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"A bonfire on the beach, a fashion show and a big bash with cocaine": How 'The O.C.' inspired a generation of TV shows

The '00s teen soap changed the television landscape forever

"A bonfire on the beach, a fashion show and a big bash with cocaine": How 'The O.C.' inspired a generation of TV shows
31 October 2018

Fifteen years is a long time. Fifteen years ago we’d never heard of Barack Obama. MySpace had just launched, while YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were years off. The bestselling phone in the world was the Nokia 1100, and Concorde was still flying. It was a completely different world. And the best season of television ever broadcast was halfway through: season one of The O.C.

The whole 92-episode run of the entire show is something of a mixed bag, but those first 27 episodes are sheer gold. 

Part soap opera, part rom-com, part fish-out-of-water tale, part bildungsroman, the core idea of the show was fairly straightforward (and quite similar to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, when you think about it): Ryan Atwood (Benjamin Mackenzie), a troubled kid from a rough part of LA, is taken in by the wealthy family of the public defender assigned to him, and struggles to assimilate to this new world. Will he ever be accepted by his new family, or by Marissa (Mischa Barton), the pretty girl next door?

There’s a tradition on American soaps of setting them among the wealthiest communities (Santa Barbara, The Bold and the Beautiful), and The O.C. was as interested in continuing this, with its absurdly attractive cast, beautiful mansions and sun-kissed beaches, as it was in deconstructing it. Just as Scream, a few years earlier, was at once a slasher film and a knowing critique of slasher film conventions, The O.C. combined the glamour and melodrama of Beverly Hills 90210 with the witty, reference-laden, postmodern bants of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

You know EastEnders? The O.C. is the binary opposite of EastEnders.

Show creator Josh Schwartz was an awkward, self-consciously nerdy, indoorsy type who spoke a mile a minute and became the youngest showrunner in TV history; just 26 when The O.C. first hit screens. He based the series on his experiences seeing inside the gated communities and mansions of Southern California while at film school, throwing in everything he felt was obligatory in a glamorous teen world.

“That’s why it’s got a bonfire on the beach, and Karate Kid without the karate, and a fashion show and a big bash with cocaine,” he told the New York Times. “We felt we had this story that was organic to that world of beaches and sunshine and wealthy people. And really what we hoped we had were these characters that were a little bit funnier and more soulful and different and specific than the kinds you usually see in that genre. They would be the soldiers inside our Trojan horse.”

“Seth was a pre-hipster hipster, a genuinely cool nerd. The only unbelievable element of his character was that someone so handsome, charismatic and funny was as invisible to women as he is at the beginning of the show”

Most TV fans are now familiar with the concept of a showrunner, as things like Twitter have eroded the gap between fans and creators, but at the time these people were usually faceless and often nameless to the masses. Schwartz on the other hand was a genuine name. T4, Channel 4’s weekend youth broadcasting block (read: hangover telly) that introduced UK audiences to the show, ended up doing a series of spoof “Schwartz Reports” featuring presenter Steve Jones in a wig doing a gleefully terrible impression of Schwartz. (Despite being, on the surface, an incredibly disposable bit of Saturday morning filler, the Schwartz Reports play a large part in at least one academic paper, Dr Faye Woods’ “Teen TV Meets T4: Assimilating The O.C. into British Youth Television”, which describes Jones’ Schwartz as a “puppetlike, strangely Nosferatu-esque figure”.)

Ryan (Benjamin Mackenzie) and Seth (Adam Brody)

While the protagonist of the show was Ryan, the breakout character was Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), a fast-talking nerd based wholly on Schwartz himself. Again, to put 2003 into context, this is long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In 2018 geek culture is mainstream culture, but in 2003 that was just beginning - it was the year the Lord Of The Rings and Matrix trilogies finished, and work began on Batman Begins. It was still something of a rarity to see a character who was interested in comic books and sci-fi and whom wasn’t just treated as a joke. In Seth, there was a three-dimensional, complex, believable character whose passions weren’t played for laughs, used as shorthand for various deficiencies or presented in lieu of a personality.

He was a pre-hipster hipster, a genuinely cool nerd. The only really unbelievable element of his character was that someone so handsome, charismatic and funny was as invisible to women as he is at the beginning of the show - something which went on to change, with Seth finding himself, in standard soap opera fashion, embroiled in love triangles fairly swiftly.

Possibly due to Schwartz’s inexperience, he was open to changing the dynamics of the show as it went on. Summer (Rachel Bilson) was initially a guest star, the unattainable object of Seth’s affections, before their on-screen chemistry turned their relationship into one of the most compelling elements of the show. (This chemistry spread off-screen as well, with Bilson and Brody dating for several years.)

The hideous(ly good-looking) cast of The O.C: Adam Brody, Mischa Barton, Benjamin McKenzie and Rachel Bilson

While the young core cast of Benjamin Mackenzie, Mischa Barton, Rachel Bilson and Adam Brody were impossibly photogenic unknowns, veterans with proven acting chops were brought in for the adult roles, Peter Gallagher (of Sex, Lies and Videotape, American Beauty and The Player fame) as public defender Sandy Cohen, former model Kelly Rowan (Hook) as his workaholic wife Kirsten, and soap veteran Melinda Clarke (Days Of Our Lives) and Friends alum Tate Donovan as Marissa’s parents.

Sure, the first season was fairly formulaic, but that formula was perfect. The formula went as thus: Ryan (and his seemingly endless collection of leather bracelets and too-small necklaces) goes to a series of high society events and inevitably ends up causing a scene and fighting someone, either due to standing up for what was right or being unfairly victimised and fighting back. The villain of the season, Marissa’s boyfriend Luke, was an impossibly Ken-doll-like hunk and he was amazing. The signature line of the whole show comes at the end of episode one: Luke’s sneering, prickish, open-shirted “Welcome to the O.C., bitch.”

You did not get that in Dawson’s Creek.

The whole season was funny, sexy, glamorous, exciting, and consistently satisfying. There were so many highlights: Gay dads! Shootings! Cotillion balls! Tijuana overdoses! Corporate espionage! Unexpected pregnant strangers! Oliver, the most detestable character in television history (who had a six-episode arc of such arseholeness that the actor who played him has barely worked since…)! Nerdy love triangles! Inter-generational affairs!

The key to it all, though, was Gallagher’s Sandy Cohen, absolutely the greatest father in TV broadcast history. The owner of a pair of eyebrows so magnificent they could make you believe in God, Gallagher put a lot of his own experiences as a father into the character, correcting what he thought were mistakes or oversights made by the young childless writing team.

“Josh was really open-minded about my perspective as a father, ’cause none of them were fathers,” he later told The A.V. Club. “When there were things that didn’t ring very true about what a father would do, Josh had his ear open to that, so I could behave more as a father might in those circumstances. Rather than seeing Mischa [Barton] at some older guy’s house and saying, “Oh, hey, what’s going on?” instead of, “What the hell is wrong with you?! Get outta here!” [Laughs.] No, if I said that, I should be arrested for the rest of my life, locked up for being such a bad father.”

Whether celebrating the quality of “arm wrestling classic” Over The Top or getting into dramatic-ass fisticuffs to defend what was right, Sandy was the model of integrity, an eternally decent man who stayed true to his left-wing, working-class roots despite marrying into a WASP-y, wealthy community. A scrappy idealist in a cynical, materialistic world, surfing before court and constantly imparting solid advice to both his biological son and his adopted ward. He and Seth’s well-meaning but incredibly awkward sex talk, for instance.

“The dads I grew up with on telly were bumbling, shitty idiots,” says Steve, a father of one who fondly remembers the show and bought Over The Top on DVD because Sandy Cohen liked it.

“Al Bundy, Homer Simpson, all that lot - leering, useless twats, always lying about what they were doing so they could get away with mischief. Sandy was like the most solid dude in the world, this honest, incredibly sound guy who does anything but that. That’s the kind of husband I want to be, and the kind of father I want to be as my kid grows older - the Seth/Sandy relationship is one of mutual respect, and they’re almost friends by that age, but there’s discipline there. It’s a friendly hierarchy where they can share how they feel, which seems like what fatherhood should be, really. Plus, look at Sandy and Kirsten - that’s a sexy, sexy couple. It’s nice, and more rare than it feels it should be, to see parents on TV who clearly fancy the hell out of each other.”

Schwartz himself thought that the Sandy/Kirsten/Seth dynamic was what viewers loved the most, telling the New York Times: “As much as our audience enjoys living vicariously in this wealthy world, I think the true wish fulfilment comes from wishing that they had a family like the Cohens — where the parents could be that cool and that grounded and that loving, but also real parents.” 


Beneath the hip dialogue and indie soundtrack (bands like The Walkmen, Modest Mouse and Death Cab For Cutie made appearances on the show, while Beck, Beastie Boys and Gwen Stefani premiered singles on it), The O.C. was ultimately a soap. However, it did what few soaps have done before or since, having its cake and eating it by regularly making meta remarks about its inherent soapiness.

The characters in the show regularly watched a soap called The Valley that parodied the general perception of The O.C., and integrated viewers’ responses to various twists and turns the show made. Whether characters commented on its lazy reliance on love triangles or speculated how likely it was to be renewed, it kind of made the whole thing unmockable. After a reviewer commented that “Whoever at FOX thought Benjamin McKenzie could pass for anything younger than 25 should be fired”, characters lamented The Valley casting actors in their twenties as teenagers.

When, in season two, fans were complaining that the show wasn’t as good as it had been, Seth casually remarked, discussing an evening out, that “we tried some new things, but last year was just better”. References were made to The Sixth Sense (in which Barton appeared) and The Ring (which featured Brody), as well as fan obsessions like Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows and Benjamin Mackenzie’s resemblance to a young Russell Crowe. When a reality show inspired by The O.C. appeared, The Valley got one too.

Summer (Rachel Bilson) and Marissa (Mischa Barton)

While the show itself fizzled out after four seasons, particularly struggling in its third (the fourth was better but the damage was done), it cast a hell of a shadow. Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry credits the success of The O.C. as a prime-time soap with getting his show greenlit. Reality soap Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County was specifically made in the wake of The O.C., and led to countless other shows - The Hills spun off from it (launching the careers of Heidi Montag, Spencer Pratt and other reality TV perennials) and kick-started a whole swathe of semi-scripted reality shows.

Jersey Shore, The Only Way Is Essex, Made In Chelsea, Geordie Shore… They’d arguably not exist without The Hills, which wouldn’t have existed without The O.C., so a world without The O.C. would possibly be a world without any of them. Similarly, the Real Housewives franchise began with The Real Housewives Of Orange County, something Melinda Clarke, who played Julie Cooper, credits to The O.C.

On another note, beloved comedy trio The Lonely Island might not be where they are without the show - one of the things that initially got them noticed and led to their hiring by Saturday Night Live was their online O.C. parody series The ‘Bu. When they were hired by SNL, one of their most successful early sketches, ‘Dear Sister’, was another O.C. parody, using the same Imogen Heap track as when Marissa shoots Ryan’s brother Trey. Here’s the original:

While here’s the SNL/Lonely Island/Shia LeBoeuf version:

No O.C., no Brooklyn Nine-Nine, no Hot Rod, no MacGruber, no Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Possibly, anyway.

Sadly, for most of The O.C.’s main cast, the show remains a career high point. None of the main four went on to be movie stars, despite it seeming so incredibly clear to fans that they simply must be destined for greatness (see also Samaire Armstrong, who played nerdy Anna Stern and completely lit up the screen). Barton has had well-publicised substance abuse issues, while the rest of them have been constantly working, just never quite becoming the marquee names we truly expected.

Mackenzie is the most successful, starring as Jim Gordon in Gotham for the past five seasons (and married to his co-star, Deadpool’s Morena Baccarin). Adam Brody has a role in the upcoming Shazam!, so there’s hope yet. Josh Schwartz went on to create Gossip Girl, Chuck and Runaways along with his producing partner Stephanie Savage, and is somehow still only 42. 

Ryan, Sandy, Sandy’s massive eyebrows and Seth

Honestly, there’s not a more perfect season of any show than the debut season of The O.C. Watch it. Watch it the way nature intended, lying hungover on a sofa.

It’s Saturday morning in 2003, you don’t have anything to worry about, and these funny, attractive youngsters are having interesting adventures, and there are some terrific big eyebrows, and it’s magnificent. Ebay has millions of copies of the box set. Buy it. Watch it. Give it to people, and when they say “Thanks”, say, “You’re welcome… to The O.C…. bitch.”

(Pics: Warner Bros)