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California, Here We Come! ‘The O.C.’ Season One

April 29, 2015

This is a little off brand for me, but I wanted to use some time and space to appreciate one of the great prime time soap operas of my lifetime: The O.C.

In August of 2003, as I was gearing up for freshman year of high school, Fox debuted a hot new show called The O.C. (a mostly unwanted slang name for Orange County, CA). Josh Schwartz’s delightfully trashy and hyperbolic teen drama opened to big ratings and strong reviews. Like Icarus flying too close to that lovely Southern California sun, ratings and enthusiasm petered out over ensuing seasons. The final episodes ran in early 2007, capping a satisfying, somewhat truncated, 92 episode run over four seasons.

The series began with Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) and his older brother being arrested for grand theft auto. Ryan is the Chino, CA, version of Will from Good Will Hunting, right down to his aggressive intellect, hotheadedness and bowl cut. Enter Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), public defender and wise father figure, to help guide Ryan, just 16, to a more constructive path. Unable to regain footing in his personal life, Ryan takes up residence in the Cohen family pool house. Sandy, Kirsten (Kelly Rowan) and Seth (Adam Brody) live a posh life in Newport Beach, and generously adopt Ryan as part of the family. Just try and tell me that Will Hunting getting adopted by a wealthy Newport family isn’t a tantalizing setup.

The O.C. Season One Cast Photo

One of The O.C.’s main conceits from the get-go is that Ryan’s rough and tumble home town of Chino is made out to be much slummier than it really is. While the dreary, washed-out depiction drew ire from Chino’s real life residents and local government, it served an important purpose for The O.C. The point is that Newport is a small, tight-knit, and obscenely wealthy community that acts as a bubble its residents rarely leave. As such, Newport is a hotbed, or perhaps a petri-dish, for the melodramatic trappings of any good soap opera. Adam Brody’s Seth Cohen speaks to this phenomenon in an early episode, noticing how everyone he knows fears the outer limits of Newport as if they were “Chechnya.”

So that’s The O.C. in a nutshell. A kid with a rough past tentatively accepted into high society. It’s a balancing act waiting to come crashing down at any moment and it’s all very seductive in motion. The acting is complemented by strong writing and direction, balancing the comedy and drama well enough. Most of the characters are drawn very well from the beginning, which allows the actors to click with their characters as your investment in the show increases.

Story Highlights From Season One

While the best shows in our recent TV Golden Age tended to employ season, or even series-defining story arcs, soap operas like The O.C. have always succeeded by churning through story. Churn and burn. Plain and simple. That means any given episode tends to feature a handful of overlapping multi-episode subplots. Plots are occasionally contained within a single episode, but the multi-episode arcs prove to be the momentum-sustaining ingredient that makes this a binge-worthy show. With well over a dozen mini-arcs, (maybe more than two dozen depending on how you break them up), here are the the three worst and three best subplots from Season One.

The Three Worst Subplots

1. Oliver Trask

Oliver. Trask. The mere mention of his name makes me shudder. Oliver (Taylor Handley) is the spiky-haired psycho who’s time on the show began with him becoming infatuated with Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton), who was dating Ryan at the time. Oliver met Marissa in a therapy office and he eventually sought to eliminate Ryan from the picture, alienating him from Marissa, the Cohens, and the friendly confines of Newport.

If revisiting Season One again has confirmed anything for me, it’s that the first, second and third rules of The O.C. are that you don’t separate Seth and Ryan. They form a team from the pilot on and their unshakable brotherhood is one of the most reliable and comforting parts of the show. They can get into jams individually, but the implicit deal with this show is that both of them must be present to help get each other out of trouble. With Oliver, Ryan was on his own. It’s a testament to Oliver’s manipulation skills, but it’s hard watching Ryan get cut off from the pack. While I admit loving to hate Oliver, his six episode run on the show always sends me into despair.

2. Theresa

Theresa Diaz (Navi Rawat) is Ryan’s old flame/girlfriend-next-door from his Chino days. While Ryan’s brother and friends couldn’t stay out of trouble, Theresa was Ryan’s rock. They’ve got history. I like Navi Rawat, but I think she just gets stuck with a rough character here. Even though Rawat plays her very appealingly, Theresa is pure plot device. She appears in eight first season episodes and her arc is another stretch that disrupts the Seth-Ryan dynamic. Ryan is generally powerless to resist any real or imagined responsibilities he has to his Chino roots. So naturally, when Pregnant Theresa shows up at the end of the season, and reveals that the baby could possibly be Ryan’s, Ryan completely reverts to the person he was at the beginning of the series and rebuffs his relationship with Seth. It’s painful to watch. Yes, he’s accepting the responsibility of his (dubiously) impending fatherhood, but I refer you to the first three rules of The O.C., mentioned a few paragraphs up. This show is simply not at its best if Seth and Ryan aren’t a team.

Additionally, Theresa is used to sully an otherwise perfectly decent character. Eddie (Eric Balfour) is Theresa’s fiancé whom she temporarily leaves to see if Ryan still has feelings for her. Eddie pops up in a few episodes and seems like a kind and relatable guy. Balfour does a great job of showing the humanity underneath a rough exterior. Eddie may be from Chino but he’s one of the few, not unlike Ryan, who had the potential to survive his adolescence unscathed. He really left an impression. And then Pregnant Theresa showed up, revealing Eddie had been beating her. It’s a sign of bad subplot when the result is a respectable character getting written out unceremoniously and entirely off screen. Too bad for Eddie.

3. Rachel

Sandy Cohen is a force of nature. From episode one on, there’s no mistaking that fact. Sandy is the honorable man, bleeding heart, and wise-yet-dorky dad. By the end of the pilot, these things are all pretty well established. However, when Sandy left the public defender’s office to join a high-falutin’ private firm, his co-counsel Rachel Hoffman did her best to test Sandy’s virtue. She shamelessly flirted with him and repeatedly convinced him to stay late in the office working on a pivotal case. Rachel tried to get in Kirsten’s lane, which in conjunction with another subplot, threatened to become a wedge in the Cohen marriage.

While this mini-arc works to show just how loyal Sandy is to Kirsten, it actually violates another very important rule of The O.C. Either the fourth or fifth rule of The O.C. (after all the Seth/Ryan rules listed above) is that you don’t mess with Sandy and Kirsten. Whatever flaws they might possibly have as individuals are more than made up for when they represent a unified front. Sandy can hardly do any wrong even on his own (let’s be honest), but when he combines forces with Kirsten, they become the Immovable Object. Rachel was a perhaps necessary speed bump in proving this, but that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy her attempting to slobber all over Sandy while he knowingly keeps her at arm’s length. Sandy Cohen Forever.

The Three Best Subplots

1. Seth and Anna

Seth Cohen is the proto-hipster. Unfortunately, he existed pre-Hipster Golden Age (which I suppose could make him emo), suffering a miserable and misunderstood existence, anonymously navigating the water polo kegger high school wasteland. He named his sail boat after his forever crush, Summer, who, at the beginning of the show, didn’t even know who he was. Then good old Sandy brought Ryan home. Seth’s profile was instantly goosed by mere association with Bad Boy Ryan.

For those who haven’t indulged in Season One recently, Ryan wasn’t the only new arrival to alter Seth’s destiny. Anna Stern moved West from Pittsburgh that same summer, meeting both Seth and Ryan at Cotillion in Episode 4. Anna was Seth’s Pixie Dream Girl who could just never quite displace Seth’s need for a real chance with Summer. Anna was perfect. She was game. She matched Seth tit-for-tat on comic book references and was a lovely and intelligent conversationalist. Season One Seth could not have done better than Anna Stern. He may have named his boat after Summer, but Anna really seemed like The One, and she came with none of the shallow superficiality that defined Season One Summer. Seth and Anna peaked too early. As my man Robert Frost once said, “nothing gold can stay.”

2. Luke’s Gay Dad

Luke Ward (Chris Carmack) is one of Season One’s most compelling characters. Early on, he’s a bully threatened by his girlfriend Marissa’s interest in Ryan. He gleefully takes on the mantle of “O.C. Wrestling Heel” in the pilot when he throws Ryan down in the sand at a beach party, exclaiming, “Welcome to the O.C., bitch!” For most characters, this would be their defining moment. Not for Luke. Not for this gloriously blond-haired, shaved-chested water polo god. Once things are over between he and Marissa, Luke slowly accepts Ryan’s presence and makes the always interesting transition into the Frenemy Zone.

Being a frenemy suited Luke well, maybe even better than being a villain. I think this speaks to Carmack’s likability and chops to play vulnerable. Luke’s status takes another seismic jolt when he and Ryan accidentally discover Carson Ward, Luke’s dad, having an affair with another man. It is fun seeing Luke get the rug pulled out from under him repeatedly throughout the first season. When the news about his dad spreads across town, Luke is ostracized at school. Suddenly, Luke finds himself relying on the acceptance and compassion of Ryan, Seth, and Marissa, now that he has nowhere else to turn. Luke has a constantly changing dynamic and his arc from villain to unlikely ally is one of the best elements of the season.

3. Ryan’s Mom

Ryan’s ultimate arrival in Newport is bittersweet. He had a rough upbringing including a delinquent older brother, and a mother who couldn’t take of herself (much less her sons). Mercifully, with his brother behind bars, Ryan parts ways with his mother and embraces his new Newport family after just three episodes. Ryan’s mother, Dawn Atwood (Daphne Ashbrook), is a great character and really makes her small number of appearances count. In the pilot, she is unsuccessfully holding her home together, lacking any patience for her troubled sons, and seeking consolation from a long string of bad relationships. She’s a mess.

We get to see her in less dire straits too. In the third episode, she attends a Vegas Night charity event in Newport to show Ryan she can stay sober so he’ll return home with her. She’s really in her element here, showing a bit of street smarts at the black jack table. For an instant Ryan is proud of her. That doesn’t last, and Dawn falls off the wagon in a very public way. Setting up the rest of the season, Dawn takes the high road, and accepts the Cohen’s generosity by allowing Ryan to stay with them while she continues to try to better herself. Things with Dawn get uncomfortable at times, but by the time she makes her graceful Season One exit, we feel the catharsis of Ryan letting go of a little baggage and the hopefulness of his new found opportunities.

Music of The O.C.

Music is a huge part of The O.C.‘s viewing experience. The show found its musical groove right off the bat, and quickly became a vessel for memorable musical moments, featuring both trendy and unexpected tunes. Artists even began appearing on the show by the end of the middle portion of the first season.

Band/Artist Cameos:

  • Rooney
  • Jem

Top 5 Soundtracks:

  1. California, Phantom Planet (Pilot, opening credits)
  2. Halleluja, Jeff Buckley (Episodes 2, 27)
  3. Wonderwall, Ryan Adams (Episode 19)
  4. If You Leave, Nada Surf (Episdoe 21)
  5. Maybe I’m Amazed, Jem (Episode 27)

Honorable Mentions

  1. Love of the Loveless, Eels (Episode 18)
  2. Separate Ways (Worlds Apart), Journey (Episode 21)
  3. Night Moves, Bob Seger (Episodes 19, 24)

The main list is heavy on covers, with four of five being re-interpretations. These may be excellent covers, but good tracks can only do so much when not paired with a standout moment in a good show. It’s the dramatic context in which these tracks are deployed that make them truly memorable and cathartic needle drops.

California, the main theme and title track, plays in full, more or less, near the beginning of the pilot so I’m definitely not cheating by including it.

As for the honorables, Ryan’s love of Journey is established towards the end of the season as he blasts one of the band’s signature anthems during a climactic drive to the airport. Journey really suits Ryan. He doesn’t seem like the kind of kid who grew up with all the latest pop hits. Journey’s real life ubiquity supports the generic anonymity of Ryan’s cultural tastes (besides, who can’t rock out to Journey? No one, that’s who).

The Eels track is deployed with comic repetition and really livens up a series of scenes in which Ryan is biding time in the pool house while on double-secret Sandy Cohen Probabtion.

Last but certainly not least, Julie Cooper loves her some Bob Seger. She jammed out to Night Moves on multiple occasions this season and it’s an apt song choice for her. It plays on her decidedly non-Newport roots, but also seems to complement her predatory manipulation tactics, really only hinted at in the first season.

O.C. By the Numbers

Formal Newport Events: 11

  • Fashion Show (Pilot)
  • Vegas Night Fundraiser (Episode 3)
  • Cotillion (Episode 4)
  • Children’s Hospital Benefit Yacht Party (Episode 10)
  • Chrismukkah (Episode 13)
  • New Year’s Eve Swinger Party (Episode 14)
  • Valentine’s Day Singles Dance “For the Hospital” (Episode 19)
  • Lighthouse Restaurant Pre-Opening Party (Episode 24)
  • Julie and Caleb’s Engagement Party (Episode 25)
  • Bachelorette Cocktail Party With Strippers (Episode 26)
  • Julie and Caleb’s Wedding (Episode 27)

Mentions of Crudités: 3

People Punched by Ryan: 7

  • Luke (Beach Party)
  • Luke (Model Home)
  • Luke (Diner)
  • Rude Jailbird Guy
  • Chop Shop Guy
  • Rival Soccer Guy
  • Oliver

Sandy’s Bagel Count: 4

Mermaid Inn Visits: 7

Firearms Drawn (Oh My!): 4

Power Rankings (Season One)

Who are the champions of Season One? Which characters won our hearts? Below is an extremely scientific ranking and brief analysis of the show’s essential characters through 27 episodes.

1. Sandy Cohen

2. Ryan Atwood

3. Seth Cohen

4. Kirsten Cohen

5. Anna Stern

6. Julie Cooper (TIE)

6. Jimmy Cooper (TIE)

8. Luke Ward

9. Caleb Nichol

10. Summer Roberts

The Power Rankings are in, and the list is headlined by the main Cohen Clan of Sandy, Seth and Kirsten, plus Ryan and Anna. The top five were comfortably ahead of the rest of the pack. Through the first season, this show belongs to Sandy and Ryan. Ryan can be so mature for his age, and then so frustratingly a teenager. We’ve covered Ryan extensively already, but he’s the gravity source keeping all of his hot-air-filled Newport friends in orbit. The Seth/Ryan, and Sandy/Kirsten dynamics anchored the first season and for good reason. Anna was the true love that got away primarily because she didn’t have a boat named after her (a technicality if there ever was one).

Seth’s relationships with other characters have already gotten a lot of ink here, but he isn’t exactly riding coattails. Seth earned his place on the podium. He describes his existence as a Cohen as “a life of insecurity and paralyzing self-doubt.” Despite his endless sarcasm, Seth is prone to grand gestures. He invented the mixed-faith holiday sensation Chrismukkah. He is known to break the ice with “Seth Cohen Starter Packs” comprising Death Cab for Cutie, and The Goonies (it’s not just for kids). Sure, Seth is spoiled and his stories often feel like low-stakes shuffleboard next to Ryan’s no-limit Hold’em, but he has feelings too, and he will always be near the top of anyone’s list of reasons for loving The O.C.

No real surprises in the top five, but things get interesting from there. It makes perfect sense that the bitter pairing of Julie and Jimmy Cooper would result in a Power Rankings tie for sixth place. Julie is the status monster who controlled Jimmy and unknowingly helped plunge her family into terrible debt throughout the season. Jimmy is no peach either, often pushing his luck with Kirsten, his high school sweetheart. Julie (Melinda Clarke) bailed on Jimmy at his lowest, only to catch a golden (though possibly gilded) parachute on her way out the door. Make no mistake, Julie is terrible, but she’s one of the show’s defining characters and earns her place here. Jimmy (Tate Donovan) is incredibly likable and has no problem coming across as a nice guy when standing next to his wife Julie. He undoubtedly helped his ranking by going into business with Sandy later in the season. It also helped that he legitimately tried to connect with Marissa, his and Julie’s eldest daughter. Julie and Jimmy have a deliciously antagonistic rapport.

Luke’s transition from villain to dorky entourage member secured him a spot in the top ten. He pulls a reverse Walter White (or maybe Walter White pulled a reverse Luke Ward. What sounds better… Reverse Luke Ward, or Mr.-Chips-to-Scarface?). He goes from this:

To this:

Caleb Nichol (Alan Dale) is a real bastard. He runs his business and his daughter Kirsten ruthlessly, while repeatedly clashing with Sandy. To his credit, Caleb is pretty cunning and will set aside petty differences if there’s a buck to be made. I have a feeling Caleb was possibly on the bubble for making the top ten, but his late-season entanglement with Julie Cooper helped his case.

Rounding out the top ten is Summer – no, not Seth’s sail boat – the love of his life, played by Rachel Bilson. Summer came a long way in the first 27 episodes, and she really needed to if anyone was supposed to believe that Seth would choose her over Anna.

This leaves Marissa (Mischa Barton) as the only series regular to not make the top ten. Marissa had her moments, but was a bit too easily flustered. She was practically relegated to damsel in distress status during the whole Oliver debacle, with the added complication of not wanting Ryan’s help. She did a lot of odd things, like running away to Chino to see Ryan’s family when hers was crumbling. Don’t even bring up the Tijuana incident. Like Marissa, Barton definitely had her moments and grew into the role throughout the season. Ultimately, Marissa was very close to landing in the top ten.

The only non-human character to garner consideration was The Mermaid Inn. The sleazy motel that hosted several affairs and other clandestine operations had a role in so many subplots, that it may as well have been an actual character. Hailey Nichol (Amanda Righetti) was a reprehensible human being, but she had a nice showdown with Julie and she was there for Jimmy when he was feeling down on himself.

Also Receiving Votes:

11. Marissa Cooper

12. Theresa Diaz

13. The Mermaid Inn & Hailey Nichol (TIE)

15. The Nana

16. Oliver Trask & Eddie (TIE)

18. Dawn Atwood

Better Luck Next Season

Trey Atwood

Kaitlin Cooper

Dr. Kim (Dean of Harbor School)

Dr. Roberts

No Votes Received

Holly Fischer (Not Marissa’s Friend)

Rachel Hoffman

Carson Ward

Sandy Cohen Quotes

Here are a few of the best Sandyisms from Season One. It’s not quite a definitive list, but I will do better with Season Two. Some people like to include context with quotes, but I think Sanford’s way with words is brilliant enough on its own merits.

“Seth does look rad. Mad props, son.”

“So Anna, what’s the deal? Your parents don’t believe in celebrating the genocide of the American Indian?”

“Ah! The gruesome twosome!”

“Yogalates?”

“GPS Lady says turn left, I’m going right!”

“Sandy Cohen. Pleasure swinging with you.”

“Hey, Connect Four was happening. It gets my blood up.”

“You’ve come to the master.”

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