Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
Fox’s teen drama The O.C. is mostly remembered as the show that made Death Cab For Cutie a household name, and that’s only if it’s remembered at all. But in the 2003-2004 TV season, The O.C. was one of the biggest and buzziest TV shows in existence, as “Welcome to The O.C., bitch,” peaked as a full-on global phenomenon.
Much like Ryan Atwood joining the Cohen family, the beach-set soap came out of nowhere. But its fall from grace a mere three seasons later came just as swiftly. By The O.C.’s final season, it had all come crashing down in a meandering, snarkily self-deprecating shell of what it once was.
The bright, splashy teen soap started with a gloriously simple premise: wayward teen Ryan Atwood (played by a young Ben McKenzie before he grew up and became a cop on Southland and Gotham) is adopted by the affluent Cohen family, where this kid from the wrong side of the tracks gets a new shot at life in the ritzy world of Newport Beach, California. This being a teen soap, there’s also a love story (or two) to serve as a throughline, as Ryan falls for the literal rich girl next door Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton). Ryan’s arrival also helps the Cohen’s nerdy son Seth (Adam Brody) gain just enough coolness points to catch the eye of his lifelong crush, Summer (Rachel Bilson).
The grown-up yin to the teen drama yang was the story of the parents doing their best to raise their children in the often spoiled, fake world of Newport. Public defender Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher) kicks off the whole show by lending a helping hand to Ryan. The adult cast is rounded out by Sandy’s wife Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), Kirsten’s father and area business leader Caleb Nichol (Alan Dale), and Marissa’s parents Julie (Melinda Clarke) and Jimmy (Tate Donovan).
The O.C. worked best as a hangout-and-vibe type of show, inexplicably bringing A-list stars to a dive bar venue, following Seth as he tries to launch his own comic book, and waiting patiently to see who Ryan might punch next.
Season 1 does a great job of balancing the cross-generational stories, anchoring the high school drama of compelling wayward love stories with the realization that—surprise!—the adults in the room don’t really have it figured out, either. It’s soapy perfection, following the teens through twists and surprise love interests, as well as the challenge of a troubled peer who befriends Marissa and wreaks chaos on their fragile friend group. But the thing about a soapy drama is that it requires drama, and with an average of 25 episodes per season across its first three years, story churn set in quickly as the show burned through too many wild and fun ideas, leaving the creative tank empty.
The cracks started to show in Season 2, but The O.C. was still telling good stories anchored in the teen love stories, parenting challenges, and Ryan’s struggle to find his place in this world. Then the end began. Season 3 was an unmitigated disaster, introducing a surfer crew’s worth of largely derided new characters after Marissa is kicked out of school and starts attending public school. It also spends an astounding amount of runtime stressing about college, only for most of the students to either defer enrollment, or simply get kicked out. Fans effectively revolted, and ratings cratered to around half of the show’s beloved first season.
This led the writers to dip into one of the oldest tricks in the book when it comes to juicing the ratings and getting lapsed fans to tune back in: the death of a main character. To give the series a fresh setup for a soft reset, a decision was made to kill off Marissa. Over three seasons she struggled with drug addiction, alcohol addiction, the emotional fallout of killing a man in self-defense, the death of her close friend, and so much more. Just as she’s graduating high school and preparing to abscond off with her father to start a new life, her jilted surfer dude ex-boyfriend (one of those largely despised new characters from Season 3), runs her and Ryan off the road. The season ends with Marissa dying in Ryan’s arms.
But instead of serving as a creative launchpad, Marissa’s death effectively broke the narrative thread that was holding the show together. The story of wayward lovers had come to a tragic end, yet The O.C. continued on. Season 4 proved to be narratively muddled and wildly inconsistent in tone, as the show desperately tried to reinvent itself. In the wake of Marissa’s death, Ryan ran away and joined a fight club (just don’t talk about it), while Seth and Summer’s relationship is to the point of inventing problems just to have some drama left to wring out of it. Then there’s a subplot with a trip to Mexico to find Marissa’s killer. Just a few episodes later, and the show is doing its own sparkly alternate universe story (yes, seriously) with a healthy dash of It’s a Wonderful Life mixed in.
Future blockbuster movie star Chris Pratt, fresh off his stint on Everwood and still a few years away from Parks and Recreation, joined that final season in the supporting role of Summer’s tree-hugging activist friend Che. It’s clear they knew Pratt was destined for bigger things, to the point they awkwardly shoehorned him into far more episodes than needed. There was literally a point where he was just hanging around in the corners as a figment of Summer’s imagination. One positive change though was the promotion of supporting star Autumn Reeser to starring role, with her quirky character Taylor Townsend effectively taking Marissa’s slot in the main cast as Ryan’s new love interest. The tone also reached Deadpool-levels of fourth wall-breaking camera winks mocking the genre and TV industry as a whole, as the writers themselves seemed to be lamenting the show’s demise and breakdown.
But while the antics of Che and the silliness of Taylor’s wacky relationship with Ryan sometimes made for fun TV, none of it actually felt like The O.C.. None of it felt true to the characters we’d come to know, or the style of show that made it so attractive in the first place The only thing that didn’t change was the great indie tunes in the background. The teens never really went off to college (and the one that did didn’t stay), and it felt like the show was so desperately trying to recapture the high school feel even after everyone had graduated.
Despite its creative highs at the start, in the end The O.C.’s legacy is a final failure to launch, a failure to retain what worked at the core of the show, and a failure to find a new way to successfully reinvent itself for more stories from a cast and setting we once loved.
Trent Moore is a recovering print journalist, and freelance editor and writer with bylines at lots of places. He likes to find the sweet spot where pop culture crosses over with everything else. Follow him at @trentlmoore on Twitter.
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