Right Back Where We Started From

Last year I rewatched The O.C. in its entirety. It took me over a year to do, and if that seems incredibly slow for a series that ran less than 100 episodes, a series for which my love is profound and immeasurable, well, all I can say is that the only thing that can match The O.C.‘s high highs are its low lows. It was never what you might call consistent–for every Ryan and Taylor there was a Ryan and Marissa, for every Ché an Oliver, for every “The Chrismukk-huh?” a “The Chrismukkah Bar Mitzvahkkah.”

When I was a teenager there was a lot of TV about teenagers–I’m not sure if there’s less now or if it just seems like there’s less now, but the average age of the characters on the CW these days seems to be more 20s than teens–but The O.C. was the first show where the main characters were my age. I was going into my junior year of high school when the show premiered, ten years ago today, and so were Ryan and Seth, Marissa and Summer, Luke and Anna and Holly, etc. A year later they were going into their junior year again, thanks to some careful ret-conning to prolong the high school stories, but if anything that only made it stranger.

My life didn’t look anything like what went down in Newport that first season. More happened to Marissa Cooper in the first eight episodes of the first season than happened to me in the entire four years I was in high school–it’s really no wonder the character flamed out so quickly. I was an awkward and bookish kid, if not always a studious one, and while that didn’t prevent Seth Cohen from winding up in all sorts of crazy situations, life in West Windsor, New Jersey, wasn’t exactly ripe with opportunities for crazy beach-front parties. I didn’t meet any psycho stalker types in high school, and as far as I know none of my friends were sleeping with their ex’s mom. But even if I couldn’t relate to the plots on The O.C., the storytelling resonated on an emotional level.

If Buffy’s high school sat on the literal mouth of hell because high school is hell then the soap operatics at the Harbor School embraced the way everything in your life feels magnified when you’re 16. Unrequited crushes hurt harder, requited ones swing higher, the pain of embarrassment feels eternal and unforgettable. That was the sort of thing that The O.C. always understood.

But those plotty extremes would not have worked if The O.C. had not been grounded in the Cohen family. Sandy and Kirsten Cohen were just about the only decent parents in Newport Beach, and not just to their biological son, Seth, or their adopted son, Ryan. Over the years they acted as sounding boards for Theresa, Marissa, Summer, Taylor, Kaitlin and just about every other kid that swung through the kitchen on their way to the Pool House. The Cohen family consistently functioned as a bastion of (almost) normalcy within the craziness of Orange County, and when the show did falter it was generally because something within the Cohen marriage wasn’t working.

It also helped that The O.C. was always a show that had a sense of humor about itself. The self-parodying started almost immediately, and the episode “The L.A.,” which broke down the entire cult of the show in a single episode, aired before the first season was even over. It was easier to take melodrama when the series was also giving you Paris Hilton as a Pynchon scholar and Colin Hanks as bizarro Adam Brody.

The O.C. had a good memory, too, and it could reference something in the first season, like Kirsten’s abortion, that it wouldn’t pay off until the fourth. The show loved a good parallel, whether it was musical (season 1 ends with Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah,” season 2 with Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek,” season 3 with Imogen Heap covering “Hallelujah,” and much of the music in the fourth season consists of covers of songs used in earlier seasons) or visual (a chunk of the pilot is recreated almost shot-for-shot in the season 1 finale, and then a part of that again in the series finale, and the show returned again and again to the image of Ryan carrying an unconscious Marissa: drunk in the pilot, overdosing at the end of episode 7 and dead in his arms at the end of season 3).

A lot of the things that made The O.C. so outstanding in that first season had a hand in its decline in quality. The absurd rate at which the series barreled through plot made it thrilling to watch, but it was impossible to maintain, especially with a 27 episode first season. The show always worked best when it limited the scope of its cast, which made introducing new characters–especially in large batches, as they attempted to do at the beginning of the second season–difficult, but without fresh blood The O.C. grew increasingly incestuous. And the greatest thing the show ever did creatively, killing off Marissa Cooper at the end of the third season, was also the final blow to The O.C.‘s declining ratings. While the fourth season marks an incredible creative resurgence and is my personal favorite, the series lost a lot of devoted fans when it lost Mischa Barton.

When I approached the end of that series re-watch last year, the thing that really slowed me down and dragged it out past the year mark wasn’t getting bogged down in some story I didn’t care for–there was some of that along the way, but not at the end–it was the fact that, once I’d put that last disc into my DVD player I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. I did not want it to end…again. The fourth season is persistently magical. It processes the grief affecting each of the main characters through logical new facets of their personalities, from Summer’s big heart and passion for bossing people around turning naturally into an interest in environmental activism to Ryan’s attempts to get some distance from the drama that enveloped his relationship with Marissa leading to a far lighter if not necessarily less dramatic relationship with the neurotic Taylor.

The fourth season was also when the eternally, if lovably, selfish Seth finally started thinking about other people, when Julie Cooper-Nichol figured out how to be a better parent, and how to be alone, when the Cohens made it, at last, out of Orange County. And it had Pancakes the bunny, and Chris Pratt as the hippie trust-fund kid Ché, and Taylor Townsend, back from a brief stint in France with a husband on her tail, a passion for sleep therapy and stalking, and a growing crush on Ryan. It’s a thing of beauty.

Ten years later, when I look back at a show that was so important to who I was as a teenager, it’s a lot easier to let those missteps go. I’ll never forget the ridiculous Oliver arc, the only stretch of the show where I actually considered giving it up–by the time Johnny came around I had put in too much time and energy to walk away–but that seems inconsequential when I remember it was followed by the episode “The Telenovela,” one of my all-time faves:

(Note that Brad is played by Wilson Bethel, who now plays Rachel Bilson’s love interest on Hart of Dixie, and I will find that funny forever.)

Music From The O.C.: Mix 2 is what my senior year of high school sounded like, it was the soundtrack to those first few months that I had my driver’s license. When I think about The O.C. I think about watching the first 7 episodes in a marathon on FX the week I got home from camp in 2003. I think about the lunch break I spent trying to explain the complex Cooper-Cohen-Nichol family tree to my high school boyfriend, who could not have cared less. I think about the truly monumental amount of time I spent making Seth/Summer fan videos the summer after the first season. I think about the endless teen magazines that asked if you were a Seth Girl or a Ryan Girl (at the time, Seth. With age, Ryan). I think about the way I cried watching the series finale for the first time, and the way I have cried every single time I have watched it since, the tears bubbling hot in my throat as soon as Ryan flashes back to his first sight of Seth in the pilot. I think about TV Hangover’s O.C. party a few weeks ago, and the way an entire room full of people joined in on the theme song when it began to play, the way we couldn’t not.

Some shows stick in you, they take you back to who you were at a certain time in your life, and to how it felt to be that person. The O.C. is like that for me. I watch it and I am 15 forever, even when I’m 25. Probably when I’m 35. Maybe even when I’m 60. It was a show that burned bright and hot and, just when you thought the bulb was going to die, it pulled through to light the way a little longer. That’s no easy thing, but I guess it’s how it’s done in Orange County.

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