A look back at The O.C. pilot, 15 years later
I guess you have to say The O.C. series premiere has “aged.” The bad dude wears puka shells, they all did back then. The good dudes bond over PS2, yes this was young male friendship. Melinda Clarke’s Julie Cooper, one of the greatest characters in TV history, has a standout moment in the doorway rocking a pink. Velour. TRACKSUIT. Rouge hair, rouge lips, outfit teasingly skintone-ish in the evening light. If there ever was a Juicy Couture Era, this was its Megazord moment, Aug. 5, 2003 — 15 years ago.
And the cruelest stylistic decision in the pilot very of its moment. Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) begins in Chino, a graffiti cityscape shot handheld and blue-filtered. Then lawyer Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher) drives him to Newport Beach, which glows glossy in warm colors with steady camerawork. Yet there is beauty in San Bernardino County, and ugliness in Orange County. So the “gritty” connotation feels cheap, an indie-film gimmick appropriated to uphold the lamest ideas about postcard Cali. You remember how Chino in 2003 was already on the road to becoming majority Latino, while Newport was on the road to remaining hilariously Caucasian. You notice how Sandy excitedly mentions Ryan’s SAT scores. (The 98th percentile!) This academic excellence, halfway Will Hunting-ish, feels like a very network-TV bit of likability calculus. Maybe some unexceptional Chino kid wouldn’t register the same way; here’s a kid who deserves to live by the beach.
The shift from Chino to Newport feels accurately primal, though, realistic because it’s so garish. There are parts of the California coastline removed from the normal continuum, always a long drive away, down highways, through traffic. Getting there takes time, or just piles of money. Parking is impossible, tourist-unfriendly. The cities are new enough to lack history, though more accurate to say they’re built against history, big mansions imitating late European style erected atop Acjachemen hunting grounds. You imagine it would be nice to live in such a place, if you were rich enough not to care about money. But who gets rich without caring about money?
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So there’s something ageless in the O.C. pilot’s fairy tale: Wake up one morning, in the poolhouse that is your new home. Ryan’s arrival at Casa Cohen is like Dorothy in Oz, the world literally more colorful. In memory, The O.C. becomes a paragon of conspicuous coastal excess. Creator Josh Schwartz was always more clever than that. In his pilot script’s construction, you feel the gleaming walls closing in. None of the Cohens are happy in Newport. Sandy’s a Bronx boy, aware how unreal this real heaven is. His son Seth (Adam Brody) is a nerdy kid in the land of water polo. Kirsten (Kelly Rowan) is a local who rebelled against her upbringing. You always see her wondering: How did I wind up back here?
Next door, there are government agents knock-knocking, coming for deceitful money-managing dad. Fabulous daughter Marissa (Mischa Barton) is a casualty drunk. The young Newport women all look like some thin bikini-adjacent definition of perfect, and yet they are told by all society they don’t look perfect enough. That hair is harsh on their angles; their chest can’t hold up Vera Wang.
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It’s the oldest trick in the book: The rich people have problems, so you sympathize with their struggles while you glory in their decadence. (“There’s a whole world outside this Newport Beach bubble!” says Sandy, right after his morning surf at the beach down the street.) It’s closer to Bret Easton Ellis than I remember, and the show found a different footing quickly as a delightfully humane farce, always halfway meta, with an undercurrent of sumptuous romance radiating off the incredible soundtrack.
The latter point comes through most in this series premiere. See: Ryan carrying Marissa toward the poolhouse, Mazzy Star’s “Into Dust” suggesting a romance barely formed and already fading. Years later, “Into Dust” soundtracked a commercial for Gears of War 3, a game where sad sack juiceheads chainsaw murderous goremonsters. The O.C. is the rainbow bridge connecting acoustic ’90s dream rock to ultraviolent multiplayer video games, an essential nexus point between different eras of indie-cool and nerdy-fandom and mainstream acceptance. Seth Cohen is one of pop culture’s essential crossover figures, a teen soap icon advocating for Rockstar Games and Alan Moore. He was who nerds aspired to be, before nerds ever realized they could destroy the world.
But all that would come later. A pilot can’t do everything, of course, but some characters feel half-formed. In Ryan’s first big dialogue scene, he unfurls a big speech about human life expectancy and the impending end of social security. It’s too precocious, very ’90s in its Dawsonian verbosity. Meanwhile, Julie’s a goof on bad mom-itude — a great goof, but it would be a while before Melinda Clarke got to shade in the character’s furious tenacity. And Summer (Rachel Bilson) is a distant object of Seth’s affections. Bilson believably plays the one carefree character on screen, but The O.C. got better the more it promoted her, built a marvelous cultural paradigm in the suggestion that Summer’s effusive femininity (all hail Golden Girls!) was precisely as nerdy as Seth’s comic book-ishness. In a cheeky list the Ringer just published of the Best Episodes of this Century, the first episode of The O.C. series premiere is in the top ten. All personal preference, of course, but I don’t even think this pilot is one of the top ten episodes of The O.C.
And I mean that a compliment! The ensuing heights of season 1 were very high, a full 27 episodes (27!) of wonder. A couple moments from season 2 are historic. Everyone who stuck around knows season 4 is a comeback mini-masterpiece, a comedy of manners via alternate reality and earthquake. By comparison, the O.C. pilot’s trying too hard to sell you on something: high-glam fashion, a casually-witnessed threesome, snorts of cocaine, Malibu doubling for the Orange Coast. The vibe’s unmissably Luke-ish, Welcome To The OC, Bitch! as a blatant (successful!) attempt at summer TV eyeballs. The best was yet to come.
But it achieves full transcendence near the end, when Sandy drives Ryan away. Joseph Arthur’s on the soundtrack, “Honey and the Moon.” Marissa’s on the street. The two teens share a long look.
Impossible to conceive that either of them know who Joseph Arthur is. (Anecdotally, Ryan vibes like a 3 Doors Down guy, and Marissa must blast “In Da Club” while she’s sipping schoolnight Stoli.) But the music’s perfect, as it would always be perfect, the sound of an experience remembered distantly even while it’s happening. Ryan looks back, and we catch one last sight: Marissa, getting into some guy’s car. In some ways, she never got out.