For the unfamiliar: Welcome to Earth. Let me catch you up. Ryan Atwood was our teen protagonist, the anti-hero lifted from the veritable prison colony of Chino by do-gooder public defender Sandy Cohen. Ryan moves in with the Cohens, taking up residency in the pool house, the family rounded out by WASP-with-a-heart-of-gold wife Kirsten and son, Seth. Before Zooey Deschanel and “adorkable” anything, there was Seth Cohen, self-effacing socially awkward, a Woody Allen for the early aughts. Add neighbor Marissa Cooper, doe-eyed and a heavy drinker, and Summer Roberts, for whom Seth harbors a long-unrequited love (it’s no coincidence she shares the name of his boat; it’s a desire triangulated by many a seafaring man.) With some puka shell-wearing water polo players, Juicy sweatsuits, house fires, a mall-pisode, money laundering, car theft, and an ill-fated trip to Tijuana–well, as Ryan tells Marissa in the first episode, “I think I could get in less trouble where I’m from.”
I was weeks away from being a freshman in high school when “The O.C.” premiered, the same age as Ryan et. al. When it aired, “The O.C.” felt like it was specifically for me, in the narcissistic way only a 14-year-old trying to establish an identity can feel—It was aspirational, in a way, though the thought seems strange—I didn’t just relate to these people, I wanted to be like these people (minus perhaps their penchant, when punched, for falling over on the nearest heavily-cluttered table and knocking everything down.) Hell, when I was sixteen I even went to the hair salon with a picture of Mischa Barton that I’d torn from a magazine, and asked the woman to cut me bangs like that. (It was haircut that, as it turns out, caused me to lose my first potential suitor. I still have bangs, so, he suck it.)
My self-identification with the show held especially true regarding Seth who, while being a comics-and-book-loving music nerd who rode a skateboard and wanted to go to Brown, still rose to a “leading man” type, equal to if not surpassing Ryan Atwood and his arms. I, too, loved Ben Gibbard and sometimes babbled incoherently in social situations. (I still do.) The sensitive-teen type existed, in characters like Dawson Leary and Rory Gilmore, but they never felt as close or as real as Seth. I was a little too young for the former (and lacked appropriate crying-face), and perhaps not fast-talking enough for the latter. It was reaffirming as a 14-year-old kid, to not only recognize someone like myself on TV, but see that self celebrated and validated. Seeing things that were important to me be important to someone else was powerful stuff, akin to Mr. Rogers reaching out from your TV to you he loves you just for being you.Growing up, most of my friends lived within a convenient two-block radius, and we gathered together each week to scream-sing along with the opening credits.It was also the first show I ever watched, like, religiously. In the days before Netflix and the instants, this required commitment–one was beholden to the gods of scheduling–and it engendered much stricter ritual than what’s now our “gimme” standard media-consumption. Watching “The O.C.” became not just a kind of worshipful carving out of my time, but the first time in memory that T.V. became a meaningful shared experience. Growing up, most of my friends lived within a convenient two-block radius, made shorter by passing through a neighbor’s backyard (a shortcut they tried to dissuade us from taking by planting a small tree) and we gathered together each week to scream-sing along with the opening credits. We cared, and we did the things people do when they care–laugh, cry, obsess, conjecture, decide which character we liked best, decide which character we hated most, and waited anxiously for the beginning of each new season. Each Thursday not only strengthened my love for the show, but my friendships, through our mutual worry about obviously-crazy-Oliver and Seth sailing away on his catamaran.
‘The O.C.” didn’t always have the best narrative integrity. It blew through perhaps every possible plot line in season one, and ended the only way it could–with Ryan in the passenger seat of a car, pulling away from the Cohens’, that shot of Marissa at the bottom of her driveway in the setting sun. Additionally, characters suffer rewrites to the point of personality disorder. Apparently, any peripheral character no longer integral to the story is no longer allowed in Newport Beach. Just about every possible relationship combination comes to fruition, even some creepy ones. But though there were characters and storylines “The O.C.” quickly left behind, for some key things it had a long institutional memory. “The O.C.” was always good at riding on a kind of visual nostalgia, so to speak. In the final scene of the series, Ryan—now some kind of architect—sees a wayward kid on a bike, sitting near a payphone, recalling his—and our—entrance into the show. That, Marissa in the driveway, it still gets me, I’ll admit. “The O.C.” may have held few things dear, but it kept a couple of memorable visuals in the wings. When “The O.C.” recycles a scene or part of its soundtrack, you remember how you felt the first time it aired; your experience becomes a part of how you understand the narrative, and it rewards you in this way for following along.
And even still, despite its faults–it was a teen soap opera, after all–“The O.C.” was smart. It was always reaching out from the narrative and establishing its self-awareness and position as part of the critical conversation–can you think of any other TV show that has a fictional version of the show within the show, which the characters all watched and even met the actors of? It’s so meta, your brain just exploded. This was smart, and way ahead of its time, and of course something that went way over my head at 14 but that now I appreciate as the kind of meta-critical ironic currency in which we all trade.
In one of my favorite episodes of This American Life, Ira Glass admits, “It’s personal in the deepest possible way,“Every week, The O.C. comes on, and my wife, Anaheed, and I, we sit on the couch. And when the theme comes on, ‘California,’ we sing along with it in full voice. Do you know what I mean? Think about what that takes. I’m 47 years old. I’m a grown ass man, you know? We’re a married couple. Sober. We are sober, singing the theme to a FOX show.”It’s like comfort food for my heart– full of cheese and really bad for me…“Personal,” is probably the best way to describe it. When I watch the show now, I remember being that young, I think of the friends I don’t see much anymore, or of all of those times that my sister and I spent on the couch during school breaks, fending off muscle atrophy by switching out discs of the DVDs and occasionally grabbing snacks. That thing about scent being the strongest sense tied to memory–which is probably true but still annoying to hear people say–if that could somehow apply to a television show, it would be “The O.C.” It’s like comfort food for my heart– full of cheese and really bad for me, but inextricably tied to some intoxicating notion of well-being.
When the last season aired, I was in college—as were Seth, Summer, and Ryan. We all transitioned (or died in a fiery car accident), and grew up. I had a new friends, new Thursday night rituals, a new life; “The O.C.” felt solidly placed in my high school memories and I, too, exited Newport Beach with a “see you later.” Still, I return to California-as-fantasy time and again, always with great pleasure. It isn’t always a good show, but back then it was a great show, and when those opening credits roll I will always sing along, loudly and without compunction.
I defy anyone not to do the same.