As many of you may know, my most recent long-term TV project was to finally get through a series that I had dreaded watching for years. Its run spanned all 4 years of my high school experience and in many ways, it defined the culture of high school at the time. The show I’m referring to is The OC. Though I’ve watched many a teen TV spectacle in my time, The OC’s reputation as a racy, materialistic and hyperbolic soap made me not want to go near it with a 10 foot pole. But I knew the cultural impact The OC had made, so when I noticed that my friend Tessa had the first 2 seasons on DVD, I finally gave in, if only for the sake of research.
To my great surprise, and the surprise of nearly everyone I’ve shared my thoughts on the show with, I kind of loved The OC. It is by no means a Veronica Mars, but I’d certainly say that
The OC is much more enjoyable than the critically lauded Felicity, and probably tied with Dawson’s Creek (another favourite of mine that I feel is much more intelligent than it’s given credit for). Thus, it is this very unexpected but poignant love that leads me here, at the wee hours of the morning, to write one of the longest reviews I’ve ever written. Prepare yourselves.
The OC is not actually a ridiculous show at all. Ok, maybe a little, but so is everything.
Maybe Ryan’s Cinderella story is a bit of a stretch, and maybe some plots points were a little too much. But The OCwas always, if anything, self aware. They constantly are poking fun at themselves and their own genre with the satirical show within a show “The Valley” and lines like Seth’s penultimate episode joke that “if we could turn it into a body swap comedy we could squeeze another year or two out of this thing”. Also, The OCis populated by one of the most likable casts of characters I’ve encountered in awhile, none of whom are really that outlandish.
Unlike most idealized teen shows, I can actually see people I know in every OC character.Other than the Cooper sisters (of whom there are many in the real world), I liked every single character I encountered on The OC (well, Oliver, Trey and the like obviously don’t count). In particular, The OC is rare among glitzy primetime soaps in its unapologetic celebration of nerds. The characters of Seth Cohen and Taylor Townsend are both smart, funny and unreasonably good looking, but they are also incredibly socially awkward and honest to God quirky. While on shows like Gossip Girl, even the nerds (Dan) are incredibly cool, The OC made being an actual nerd cool by letting Seth open Ryan up to the world of comic books and Taylor befriend the most popular girl in school even though she watches an unhealthy amount of anime. As for the others, Ryan had his moments but was ultimately someone I really liked, I love how feisty Summer is, I love Anna’s wisdom, I love Zach’s earnest perfection and Luke’s unabashed imperfection, I loved Jimmy’s good heart and tendency to majorly screw up, I loved Julie’s strength, pride and plotting prowess and I loved everything about Sandy and Kirsten Cohen.
While The OC did have its fair share of ridiculous teen-centered plotlines, what made the show more palatable than other soaps of the same thread was its grounding in family and the adult figures of the show.
Whenever Ryan or Seth was on the hook for manslaughter, arson, blackmail or whatever else, they could always call Sandy Cohen for help, and there he’d be. The constant reminder that these intelligent and independent characters not only needed, but actually had someone to bail them out kept the characters young seeming, and a little more plausible. The gross independence/neglect of the kids on One Tree Hill is one of the biggest problems with the show. It’s Sandy and Kirsten Cohen who keep The OC from crossing into absurdity a lot of the time.Yet, unlike the kindly and occasionally helpful Walsh parents on Beverly Hills 90210, Sandy and Kirsten (alongside Jimmy and Julie Cooper, Caleb Nichol, Neil Roberts, Veronica Townsend and Dawn and Frank Atwood) were complete characters unto themselves. For a teen-centered show, The OC took a lot of time flushing out the adult characters, giving them flaws, dimensions, and often intriguing and central storylines. I found myself caring more about Sandy and Kirsten weathering the Jimmy, Rachel, Carter, Rebecca, alcoholism and Newport Group storms than about whether Oliver would steal Marissa from Ryan.
Who didn’t feel for Jimmy when Caleb blackmailed Marissa into moving in with her mom? Who wasn’t rooting for Dawn Atwood to get her life together or for Veronica Townsend to tell Taylor she loved her? And one of the most engaging love triangles on the show was Julie’s season 4 decision between Frank and Bullit. The teens may have been the breakout stars of the series, but Jimmy caused almost as many fights as Ryan, Julie brought on as much drama as Marissa (after all, if she had gone through with every marriage proposal she got she would have been Julie Cooper Nichol Cooper Roberts Bullit Atwood) and Sandy prompted just as many laughs as Seth.
and speaking of Seth, he was the 1 character, going into this TV experiment, that I knew I would like. Give me the fast talking, awkward, nerdy, funny sidekick guy any day over the brooding hero (I’m a Xander-type girl, I like Noel Crane and Agent Weiss and Henry the Accountant but try and get me to appreciate Angel, Ben Covington or James ‘Sawyer’ Ford and you’ve lost me) and if you can have him look like Adam Brody, all the better. And, true to form, I love Seth Cohen. I love everything about him. I love that he can’t change a tire. I love that he makes jokes at inappropriate times. I love that he’s incredibly cynical yet hopelessly romantic and I love that the writers weren’t afraid to make him monumentally self involved, all it does is humanize him.
If you are a frequent reader of the blog you might have read my ‘weekly obsessions’ post in which I droned on and on about my love of the Seth/Anna dynamic; the presence of a character who knew him better than he knew himself was so important to his arc.
and then, there’s Summer. Easily one of my 3 favourite teen relationships on TV, Seth and Summer’s 4 year romantic saga was one I could really get behind.
Despite the apparent discrepancy of social status and superficial interests, Seth and Summer fit together like puzzle pieces. But Summer, originally a small character who served mainly as a counterpoint for Seth and Marissa, grew into one of the show’s best characters in her own right. Summer is cool. She’s smart and funny and feisty as all hell; after all, she did, single-handedly, save Chrismukkah!!
but, more poignant than even his relationship with Summer, was Seth’s relationship with Ryan. The central bond of the show, the brotherly love between Seth and Ryan may not have been the cause of many plot points but it was, like Sandy and Kirsten’s parental love, a grounding force on The OC.
Which brings me to Ryan Atwood, The OC’s central plotpoint. The whole premise of the series was Ryan’s fish out of water story. I almost never like the bad boy and I most certainly never care about the hero or the main character, which is what made my reaction to Ryan interesting. At first I couldn’t stand him.
I felt that it was absolutely ridiculous the way he had zero self control when faced with the opportunity to punch someone, even when getting in a fight meant the possibility of being taken from the Cohens. But mostly I didn’t like his hero complex or the fact that it only really seemed to apply to pretty girls. Ryan never showed the same heroic instincts when dealing with his mother, his brother, Seth or anyone else that he did when saving Marissa, Theresa, Jess, Taylor, Sadie or even Hailey.
Sure he would always do the right thing, he had a Sandy Cohen-esque sort of moral compass, but Ryan put himself on the line time and again for pretty girls, even if he didn’t like them very much. It seemed to me that Seth never meant as much to Ryan as Ryan meant to him. Of course Ryan loved all the Cohens and was truly grateful to them and sure he’d punch out the occasional bully on Seth’s behalf, but every time something went wrong for Ryan he would take off, knowing how much that hurt Seth. It just always seemed to me that if they ever had to choose, Seth would choose Ryan over his true love Summer any day and twice on Sunday while Ryan would have to think carefully before giving up troubled Marissa for Seth. That said, Ryan totally grew on me.
He even became a character that I was really fond of by the end.
There were of course blips, for example I wasn’t a big fan of his cage fighting days, but by the end of the series Ryan had learned to use his words instead of his fists, he became a more rational and loyal son to Sandy and Kirsten and brother to Seth. Throughout the series Ryan grew up, got funnier, wisely cut his hair, bought a wardrobe that wasn’t so dependent on wife-beaters, started picking better girlfriends and became a really likable guy. And that smile that we never got to see in season 1 makes all the difference.
In fact, the time that I like Ryan the most is in the show’s final season, when he’s finally rid of the drama machine that was Marissa Cooper. Marissa had always been a character I, at best, could tolerate. With her death, at the end of season 3, two supporting characters were brought to the forefront to replace her. In a sense, Marissa got split in 2- there was everything I didn’t like about Marissa: her prima donna, whiney, princessy, woe is me ways, which were taken up by her younger sister Caitlin who came back to town in her sister’s absence; and then there was Marissa’s actual place within the show- her role as Summer’s best friend, Ryan’s love interest and the final corner of the core four. This role was filled by Taylor Townsend, a strange girl who had originated as a villain and grown into a fully realized human character by the time she was called to step into Marissa’s shoes. This amazing arc paired with her incredibly awesome strangeness made Taylor one of my favourite characters to watch. Her presence (and the fact that season 4 was delightfully void of sex scandals, drugs, and shootings) made season 4 my favourite of the whole series. 99.9% of people you talk to will disagree with me on this opinion, but I was more invested in season 4 than in any other season of The OC.
And to top off a surprisingly great final season, The OC delivered a wonderful series finale.Now, as Popular once spoofed, series finales tend to follow a checklist of sorts. It may not be terribly original or groundbreaking, but most finales incorporate many of the same elements in order to pay homage to the years of story that had gone before.
The OC followed suit, but more effectively than most. Like all other shows, The OC’s finale said goodbye to each principle character or group of characters individually and accordingly. These curtain calls of sorts gave each character a fitting goodbye and they were done in exactly the right order. The Coopers were first to go, Julie making strong and promising choices for her life with Caitlin, paying tribute to the most resourceful and unbeatable character on the show. Next went the girlfriends, in order of convenience. In the end, Seth let Summer go, knowing that they each needed to follow their dreams in order to be able to find each other again. This was the perfect ending for them- just perfect. Then went Taylor, a brilliant character, though she wasn’t around long enough for her goodbye to be truly potent.
And finally, we’re left with the Cohens, outside the house that started it all.
A family hug is followed by the departure of Sandy and Kirsten (new baby in tow), leaving Seth with the final goodbye- exactly as it should be. Then the viewer is left alone with Ryan- the centre of the show. But it wasn’t just the curtain calls that The OC finale got right. They used flashbacks. Not in the cheesy “we didnt care to shoot a finale” way that Felicity did, but in a nice tribute to the beginning kind of way. As Ryan toured the empty Cohen house (a very Friends apartment- type walkabout), brief flashes of the past came back at the viewer. The flashbacks also classily touched on Marissa’s important contribution to 3/4 of the show’s life. There was also flashforward. Again, not bad-old-person-makeup flashforwards like in Will & Grace but just far enough forward to wrap up the story and the lives of the characters we cared about. I cry in almost all series finales, and I had managed to hold it together through all the goodbyes of The OC but when those flashforwards started going and Julie graduated from college I started to lose it.
I read a book recently that described the life cycle as a circle and a line simultaneously. That’s how I see a good series finale. It comes full circle but has a sense of moving on, past the scope of the series. The OCmastered the art of the circular line, paying homage to the roots of the show and letting all their characters move on from those roots.
In the show’s final moments Ryan pulls out of the Cohen driveway, tracing the very path that he took at the end of the pilot episode, and drives off into his future as an architect where he sees a young man, like himself in the pilot, and asks, like Sandy once did, “hey kid, do you need help?”. See- full circle, but spinning forward.
So what was the point of all this? I swear to God, it’s actually a good show. I watched the final season in 2 days, I couldn’t stop. So, just for awhile, please try and set your pretensions and snobbish intellectualism aside and take a look at a series that was not only a youth culture phenomenon but a decent family drama full of comedy.