The OC, Season One: You Can’t Go Home Again

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When The OC debuted on Fox in August 2003, I had just started my senior year of high school. It was made for me: I was a pop-punk girl in a small town who wished a cute boy would notice her. From the perspective of LiveJournal, which was my primary window to the world, Southern California had it all: a cool punk rock venue, cool clothes, and excitement. (I may have worked at Hot Topic, and I may have applied to NYU, but wore PacSun and I worshipped the fictional San Diego/SoCal lifestyle.)

I followed The OC to the end, even as the final season was an ironic imitation of its perfect beginnings. My friend bought the first season for me with her first credit card, when the show was still airing; after its end, I had been watching the Thanksgiving through Christmas episodes but not much else, primarily because having to switch DVDs is significantly more work than watching the next episode through a streaming service. I was thrilled in 2016 when Hulu picked up the series and I vowed to rewatch it from the beginning for Screen Scholars, only to find that I the show hasn’t held up in real life as it has in my heart.

My notes from the distraught re-watch three years ago:

  • In a season filled with triangles (Kirsten, Sandy, and Jimmy; Luke, Ryan, and Marisa; Oliver, Ryan, and Marisa) this was the most frustrating. (Obviously, Summer and Seth are soul mates.) And yet, thirteen years later I still deeply sympathized with Pittsburg’s pop princess, Anna. Why are Anna’s only friends Seth and Summer? I have to believe things were better for her back at her old private school in Pittsburgh, but we’ll never truly know since no one has social media in this fictional, 2003 universe.
  • Caleb, Kirsten’s father (everyone knows Sandy is the true patriarch of the family), is the primary villain, and it’s not until the season two finale he finally dies. Meanwhile, there’s this little gem:

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  • Julie Cooper is given little room for depth for the full series. Like Sarah Braverman or Ann Perkins, Julie’s stories are about who she’s dating. She marries everyone’s dad! She marries Caleb, and then later in the series, Summer’s father. In season one she goes from heartless housewife (dumping her husband, manipulating her daughter) to clingy girlfriend with aspirations of a career. Until her turn as a woman trying to stay rich, she’s a hollow villain. For a woman who clawed her way into Newport’s high society, you think we’d see her clever side when it comes to anything other than men. And when she’s busy sleeping with her teenage daughter’s teenage boyfriend she cries out, “Luke just came to defrag my harddrive!” Ew.
  • There’s only one character that’s a person of color in the season and it’s Theresa, whose lower socioeconomic status means that she drops out of high school and gets engaged when she’s a junior in high school. This is meant to be a foil for Ryan, who should be grateful that his adoption by a rich family means he has a future. (As for minor characters, we have the Cohens’ maid and Dr. Kim, school dean.) Theresa is the character I forgot entirely. I thought that Ryan left town to go home to his family, but…he leaves because Theresa is pregnant! Theresa deserves better than this whole show, even if her arrival ruins the teenage fun of stalking, Rooney concerts, and fights on the beach. We see her much later in the series after she has returned to her abusive ex.

These developments and forgotten memories bummed me out so much that I waited all these years to write about The OC.

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Of all the things I did remember, I was correct that Oliver sucks. How is it that no one at the Harbor School suspected he was a danger to the student body? I know the administration is obsessed with Ryan Atwood, but the adults cannot all be this stupid.

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The second biggest disappointment was that Seth Cohen is a terrible character, too. Of course, this is mostly a result of having matured into an adult. A young woman’s taste at 17 is not equivalent to that of a woman’s preferences at 31. After several re-watchings of Gilmore Girls, however, it stings that he isn’t the portrait of gentlemanliness as Dave Rygalski (by-and-large a close mirror of the character’s real-life namesake, and portrayed by Adam Brody).

The OC is on Hulu. Stream at your own risk. May your nostalgia survive unscathed.

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