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Episodic Classics: The O.C., “Pilot” | Season 1, Episode 1
California, here we come (again)
Welcome to our inaugural edition of Episodic Classics, as LaToya Ferguson will be revisiting then first season of Fox drama The O.C. for paid subscribers this fall. To learn more about our fall coverage, and how your yearly subscriptions (20% off through 9/15) can help unlock additional Episodic Classics coverage later this year, click here.
“Welcome to the dark side.”
As a good number of you Episodic Medium readers migrated from The A.V. Club, I have no problem telling it to you straight: Despite it never actually happening, there were many times during my tenure at The A.V. Club when I was pegged to write TV Club Classic reviews of The O.C.. So this coverage is truly a long time coming. And you would think that in the years I’ve basically been preparing to do this, I would be more than prepared when the time finally came. But the truth is: Of course I’m not prepared. I’ve watched this series—watched this season, watched this particular episode of television—more times than I can count, but suddenly, I was struck with the realization that I had no idea how to cover it for this Classic coverage. Suddenly, my brain turned into what it usually does whenever a colleague or a prospective employer or a potential rep asks me what I’m currently watching on TV: I have no idea what a TV show even is.
To be fair, this is a problem I often have when I’m reviewing or critiquing a show that’s near and dear to me, that’s extremely close to my heart. Questioning how to even begin to cover it in a way that explains what I like and love about it, what is possibly wrong with it, and what makes it worth even writing about. So I figured I would just go back to the beginning. When The O.C. first premiered, I was about to be a sophomore in high school in Atlanta, where my family and I had just moved to after a good portion of my young life in Springfield, Illinois. Atlanta ended up being formative for my television watching history: it was where I watched the first season of The O.C., it was where I learned the news (on Valentine’s Day, from a fellow classmate) that Angel had been canceled, and it was where I also watched the subsequent Angel series finale. As The O.C. began in the summer—a strategy used to build traction and an audience before post-season baseball gummed up the ratings works—a few episodes aired before I had to start at my new high school. And I’ll just say, by the end of the “summer season” portion of The O.C. Season One, it was all anyone at school—male or female, straight or… not straight but closeted—could talk about after every episode. If I had nothing else as the new kid at my Atlanta high school, I at least had the shared culture experience of the new hit teen drama The O.C..
Now, 20 years later, I finally get to talk and write about the series outside of a high school teen level. And now I have to figure out what to say about the series that hasn’t been said so many times before. Or maybe I can just say everything that has already been said, because there’s a reason The O.C. has endured, a reason it’s still worth writing and talking about 20 years later. And I find myself wondering, why is the pilot of The O.C. still so good now, even though it’s very much a time capsule of 2003? Or is it good because it’s a time capsule, something so much of its time while also having paved the way for television and pop culture at said time? It has a cultural footprint, something I, unfortunately, believe is lacking in so many shows these days. Because say what you will about series of the aughts, they have a style you can pinpoint and remember as time goes on. The closest a lot of series get to that at this point is being a period piece and cribbing from said period.
I can say for sure: The O.C. Season One is a phenomenon that is yet another example of how the current television landscape of television is failing us, in terms of allowing a series to gain a following and grow through word of mouth. The O.C.’s first season is 27 episodes, and the first seven are essentially an early attempt to reel folks in. I’ve been rewatching The Practice, and that series’ second season is 28 episodes, incorporating seven episodes from the first season (which was a tight six episodes that sold the series as the dramatic juggernaut it was). These series were allowed to be as long as they were early on because of growing success and the aforementioned worth of mouth. There is still word of mouth these days (The Bear thrived due to it, despite the binge model), but especially on streamers it doesn’t always necessarily matter. The O.C. was from a time when such a thing mattered, for better or worse. And The O.C. Season One was truly appointment television that everyone needed to talk about.
Let’s look at the premise. Very early in our careers as TV critics, my pal Pilot Viruet essentially called The O.C. the white version of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and their assessment of the series has stuck with me ever since then. Despite Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie) not actually being the Cohen family cousin, the idea still tracks, just with—surprisingly—slightly less pushback. Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) immediately takes to Ryan as his new (and only) friend and brother figure. Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher, playing a Jewish man from the Bronx and nailing it) is the ideal male role model and father figure to both Ryan and Seth. And Kirsten Cohen (Kelly Rowan) is the tough and stern, but fair, maternal figure. (She’s Aunt Viv 1, not Aunt Viv 2.) For some reason, Hulu doesn’t describe the series in these terms though. Instead, it says:
“A troubled young man (Benjamin McKenzie) makes waves in a wealthy harbor-front community where the residents lead secret lives.”
I don’t know that I would exactly, at this point, describe the Newport Beach residents as leading secret lives, so much as I would describe it as them not being honest with themselves. The biggest example of this from the jump is the Cooper family, the foil and contrast to the otherwise stable—despite inviting a teen “felon” into their home—Cohen family. One of the things The O.C. was praised for at the time—that Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage tried to replicate with Gossip Girl, to lesser success (unless you’re a host of the podcast “xoxo Gossip Kings” and your favorite character is Rufus Humphrey)—was its ability to make the adult, parental stories just as interesting as the teenage characters’ stories. And right from the beginning, that’s what we have here in our two former young lovers in Jimmy Cooper (Tate Donovan) and Kirsten literally living their adult lives next door to each other. Is it a “will-they-won’t-they” situation, despite their families? (And in Kirsten’s case, at least, she appears to be happily married to Sandy Cohen, as we all would be.) That’s what’s on the table in this pilot. But also on the table is the fact that Jimmy Cooper is quite shifty in his professional life, proving that not everything might be what it seems for the Cooper household. (Fine, Jimmy Cooper is the one character really living a secret life, despite a good portion of the pilot keeping the lie that Ryan is a cousin from Boston/Seattle/Canada.)
But Marissa Cooper is the obvious character up top who is clearly struggling with being honest with herself. Where Seth is happy to have someone from outside the Newport bubble who’s real in Ryan, what Ryan means for Marissa is a shock to the system, someone from outside her world seeing her and, more importantly, seeing that she’s not okay. Imagine for a second, life in Newport Beach before Ryan Atwood got there. The O.C. begins with Ryan being there—much like the audience—to witness it. And while it may not be as bleak as the life he just left behind in Chino, it’s still pretty bleak in a lot of regards, especially when it comes to Marissa.
Marissa Cooper is far from my favorite character in this series, and Mischa Barton is far from my favorite actor in the cast. There is plenty about the Marissa Cooper character that is both truly tragic, as well as an example of the quintessential “poor little rich girl,” and The O.C. blurs those lines from the get-go. (The moment where Summer shows up to the bathroom with glasses of champagne and Marissa in turn has a bottle of vodka is arguably the most indicative moment of Marissa’s entire character.) Marissa’s dad doesn’t say no—and even if she doesn’t know on a conscious level he’s doing something wrong professionally, she has to be the one to know subconsciously—and from what we currently know of her mother, Julie (Melinda Clarke), she’s more concerned with appearances than anything of substance. Marissa’s alpha male jock douchebag boyfriend, Luke (Chris Carmack) is cheating on her (despite being possessive of her), and her vapid rich girl friends—including Summer (Rachel Bilson)—don’t care enough not to just leave her drunkenly passed out in her driveway, something that is presumably a semi-regular occurrence. Without truly knowing girls like Marissa Cooper as a teenager, I still knew “girls like Marissa Cooper.” Girls who would tell stories—with a smile—that, looking back, were nothing to smile about. Some of them turned out well, others I lost track of entirely.
So in a world where everything is glamorous yet superficial, of course this is how things go for Marissa in the series pilot. As the years have gone by, despite still not loving Barton’s performance—save for maybe a handful of moments throughout the series—I have found more space for understanding Marissa as a character and the story Josh Schwartz was trying to tell about her as a tragic figure. She’s not your Brenda Walsh or Kelly Taylor. She’s not your Joey Potter. She’s not your Buffy Summers. She’s not your Liz Parker. Marissa Cooper isn’t ever actually aspirational in the way a teen drama female lead tends to be. She’s actually more in line with a Kim Kelly or Rayanne Graff, with Schwartz merely putting the tragic supporting character in that lead role. She’s ethereal to Ryan, and that is one of the major highlights of Doug Liman’s directing of this (and the next) episode, but she’s not actually to be put on a pedestal. It’s a subversion that, if you can accept it, allows you to digest the Marissa Cooper far better this watch around.
Ryan Atwood himself is also a subversion. The O.C. walks the tightrope of fish out of water Ryan being the dangerous “bad boy,” despite so much of the text supporting the fact that Ryan is anything but that. I think I’m perhaps most excited in my revisiting of this series to rewatch how the series depicts Ryan, a good kid who keeps being dragged into dangerous situations. When Sandy meets him post-arrest, this is actually Ryan’s first time being in lock-up. There’s truancy and his grades aren’t great, but his test scores are aces and he’s clearly very intelligent. (His line about Social Security becomes more and more prescient as the years go by, now don’t they?) I also love bringing up the fact that this is the only episode of the series in which Ryan smokes (the Truth campaign was in full force at this time) and drinks, because in a teen drama like this, you would never expect that from the “bad boy.” (When Dylan McKay didn’t drink, it was because he was a teenage alcoholic.) It’s not done in a preachy way, it’s just not something that’s particularly necessary to the character nor something that’s vocalized all too much. And while he ends up reacting to other characters’ drinking, his lack of doing so—while it makes sense as a character choice—is never pointedly discussed as for that reason.
I’ve also often said over the years, Seth Cohen is a young girl’s choice, Ryan Atwood is a woman’s choice. As someone who was a sophomore in high school when The O.C. originally began, best believe I had a Seth Cohen/Adam Brody phase. (I’m still in an Adam Brody phase. That’s forever.) Seth was the funny one, Seth was the nerdy one, Seth had the best taste in pop culture and music. In the 20 years since The O.C. premiered, we’ve seen so many Seth Cohens (both geeky and non-geeky Nice Guys), and “nerd culture” has taken over the world. But at the time, Seth Cohen was revolutionary. Where Ryan was the brooding straight man—and I will argue throughout these reviews that he was secretly very funny—Seth was a whirlwind. The sidekick stole the show almost immediately, and that was it. It’s still impressive to watch Brody do what he does in this pilot, because he was the first to do it. I’m sure I’ll write plenty of what doesn’t work about the character—and the series, in general—in a 2023 lens, but I can’t deny what worked in 2003: and it was everything.
I guess there’s really nothing more for me to say right now, other than: “Welcome to The O.C., bitch.”
As you can probably also tell, I’m not sure how much I should write these reviews in terms of for experts or newbies. I think I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, save for vague character beats.
The Most 2003 Moment of the Episode: It has to be the benefit fashion show set to “All Around the World” by Cooler Kids (and also on the soundtrack for The Lizzie McGuire Movie). Runner-up is the r-word when Holly and Summer are dropping Marissa off.
Favorite Needle Drop of the Episode: I love Mazzy Star’s “Into Dust,” but Joseph Arthur’s “Honey and the Moon” is the one that always does it for me in this episode, especially lately. (Just to be clear: Phantom Planet’s “California” is always the unsung #1, as the series theme. I also have a strange attachment to the end credits score, from when I rewatched the series on the now-defunct SoapNet.)
As mentioned, Doug Liman directed both this and the second episode, “The Model Home.” A+ directing, and I truly believe this episode of The O.C. comes across looking like an indie film, in the best way possible. As you may have also noticed, McG is an executive producer. He was originally supposed to direct this episode, but scheduling conflicts came in the form of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. This worked out perfectly, because we got our perfectly directed O.C. pilot and Justin Theroux’s accent in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. In case you’re unaware of McG’s Orange County cred, this man was an original member of the band Sugar Ray. This is a fact. He even showed up in an episode of Comedy Bang Bang, the series, as himself, alongside fellow Orange County native, Scott Aukerman. (I could talk about all of this—including Scott Aukerman’s connection to No Doubt—for hours.)
McG is arguably also the reason Mischa Barton was cast for The O.C., after having worked with her in an episode of his one-season TV series from the season before, Fastlane. (A show I have written and talked quite a bit about.) Over the years, there’s been some talk of who else was up for the role of Marissa Cooper, and the big names known so far are Olivia Wilde (who ended up being cast in the failed—due to baseball—FOX series Skin before recurring in The O.C. Season Two) and Kate Mara (who I would’ve been familiar with at the time from her work in Everwood and Nip/Tuck). Wilde was apparently the runner-up, with Schwartz saying, “Marissa was obviously a character who Ryan needs to save and Olivia Wilde needs no saving.” I don’t disagree, but I do find myself thinking about how things would be if Marissa were played by a different actress.
Speaking of Everwood, Rachel Bilson has talked a bit before about how she didn’t get cast on that show, and I always found it funny, because despite her vague discussion of it, it’s always been clear which role she was going for. Because who they cast looks exactly like her.
An underrated shot from this episode that could not be replicated because of sets: Marissa on the balcony, seeing Sandy, Ryan, and Seth on the path from the beach behind their houses. (This episode was filmed in Malibu, before it was all sets, all the time, baby.)
Yes, that is young Shailene Woodley as Marissa’s little sister, Kaitlin.
Summer (to Marissa): “Does your dad ever say no?” No, he does not, and that is very much the problem with Jimmy Cooper.
Summer: “Chino? Eww.” The original “Eww, David.”
For those keeping track at home though, I am currently watching Picket Fences and The X-Files for the first time, rewatching The Practice, and watching new seasons of series in The Afterparty, Only Murders in the Building, and Minx. And, of course, professional wrestling. Please remind me later when I inevitably draw a blank as to what I’m watching.
Josh Schwartz apparently pitched The O.C. to FOX as the next Beverly Hills, 90210 when in reality, he considered it more like a Freaks & Geeks or My So-Called Life. He did so because the former was a massive success, while the latter two were critically-lauded but considered “failures” due to their one-season runs.
Myles here to say that yeah, I think the general goal is avoiding huge spoilers, but the pathos of the show’s cultural footprint seems like it will naturally permeate things.