Pop Playground
Welcome to the O.C. Bitch


when mediocre pop-punk (sub-Fountains of Wayne?) band Rooney appeared on The O.C. a couple months ago, I was shocked at how much the show treated it like an event—"Rooney’s coming to town? Oh wow, we have to go! Oh, but it’s all sold out? Oh, but you’ve got back-stage passes? WE ARE SO THERE!"—like something out of I Want to Hold Your Hand or Detroit Rock City. It was if the makers of the show expected you’d be as excited as Seth, Marissa and Oliver to see Rooney coming to town. In reality, however, they’d barely been a blip on the mainstream radar, receiving mediocre reviews and little airplay. However, recently America has started to come around to Rooney—their ’03 self-titled album has started climbing the Billboard 200, and their video for "I’m Shakin’" was even featured on TRL just a couple days ago. Such is the power of The O.C., the "hottest show on television right now."

It’s a bit hard to pinpoint exactly where the appeal of The O.C. lies. I watch this show with my friends near religiously, but I think if you asked any one of them why they enjoy the show so much, they’d probably say something like, "well…it’s The O.C.!!!," and perhaps go on to describe a bit of what they like about the show, but really it would only cover a fraction of why they keep coming back to the show. And that’s the brilliance of the show, really—it has an ambiguity of quality that is near undefinable, an aspect that keeps you watching when you’re not really sure for what reason it is you’re watching. This is because the appeal of the show is threefold—as an ironic pop culture fix, as a guilty pleasure, and as one of the genuinely best shows on prime time television in ages.

In its genesis period, The O.C. landed squarely in the first category. Its first episode was sensational to the point of being absolutely ludicrous—including bully Luke’s truly immortal line "WELCOME TO THE O.C. BITCH!!! THIS IS HOW WE DO IT IN ORANGE COUNTY!!!" Along with that, there were SCANDALOUS party scenes packed with CONTROVERSIAL drug use and SHOCKING glimpses of a ménage-à-trois, all revealing the "seamier underbelly" of Orange County, and there was some more classic dialogue ("Who are you?" "Whoever you want me to be.") How bad was the first episode of The O.C.? Well, even the Dawson’s Creek-bred teenage girls that were in the lounge area watching the show with me were laughing at it. So yeah.

I brought the show back to my friends as The Next Boston Public—only hoping that The O.C. could reach that show’s level of faux-sensationalism and constantly escalating controversy. The next couple episodes did not disappoint, and gradually my friends were as hooked as I was. Meanwhile the show was blowing up in the mainstream, getting a prime time slot and being billed as The Next 90210. But little by little, I started to suspect that the show was attempting to slip in unmistakable shards of quality amidst the dreck. The characters started showing previously hidden third dimensions. The plots eased up on the partying. The dialogue started getting sharper, more…likely. It was a subtle enough evolution that all those hooked by the extravagance of the first couple episodes never thought to abandon ship, but obvious enough for me to start to realize that this show was no Boston Public. Well, only a third anyway.

The O.C., in case you’ve somehow not managed to see a single episode, tells the story of Ryan (played by Benjamin Atwood, who I refer to as Russell Norton, due to his being an uncanny hybrid between the physique/hair of Edward Norton and the looks/mannerisms of Russell Crowe), a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who has the fortune of having Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher) as his pro bono lawyer when he gets thrown in the slammer for stealing a car with his no-good bro. Sandy’s heart bleeds for Russell Norton, and he takes him home to stay and eventually live with his rich family in the O.C., including mom Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), son Seth (Adam Brody), and every now and then, grandpa Caleb (Alan Dale) and aunt Hailey (Amanda Righetti). RN gets into romantic misadventures with girl next door Marissa (Mischa Auer)--who has a business fraud for a dad (Tate Donovan) and a total bitch for a mom (Melinda Clarke)—while fighting off ex-boyfriend Luke (Chris Carmack), and Seth struggles with deciding who he likes more, Marissa’s catty best friend Summer (Rachel Bilson) or his female equivalent Anna (Samaire Armstrong).

As part of a proud history of TV shows who’s main character is the least interesting, Ryan makes for a rather bland figure to rotate the show around—he was fairly interesting when he was fighting the good fight against the O.C. preppies ("You know what I like about rich kids? NOTHING!"), but paired with the unfathomably bland Mairssa, the most exciting thing we’re likely to get out of him is the occasional tilted-head brood. He’s emotionally desolate (but not in a cool way), he more often than not rejects the help people try to give him, he takes his new family for granted (especially somewhat clingy new friend/brother Seth, who clearly worships him)—despite his troubled background and pouty eyes, he’s the least sympathetic character in the show.

However, it’s probably his relationship with Marissa that holds the greatest "guilty pleasure" appeal of the show. Their relationship has been put to the test so many times—background issues ("we’re from two different worlds!"), issues of trust, family pressures, and the paramount, arrival of infamous "new kid" Oliver, whose evil masterplan almost gets Marissa into his arms and Ryan kicked out of school—it’s gotten to a feverish, soap opera level that keeps me wondering what turn they’re going to take next.

Far more blissfully indulgent, however, is the love triangle between Seth, Summer and Anna. From the moment the latter was introduced on the show, it was clear that eventually Seth would make the "right choice" and throw over gorgeous but bratty Summer for the similarly comic book obsessed and dorky Anna. However, I secretly hoped that he would end up with Summer—the chemistry between them was far more compelling, their relationship far more complex and far-reaching. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one, as the show recently had him give up Anna and lose his virginity with Summer. Good call, boys.

Perhaps the main thing that separates The O.C. from other overblown teen dramas is the undeniable good nature of the show. In the beginning, the show had two clear villains—bullying, cheating Luke and Marissa’s lying, manipulative mom. But they didn’t stay villains for too long. After Luke’s dad came out of the closet and he rapidly lost his jock cred, he was revealed to be the sweetest guy on earth—the only guy who backs Ryan up when he claims that there’s something funny about the new kid, the only guy that offers solace to Summer after she’s rejected by Seth, the only guy who comforts Marissa’s mom after her daughter runs out on her. And Marissa’s mom has started to show a certain genuine vulnerability—first after getting ditched by Marissa in favor of divorced dad, and then after getting dumped by grandpa Caleb (eww!)—and now she’s become undeniably sympathetic. What’s more, there’s no such thing as a one-episode character on The O.C.. The world of the show is very self-contained—for such supposedly popular and affluent people, most of the characters only interact with each other. But as a cause of this, every character introduced in a major role in one episode is quickly welcomed to the fold by the rest of the cast.

Which brings us to the real trick of The O.C.--at its core, it is not a lurid teen soap opera, but a true family show. Peter Gallagher—playing a character, for the first time in his 15-year long acting career, that is in no way sleazy—and wife, Kirsten, have a fabulous relationship—they bicker, they get into petty fights, but their love is genuine, their marital bliss is incredibly alluring, and as parents, they’re practically ideal. And even outside of the immediate Cohen foursome, the whole unit of the show works as a family of sorts—a family in which if you show up for one episode, then sure, you can come for Thanksgiving Dinner. And all the characters have a link of some sort—the show even puts deliberate situational parallels between the characters. Dad’s reaction to find a threesome happening in his bed when Aunt Hailey throws a party is remarkably similar to Seth’s reaction to the threesome in the first episode, and Summer uses the same "don’t come in, I’m naked" excuse to Seth that he previously used to Summer—in an episode months earlier. And almost every episode ends with a lulling sense of domesticity, a sentiment that is unbelievably refreshing in prime time television.

But if The O.C. has one true claim to genuine, lasting quality, it is in the discovery of Seth, played by Adam Brody. I’ve never seen anyone act quite like Brody does, his incredible reaction times and his hysterical intonation make for one of the greatest supporting characters in all of television. What’s more, he also adds to the hip quotient of the show, with his constant namedropping of the crucial three—Death Cab For Cutie, The Shins and Bright Eyes--as well as his vaguely ironic T-shirts and occasionally obscure humor. Plus, he’s the guy most people going to relate to on the show—smart, sensitive, anti-social and for the first seventeen years of his life, girl-less. His performance is the not-so-secret weapon of the show, and it’s one that leaves me hoping that his career doesn’t end here.

With this three-tiered appeal, not to mention the multigenerational aspects of the show (being just as much about Sandy and Kirsten as about Ryan and Seth), I can’t think of a single possible TV watcher who wouldn’t be entranced by The O.C.. In fact, it’s the one thing I can rely on as a conversation starter for no matter who I’m talking to—whether it’s the jocks in my history class, cousins at my family gatherings or the girl who works behind the counter at my local record store—everyone loves this show.

Welcome to the O.C., bitch. Let’s hope we get to stay for several fabulous seasons to come.


By: Andrew Unterberger
Published on: 2004-03-03
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