Rewatching the television shows that shaped us decades earlier is sometimes educational, sometimes horrifying, and always entertaining. I first joined the sunny, drama-filled world of “The O.C.” at 8 p.m. on Aug. 5, 2003 and left it at 5:23 a.m. on March 18, 2007. I know the precise time I finished watching the series finale because I wrote it on a bookmark, accompanied by two embarrassing life lesson notes to myself.
The 20th anniversary of “The O.C.” is this August, so I thought I would spend my summer rewatching the show for the first time since my initial viewing. As I hit play, I wondered if I would find the show as profound and moving as I did the first time around, and what larger life lessons I might glean, or if I would just cringe at my younger self’s interests.
Twenty-seven episodes and two weeks spent viewing Season One again found me laughing, crying, fearful of people named Oliver, a little beat up by all the fistfights, using “The” in front of proper nouns that don’t normally take a “the,” wanting to download that ringtone they all have, and desperate to try Kirsten’s cooking and see just how bad it actually is. Most importantly, I learned that even the wackiest, most outlandish storylines hold some sort of life lesson at their heart.
Love Knows No Limits
Going into my viewing, I thought I remembered the most scandalous romance storyline on “The O.C.” — New Year’s Eve swinging, anyone? Turns out, some of Season One’s plots are even more shocking than that! What’s juicier than a May-December romance? Coupling it with a sordid love triangle, of course. We initially see this play out early in the first season, when Ryan (Ben McKenzie) hooks up with his pseudo-grandfather’s much younger girlfriend. You might think this is as scandalous as it gets. But no one does scandal like Julie Cooper (Melinda Clarke), who always manages to make the spicy even spicier.
After Julie and Jimmy (Tate Donovan) split, Marissa's (Mischa Barton) mom has no problem attaining male company post-divorce. She is still a desirable woman, as Marissa’s ex-boyfriend Luke (Chris Carmack) proclaims on Valentine’s Day, “Mrs. Cooper, you are a total MILF!” Indeed, she’s publicly courted by a man old enough to be her dad, Caleb Nichols (Alan Dale), who happens to be the father of Julie's next-door neighbor, Kirsten (Kelly Rowan).
But Julie's next romance stays private, at least at first, because her secret paramour is still in high school! She and Luke begin an affair about halfway through Season One, a jaw-dropping storyline I had entirely forgotten about. I was surprised to see hints of true chemistry between Julie and Luke, despite their age gap. While there’s still an ickiness to this weird mother-daughter love triangle, the show does make a point of stating that Luke is 18 — aka, the age of consent in Los Angeles, California.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
Seven episodes into Season One, Ryan carrying an unconscious Marissa out of that dirty alley in Tijuana (or “T.J.” in “The O.C.” speak) is one of the defining moments of the entire series. It also is a good reminder that we all need each other to survive, sometimes quite literally. When the core four — Ryan, Marissa, Seth (Adam Brody), and Summer (Rachel Bilson) — go to Mexico, Marissa drowns her sorrows in alcohol and Summer’s stepmom’s painkillers. Marissa gets separated from the gang and stumbles around until she finally collapses in that alleyway. Conveniently, Ryan, Seth, and Summer find Marissa moments later, and Ryan collects her into his arms and carries her to Summer and Seth (and, presumably, gets her medical attention).
It's at this moment that the Fab Four dynamic is solidified, and we see the team work together time and time again throughout the season to resolve conflicts. It’s a credit to the writers, as well as these four actors, that their chemistry is so strong that I root against even the loveliest of outsiders. Anna (Samaire Armstrong), for instance, is funny, smart, beautiful, and an old soul, much like Seth. Yet I find myself pulling for Summer in her eventual love triangle with Seth, in part because Summer is an essential member of that Fab Four. We should all be so lucky to find our team!
We All Need a Captain Oats
Captain Oats is a toy horse who was essentially Seth’s primary companion until Ryan came along. Like any security blanket, Captain Oats served as a friend and reflection of Seth himself, a reminder that the person we ultimately need comfort from is ourselves. It also sets him up, paradoxically, to later connect with others. In showing his vulnerable side, via Captain Oats, to Anna and Summer, he gains confidence in himself and is able to connect with both of them better. This connection manifests in Captain Oats-ian vulnerable connective moments for both women, literally and figuratively.
Anna creates a comic book for Seth based around Captain Oats, and Summer reveals that she has her own security blanket — a toy horse named Princess Sparkle! I was delighted to see Princess Sparkle and Captain Oats again, one of the signs Summer and Seth were truly meant to be.
“The O.C.” embraces all art forms, including a very meta teen drama the characters watch called “The Valley.” However, it's the skillful way music is used to move storylines along that stands out the most. We see this in the pilot: “California” by Phantom Planet plays as viewers are introduced to Ryan and the circumstances that lead Sandy (Peter Gallagher) to take him in. In subsequent episodes, the track serves as the opening credits’ song and sets the tone for each episode with its powerful, somber tone juxtaposed with sometimes-hopeful lyrics and gorgeous images of the cast.
While the series is often credited with introducing indie bands to the mainstream (in large part thanks to Seth's love of Death Cab for Cutie), sometimes “The O.C.” uses pointedly nostalgic music. For instance, I thought the 80s pop music surrounding the goodbye scene between Seth and Anna in the first season nicely evokes a certain John Hughes-ian teen angst. First, to the building beat of Journey’s “Separate Ways,” Ryan and Seth take a frantic drive to the airport, hoping to catch Anna before she departs. Then, the wistful song “If You Leave” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark plays in the background as Seth and Anna say their teary goodbyes. It's one of the season's top music moments.
That said, I think it's the framework use of Jeff Buckley’s haunting rendition of “Hallelujah” that pulls the season together in its most impressive musical feat, and not just because it’s one of my all-time favorites. If I remember correctly, the song is used to tremendous effect in a later season. So my mouth fell open when, in episode two, I heard those oh-so-familiar opening chords. I didn’t remember this usage at all, but it’s perfect: The spare instrumentals and hopeless lyrics play in the background as Marissa and Ryan confess their feelings for each other; the slow-moving music an apt harbinger of things to come. Twenty-five episodes later, the season finale closes on the same song — I didn’t remember that either! It's a fitting, moving choice because, after a season of their lives being woven together, everyone is now looking at separate futures. Now I wonder how many more times I’ll hear “Hallelujah” as I continue my rewatch?
Life is more meaningful when it's decorated with art, and “The O. C.” is a master class in using music as an emotional highlighter.
See the World
One of the reasons I had such a visceral reaction to leaving “The O.C.” in 2007 and re-visiting it this summer is the fantastic cinematography. I was right back in their world immediately — first, uncomfortable in Chino and then comfortably at home when Sandy turned his car into that familiar Cohen driveway. Though they aren’t geographically that far apart, the show's contrast between Chino and Orange County in the series premiere sets an immediate tone and delivers a key lesson: It’s important to experience life outside of your comfort zone.
“The O.C.” gang stretches their travel legs on many road trips in Season One. Some excursions are a bit grim, like when the characters travel to Chino and the aforementioned dirty alleys of Tijuana, but I thought these melancholy trips nicely offset the more glamorous vacations. For instance, the gang visits Hollywood, or rather, “The L.A.” as it's called, where they go clubbing and run into a TV star portrayed by none other than Paris Hilton. Near the end of the season, everyone gathers in Las Vegas to celebrate Julie and Caleb’s upcoming nuptials (Yeah, that fling with Luke wasn't going to last.). The luxury hotel accommodations, including a room with a bowling alley in it, are a far cry from where Ryan was when the season began.
The closing scene of the season finale wrapped it up with a beautiful, bittersweet bow. Seth sailing off on his boat, “Summer Breeze,” reminded me how critical it is to move on and experience new things instead of wallowing in our sorrows.
Season One Coda
Series like “The O.C.” usually end each episode with a segment known as the “coda” — a sort-of epilogue and final act that's often a montage set to music. With that in mind, I have a coda of my own for this first installment of my “The O.C.” rewatch experiment.
Here are two more tiny life lessons from Season One, both in the form of quotes that will stick with me forever (and they aren't even from the highly quotable Seth). Anna, in her goodbye episode, instructs Ryan, “Have the best life. You deserve it.” Later, her closing words to her closest comrade Seth is a simple command: “Confidence, Cohen!”
We may not be in Orange County, but as we start the summer, may we all have the best life and live with confidence. Follow along on my “The O.C.” rewatch journey with Season 2 as I continue to share my thoughts and lessons!