When it comes to The O.C. and holiday episodes, naturally, the ones everyone wants to talk about are the Chrismukkah episodes—and maybe, if you’re lucky, “The Countdown.” But in the series’ four season run, there were 14 holiday episodes, and some were even better than the Chrismukkah episodes. Trust me, that’s not as blasphemous as it sounds. We rank them here from worst to best, just in time for those of you who want to celebrate the holidays with a blast from the recent-ish past.
And while you’re here, be sure to check out our rankings of all 92 episodes of The O.C., the series’ 50 best moments, and its 50 best musical moments.
This episode kills off Johnny in the opening teaser—which should be a happy occasion, as he’s the worst character in the history of the series—then spends the whole time talking about how sad it is that it killed off Johnny. This isn’t just a bad holiday episode of The O.C.: It’s a bad episode of The O.C., period. Even after his death, the Core Four’s entire worlds are wrapped up in this kid who’s obsessed with Marissa, the worst offense being the revelation that Johnny had his cousin, Sadie, make Marissa a necklace for Valentine’s Day, with his birthstone, her birthstone, and an angel (because Marissa was his angel). Let’s not even get into Sadie and her jewelry-making business or the fact she’s technically the reason Volchok pursues and eventually kills Marissa (as he sees Ryan with Sadie when he’s trying to get a grief hook-up out of her).
Honestly, one might expect this episode to be higher, just by virtue of not being in the third season. But the Rebecca stuff is so bad, it’s worth fast-forwarding and figuring it out after the fact. (Personally, I think fast-forwarding The O.C. is a crime any other time. Just like Ryan Atwood’s Season Two hair.) While there’s definitely a memorable storyline in the Seth/Zack/Summer Thanksgiving trip, Ryan’s Color of Money plot against Caleb for Lindsay’s affection—especially once the series moves on to “Lindsay, who?” pretty quickly—accomplishes nothing. (Well, it accomplishes something for Ryan’s mental health, but that’s always been the key to show.) Really, everyone’s Valentine’s Day is just awful: Sandy bails on a very depressed Kirsten and also kisses Rebecca; Ryan spends the day with Caleb (resulting in very little Seth/Ryan time), again, accomplishing nothing; Seth, well, he Cohens his way through everything on “the one-year anniversary of [his and Summer’s] tête-à-tête.” (That last one gets less funny the more you re-watch and realize Seth could be really insufferable.) Oh, and Mischa Barton disappoints everyone by unconvincingly acting like she wants to kiss Olivia Wilde. This is actually kind of a miserable episode, highlighting the things about Season Two that give it a bad rap. (Even though the season’s “new era” characters—in order from best to worst: Alex, Zack, Lindsay, and D.J., if we really even have to include D.J.—were all pretty good.) Like Sandy Cohen, The O.C. kind of just hated Valentine’s Day, didn’t it?
The only reason “The Chrismukkah Bar Mitz-vahkkah” is not dead last is because outside of the “Tiny Tim” Johnny stuff—which is, upsettingly, half of the episode—this one is fantastic. (Like “The Heavy Lifting,” it also makes no sense why Taylor Townsend’s not in it—the “That’s What Friends Are For” dance circle should include her—but what’s done is done.) However, Summer forcing the Core Four to go Christmas tree-shopping with her is a beautiful form of torture. And when it comes to the Atwood/Cohen family connection—specifically the Ryan/Sandy relationship—boy, how good this episode is. While it ends up all being charity for Johnny, the fact that Sandy is genuinely invested in Ryan having a real bar mitzvah and always has been is one of the series’ purest familial moments. Unfortunately, it’s all buried in a mountain of Marissa not learning her lesson with another dingus of a stalker. This episode also re-introduces Summer’s dad, Neil, who begins his relationship with Julie Cooper (which isn’t as built to last as it first seems) and also has a touching heart-to-heart with Summer about her mother. Most importantly, Summer calls Marissa “Cooper Scooper” in this episode, which is honestly the greatest Marissa Cooper moment other than the Lord of the Rings joke in the Season Three finale where she’s finally a well-adjusted human being, before… you know.
Groundhog Day is barely a real holiday—in fact, one could argue the true holiday in this episode is Kirsten’s 40th birthday—but still, it counts for the purposes of this list. This isn’t an excellent holiday episode of the show, but it is a solid episode of the show in general, which puts it above the bottom three. You’ve got Taylor Townsend’s stalking habit, Taylor Townsend’s failed therapy to get over said stalking habit, the final appearance of lovable college hippie doof Che, Kaitlin catfishing Bullit to keep his relationship with Julie alive, and Ryan eventually stalking Taylor right back out of love. Also, “He’s a very generous tipper—you wouldn’t know it to look at him,” is probably the strangest thing ever uttered about Ryan Atwood, but it’s the power of Taylor Townsend that allows it to seem like a totally acceptable line.
The O.C. was never a show that really played all that much with structure—until Season Four. This episode not only begins in media res; it also has a rewind effect to take us back “seven hours earlier.” It also has a lot of techno music, even before the Core Four get to the cosplay rave in the desert. Seth and Summer’s rut in this stretch of the series is far more entertaining than all those moments of Seth lying to Summer, and it culminates in them getting engaged… then clearly not wanting to go through with it. This episode is a good reminder that Jimmy Cooper is a scrub—he’s too busy with his New Year’s Eve party to call his living daughter—and that the “Covering Our Tracks” O.C. mix still slaps, but it’s also a good episode for the Taylor/Summer friendship and all that great Bullit/Kaitlin stuff. Additionally, it’s very much about the Frank Atwood (Kevin Sorbo) reveal, features a weird lack of Sandy Cohen, and includes that whole storyline where Julie accidentally became a madam. It’s fun, but it’s not all that special in terms of The O.C. and its other holiday episodes.
Despite the beauty that is Max Greenfield as young Sandy Cohen, the flashbacks in this episode really aren’t all that great—kind of surprising given that “The Case of the Franks” is all about finding “your Sandy Cohen” over “your Jimmy Cooper.” Sure, young Summer Roberts really was a Scary Spice in the making, but we didn’t need a flashback to know that. This episode, like most of the Season Four holiday episodes, is full of Bullit/Kaitlin almost-stepdaddy/daughter time, and while Frank Atwood isn’t even a fraction as interesting as Bullit, Taylor’s (and eventually Ryan’s) plan to parent trap him and Julie, as well as Julie’s love for him, almost makes you think he is. The interesting thing about watching all of these holiday episodes on their own is watching the Ryan/Julie relationship evolve: This episode focuses heavily on how they’re both just trying to make sure the other one doesn’t get hurt when it comes to Frank.
The psychic stuff with Seth/Summer isn’t great on its own, though it does lead to moments like Ryan bailing during a long flashback on Seth’s part, Seth finally learning Summer didn’t write the “I Wish I Was a Mermaid” poem, and the news report about Justin Timberlake playing at The Bait Shop: “Just how does such a small venue get such big names?” (Really, Alex would’ve never let Justin Timberlake play at The Bait Shop.) It also leads to Michael Schur being in this episode. Yes, it’s because he’s married to O.C. writer/producer J.J. Philbin, but that doesn’t make it any less odd. But it’s nice to finally get a happy Valentine’s Day episode out here, with almost every pairing in this episode having the whole emotional maturity and romance thing down for once.
You would think this episode would be higher, because of how many choice Seth Cohen lines it contains. (For example: “So, the first 16 years of my life, I have no women. Now I have two.” and “Did you hear that Ryan’s funny now?”). It’s Ryan’s first Thanksgiving with the Cohens! And the stuff at the Cohen household—like Kirsten drinking all the wine and then making “fresh margs” and Seth “having” to juggle both Ann and Summer—is really, really good. It’s classic O.C. But not only does half of this episode have Marissa forcing her way into Ryan’s past life in Chino, it also introduces Theresa (who is simultaneously Ryan’s former high school sweetheart and, logically, many years older than him) and that whole love polygon, including the original Trey Atwood. At least we learn here that Ryan used to do musicals—he was Snoopy!
There’s a lot of “half this episode is great, half this episode is… well, at least half this episode is great” on this list, and while the not-so-great halves tend to work for the larger purposes of the very serialized series, the great halves are the ones that tend to focus on the singular episodic holiday.
While half of Chrismukkah is a reminder of the Cohens’ Judaism, it didn’t hurt for the show to have a Passover episode, too. As much as we remember Seth Cohen for his quips (and often being a freaking idiot), it’s easy to forget that some of Seth’s best moments were when he was the earnest, loving family member—especially because Ryan most often played that role, as the one grateful for a family upgrade. Seth is at his best here not when he’s going on about Summer’s “Hebrew hernia,” but when he has his heart-to-heart with the Nana about how much it sucks that she’s planning to give up on life. The Cohen household stuff is easily the strongest part of the episode, with Sandy both prepping for his mother and then getting really passive-aggressive with her, Summer trying to impress the Nana, and Kirsten just trying to navigate it all. Then you have Marissa running away from home all the way to Theresa’s in Chino, where then we get to see Theresa and Eddie’s engagement party, which again brings up the whole question of Theresa’s age. Speaking of age, while the episode has an understandable anti-Julie/Luke stance, re-watching it and the rest of these Season One episodes gave me a real rush to say “STAY AWAY FROM HER, OLD MAN” every time Jimmy Cooper and Hailey Nichol interacted.
“Valentine’s Day is not a holiday. Rosh Hashanah, that’s a holiday. Memorial Day, yes, a holiday.” —Sandy Cohen
Despite Sandy Cohen’s beliefs about Valentine’s Day, it’s made it onto this list four times. But only one of The O.C.’s Valentine’s Day episodes deserves your attention, unless you’re only watching the Seth/Summer/Zack scenes in “The Lonely Hearts Club.” There’s something just so infectious about giddy Kirsten, whose favorite holiday is of course Valentine’s Day. (She literally shoots her family members with “Cupid’s arrow”.) It’s definitely a different gear from later episodes, as the scene where Sandy and Kirsten get into a dumb argument ends with neither of them understanding why they’re having a dumb argument in the first place. And then we have Sandy teaching Seth all about “foreplay” and how the Cohen men are “very sexual beings,” as—cue “Hello Sunshine; this is the episode where Seth and Summer awkwardly lose their virginities to each other. (“Ryan, I was Nemo and I just wanted to go home.”) Seth gets a lifetime of points for the way he’s open and honest about how Summer was always his choice, even though we should all be able to agree that Anna deserved better. Like Luke Ward, who is at his most goofy teenager when he successfully seduces Julie Cooper to the sounds of “Night Moves” by calling her an “amazing girl… lady… woman.”
“The Homecoming” tried to lie to us and say that Thanksgiving is Seth’s “favorite holiday,” as it was two episodes before this, Seth’s true favorite holiday: “You’ll see. You’ll see too. You’ll all see. You’ll all see.”
Yes, the original Chrismukkah is only at number five on this list—after two of its sequels. The thing is, it’s a solid starter holiday episode, but after you’ve watched enough O.C., it’s also the episode that makes you want to get to the fireworks factory, as it ends with the introduction of Oliver. As much as The O.C. loved a running theme, this episode’s theme—“holidays make what’s bad even worse”—never comes across as anything other than a stilted beat. A memorable one, sure, but stilted nonetheless. Seth Cohen’s blue balls definitely works better. (The thing that works least is Seth trying to make “minty” a euphemism for “gay” in this episode.) Still, this episode is a classic, whether it’s the Anna/Seth/Summer love triangle with Wonder Woman Summer, the killer Christmas soundtrack, the Seth Cohen Starter Pack, or Marissa Cooper pouring way too much vodka into her cup and claiming everything’s fine. Seriously, one of the most unintentionally funny bits of this episode is Marissa saying, “You know, I’m the only normal one in this family.”
While “The Chrismukk-huh?” truly closes the Marissa chapter of the series, “The Cold Turkey” still has the rawest emotions when it comes to the aftermath of her death. Summer, Julie, and Ryan’s inability to adequately process their grief, distracting themselves in the worst ways possible—shutting out Seth, shutting out Neil, and shutting out the Cohens/wanting to kill Volchok, respectively—is dark, but the episode also manages to balance light humor with the darkness, whether it’s Summer inviting homeless people to the Cohens’ Thanksgiving or Julie and Ryan plotting Volchok’s murder over grocery sample gouda. (Plus, Taylor Townsend’s around to cook the Cohen family dinner, meet Kaitlin, and reconnect with Ryan, with the last two being very important for the season moving forward.) Summer and Julie’s lonely Thanksgiving dinner together—“We can’t go on like this anymore, can we?”—is one of the most heartbreaking moments in the entire series, and that’s before the episode goes with the final gut punch of Julie’s sincere apology to Sandy and her delivery of, “Tell me about her… Anything. Just tell me about her” to Ryan. This episode (and these first three episodes of Season Four) is a terrific showcase for Melinda Clarke, and no matter your opinion of Marissa Cooper, an episode like “The Cold Turkey” reveals that The O.C. did everything it could to make that death matter.
This episode (which could also be called “How Summer Roberts Saved Chrismukkah”) is stuffed full of great moments: Seth’s meta-commentary on Chrismukkah sweeping the nation; the Chrismukkah work wheel (in which Seth is supervisor); “Is Death Cab a band?”; the fact that Seth’s whole idea is to write a song set to the tune of Death Cab’s “A Lack of Color,” then writes the song but abandons the tune altogether; and the greatest meta moment of the series, with Ryan stopping in the middle of the school hallway to end the scene, only for Seth to say, “What are you doing? We’re gonna be late.” See also: Marissa “joking” about wanting to spike the eggnog; the “frazzled”/”frizzy” conversation; “Carol of the Meows;” Lindsay’s pure joy when revealing the adorable yarmaclaus; Summer’s intense tree-shopping; Seth’s “color-coded holiday alert system” only using colors in the beige family; “Good thing the kitchen’s roomy”; Lindsay asking the important question of what Moses has to do with Hanukkah; Kirsten throwing a vase at Caleb (and the iconic, “How could you do that to me?!? TO MOM?!?”); Ryan/Kirsten being the stealth MVP Cohen family pairing of the series; and Peter Gallagher at his most attractive (seriously, watch him in the first scene with Caleb). While Season Two isn’t as good as Season One overall, when it comes to Chrismukkah, the sequel is a worthy upgrade.
This holiday season, it’s time for justice. Not just for “The Chrismukk-huh?” but for the entirety of The O.C.’s fourth season. If its first half is about grieving Marissa’s death—and what it means to fully process it—“The Chrismukk-huh?” puts it all into a beautiful coma-lite turned alt-world that both fuels Ryan’s hero complex and makes him finally accept that he could never be Marissa’s Superman, no matter how much he wanted to be. Which allows him to move on to Taylor for real: As Seth says in “The Earth Girls Are Easy,” “It’s that old adage: Couples who have comas together, stay together.” Also, it’s easy to forget that Willa Holland was great on this show: She’s so dry and quippy and clearly Julie Cooper’s daughter that you almost feel bad for Shailene Woodley all over again. (Don’t worry—Shailene Woodley’s fine.) This is the epitome of Season Four playing with structure, and while one might try to argue it’s a shark-jumping scenario, the actual purpose of the episode and its emotional resonance is too strong to make that truly the case. While “The Cold Turkey” helped Ryan and Julie a lot when it came to moving on from Marissa, this is the episode that officially allows the series to move on from her. And it’s really, really funny—especially alt-world Summer and the Cheese Man-like runner of Kirsten Cohen’s ham in the real world.
People act like the Oliver saga is the worst of The O.C.—it’s not, even excluding Johnny from the running—but that’s never made sense, because Oliver was an intergral part of some of the series’ most memorable episodes. “The Countdown” isn’t just the best holiday episode of The O.C.: It’s arguably the best episode, full stop. From its iconic opening teaser (only behind the “yogalates; and “The Rainy Day Women; teasers) to Ryan’s final rush to reach Marissa (set to Finley Quaye’s “Dice,” a scene so nice Josh Schwartz had to do it twice) to Anna/Summer’s friendship to Sandy and Kirsten “living on the edge” and ending up at a swinger’s party, “The Countdown” is the most unforgettable holiday episode of the bunch, more than all the Chrismukkahs combined.
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Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.