenes to give us room to breathe. The O.C. tackled tone that could have been difficult in anyone else’s hands, but they managed to keep it consistently funny without undermining the very real issues at hand.

The O.C. excelled at combining comedy and drama until season four, a criminally underrated collection that was cut short, with almost nothing but comedy throughout. After a couple of stumbling episodes where our characters pay respect to dearly departed Marissa (R.I.P.) the season went full balls-to-the-wall ridiculous and self-referential; it saw a coma episode, a 3-minute sequence that wrapped up the next 10 years, a disaster episode, and Seth actually joking that, “if we could’ve turned this into a body-swap comedy we could’ve squeezed another year or two out of this”.

‘ISSUES’ WERE FACED HEAD-ON

But Ryan’s appearance in Orange County wasn’t just the start of a four-year comedic jaunt. The Cohens accept him as a son, but there’s a lot of baggage that comes with that – his alcoholic mother, his violent temper, his terrible brother. They take all of that on and still love him anyway. For all the accusations of it being a fluffy teen drama about melodramatic rich kids, The O.C. dealt with a plethora of issues in its four seasons; abusive parents, alcoholism, rape, comas, arrests, death, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, shoplifting, grand theft auto and teen pregnancy are just a few of the topics handled on screen. These issues are of course prevalent throughout other teen shows, but The O.C. managed to keep it light whilst delivering storylines that could have been melodramatic in anyone else’s hands.

Not only all that, but The O.C.’s exploration of class issues manages to elevate it above the status of “rich kid problems” – despite the Cohens’ wealth, we are constantly confronted with the reality of poverty for characters like Teresa and Ryan, and the complications that come with combining these worlds.

THE WRITING WAS SHARP AND SELF-AWARE

The O.C. was well-written and full of whole and flawed characters who developed episode to episode. It was funny, too, but it primarily succeeded because it knew it was a TV show. Its creators were wholly aware of the stigma that came with being a teen drama, and aware of how melodramatic it could tend to be – and they revelled in it. Show-within-a-show The Valley runs parallel to The O.C.; the characters watch it, obsess over it, and criticise it for being unrealistic. On their decision to include The Valley, Josh Schwartz said: “I think the self-referential quality was a little bit of some of our own discomfort, like, ‘Are we doing a teen soap on prime time, or are we trying to do something a little different?” And I think The Valley allowed us a little bit of a Greek chorus to be aware of our own whatever when it started to feel like the show was becoming too soapy”.

But the one thing The O.C. got right ,that very few people have managed, is in its accuracy and non-cringey references; where everyone else had failed (and is still failing), The O.C. managed to do nerdy well. Seth’s geekiness could have felt heavy-handed, but the show referenced real comic books and films properly, even dropping in a Magic the Gathering reference (or three). Sure, it’s still pretty unrealistic that anyone could think Adam Brody was unfuckable, but he managed to toe the line between adorable and annoying. Referencing comic books well when they come up every fifteen seconds is no mean feat, either; look to The Big Bang Theory for a how-not-to guide.

THE SOUNDTRACK OF A THOUSAND SUMMERS

No discussion of The O.C. is complete without mentioning its relationship to music. This is another area where the references were well-executed: Seth, for one, was emo in the true early-2000s definition of the word; he listened to Death Cab and Bright Eyes. With the guidance of legendary music supervisor Alex Patsavas, The O.C. used music that its characters would actually listen to, as well as featuring every song that mentions California in passing from the last 20 years. It featured and premiered bands and new tracks – Modest Mouse, Rooney, even The Killers made an appearance at the Bait Shop. Not only that, but it knew how to use music at the right time to bring out the absolute most from the scene. There’s the season 1 finale where Hallelujah plays as Seth sails away and Kirsten cries over his and Ryan’s departures; the first episode of season 4, where a heartbroken Ryan beats up a punching bag, underscored by a Placebo cover of Running Up That Hill; the season four finale, years of history wrapped up in three minutes as Life is a Song by Patrick Park plays.

But where The O.C. deserves the most praise for its music is not in those standout dramatic moments but in how it played music for laughs, whether by accident or otherwise; first and foremost, the most iconic music moment of the 21st century – Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek playing as Marissa shoots Trey. It was a moment that sparked an SNL sketch and a decade of memes. An iconic, glorious moment, that offset something that otherwise might have been a little bit too serious. Mmm; whatcha say. 



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