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

August 18, 2015

Among those still devoted to The O.C., the hierarchy of the four seasons is relatively clear. We’ll sort out all that out in a few weeks when I recap the final season, but for now, suffice it to say that season three is generally the least appreciated. I want to go on record saying that I find the much-maligned third season a tad more enjoyable than the second. Every batch of episodes, even the first season, has it’s share of clunky story arcs. For season three, the great moments easily outweigh the worst ones, and the season concludes in satisfying albeit tragic fashion. But we’ll get to all that.

The first season was all about seeing how the “the other half” lives. Then things got dark in the second season. The third season was more about the show growing out of the darkness spanning much of the second season and lingering well into the third. This came in the shape of Kirsten’s depression and alcoholism, Sandy’s inability to help her through it, and the fallout from the climactic showdown between Ryan, Trey and Marissa. Some of this carried over to season three, and the rest changed form. Season three may have been light on great subplots, but the characters seemed more at peace within the universe of The O.C.

As creator Josh Schwartz has commented, he learned the most about working in television during this third season of The O.C. It shows in his work. This season got off to a fast start, lost its way for a stretch and then rounded into form. If these growing pains are what made the excellent final 25 or so episodes possible, then it was all well worth it. New characters abounded throughout this third frame, and the viewer can feel the show click into gear, paving its own road and deciding what kind of show it wants to be. Growing pains hurt, but ultimately, they also signify growth.

Let’s get to the recap:

Marissa’s Demise

Spoiler Alert (for a season of television approaching nine years old): Marissa dies at the end of this season. From the very beginning, the Marissa part was written with Mischa Barton in mind. That, in addition to her glut of screen time, makes her one of the foundational elements of The O.C. That said, Marissa is generally not the most beloved of the principal characters. She had some great moments, but was written inconsistently. Sometimes she was in control, sometimes she was wishy-washy. Seth was always wishy-washy, but that was part of his makeup. Marissa’s arc was supposed to represent her fall from the pedestal of a prominent socialite, but her pedestal was never that convincing. Instead, we got a very human, very vincible, teenager. She was a good character, but there was dissonance between what the show tried to sell her as, and what was actually delivered. Her relationship with Ryan had run its course (and then ran it again), and she had become more of a burden to the show than an asset. Wrapping up her story with a tragedy was fitting, and in the grand scheme of things, allowed the show to move on to its final season with slightly more manageable baggage.

The Newport Group Saga: The Calebization of Sandy

Sandy took over the family business while Kirsten was in rehab, and had every intention of selling it off. Then along came a spider named Matt Ramsey. Matt was a 26-year-old hot shot working under one of The Newport Group’s prospective buyers. He went behind his boss’s back, telling Sandy not to sell, but to take him on as a partner. Against Sandy’s initial intentions, he was somehow convinced that getting in bed with this guy was a good idea. Instead of taking the world by storm, they got caught up in a corrupt hospital development deal. Sandy’s unassailable moral compass was called into question during the ensuing investigation. The problem with this story is that the drama never really felt earned. While Sandy allowed himself to go part way down the path to becoming the next Caleb, it was never really convincing that he ever did anything that could land him in serious hot water. The dirty work was being gleefully carried out by everyone else, but Sandy never seemed to buy in. Perhaps it was simple guilt by association, without any complicit wrongdoing on his part. Sandy’s exoneration did not come as a surprise.

The Newport Union Connection

Marissa’s heroic act at the end of season two was misinterpreted (because of course it was), resulting in her expulsion from Harbor. To finish high school, Marissa enrolled in the dingy, publicly accessible Newport Union. Most people were not nice to her, but surfer dudes Johnny and Chili were. Johnny and Marissa had common ground (mainly their irresponsible fathers) and they clicked right away. Johnny is commonly, and rightly, seen as the biggest bummer in all of The O.C. While he was welcoming to Marissa, he eventually tried to woo her, and generally brought everyone down with his self-destructive tendencies. He’s mainly responsible for introducing Volchok, season three’s “big bad,” into Marissa’s life.

Ryan and His Women

Ryan had been having girl problems since before the events of the pilot. Though he rekindled his relationship with Marissa in season three, the two could never quite get on the same page. They often acted on their own and without consulting one another, which meant doing more harm than good. Soon enough, the stresses inherent in Marissa attending Newport Union proved insurmountable. Ryan had another run-in with Jess Sathers (Nikki Griffin), who attempted to burden him with more Trey-related baggage, the same baggage Ryan had rid himself of at the beginning of the season. He managed to shake off Jess just in time to find some fleeting happiness with Sadie (Nikki Reed), Johnny’s cousin who came to town after his death. Sadie was kind of like Theresa 2.0. She shared a similar upbringing to Ryan, and really knew how to keep it real. Somewhat inexplicably, the rift between them was due in part to a disapproving glance from the Cohens when Ryan and Sadie were discussing plans for their future. Finally, he has a hook-up with a waitress named Chloe, whom he met while seeking out his mother, Dawn (Daphne Ashbrook), so he could invite her to his high school graduation.

The Return of Kaitlin Cooper

Kaitlin Cooper, Marissa’s hellion of a little sister, made a surprise visit home from boarding school for her mid-winter break. We’ll break down all the trouble she got into in the Power Rankings, but suffice it to say that Mini Cooper left her mark on season three. Most interestingly, Kaitlin was recast for her return from season two’s off-screen boarding school purgatory. Shailene Woodley (of Divergent fame) played the pre-teen character in season one, but casting obviously went in another direction with the character replacing Woodley with Willa Holland. Holland, who looked significantly older than Woodley at the time, is actually just a couple of months older in real life.

By the Numbers

Sandy Cohen Bagels: 4

Julie Cooper Residences

  1. Caleb’s Mansion
  2. Mermaid Inn (?)
  3. Trailer Park
  4. Charlotte The Rehab Grifter’s Condo
  5. Neil’s Mansion

Mentions of The Valley: 4

Mentions of Crudités: 2

The return of Crudités!

Gus Jokes: 9

For a stretch, Julie took up residence in a trailer park. Gus was the manager. He was (allegedly) known for knocking on Julie’s door at all hours of the day bearing odd proposals. Throughout the season, knocks on Julie’s trailer door were greeted with dismissive remarks referring to recent (off-screen) visits from Gus. The punchline to the punchline was generally that it was someone other than Gus knocking when the “Gus jokes” were delivered. The three best Gus jokes:

  1. Go away Gus. I told you, I don’t want to play strip pinochle.
  2. Gus! I told your wife, I don’t swing!
  3. I don’t want any pigeon pie, Gus! I think it’s terrible what you do to those little birds.

Future stars of Twilight (2008): 4

  1. Cam Gigandet
  2. Nikki Reed
  3. Jackson Rathbone
  4. Justin Chon

Ryan Punches: 11

  • Dean Hess
  • Volchok
  • Jack Harper’s friend
  • Volchok after prom (8x)

Formal O.C. Events: 8

  1. Julie and Jimmy’s Remarriage
  2. End of Summer Dance
  3. Substance Abuse Benefit
  4. Chrismukkah Bar-Mitzvahkkah
  5. New Match Launch Party
  6. Ryan’s 18th Birthday Bash
  7. Retirement party for Dr. Robert’s friend
  8. Pirate Prom


Even though The Bait Shop was no longer a focal part of this season, it still made several appearances. The number of live acts may have dwindled, but music was still at the forefront of season three. The music was as diverse as ever, if not more, featuring indie, pop, rock covers, and even instrumental goodness.

Musician Cameos: 3

  1. The Subways
  2. Band in episode 16
  3. Cobra Verde

For the first two seasons, I ranked the top soundtracks according to preference. This year, there were so many strong needle drops, that I decided to chronologically list fifteen of most memorable, rather than whittling an unwieldy top ten with five honorables:

“Blue Light (Engineers “Anti-Gravity” Mix)” – Bloc Party (Episode 1)

“California 2005” – Phantom Planet (Episode 2)

“Baby Blue” – All Sad Girls Are Beautiful (Episode 3)

“Rock and Roll Queen” – The Subways (Episode 7)

“Forever Young” – Youth Group (Episodes 4, 16)

“That’s What Friends Are For” – Dionne Warwick (Episode 10)

“YMCA” – Village People (Episode 10)

“Our House” – Electric President (Episode 11)

“Shuffle Your Feet” – Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (Episode 12)

The first dozen episodes featured a slew of musical moments. Trey had a nice send off song in the first episode. Cover versions of “Baby Blue” and “Our House” were fun. “Forever Young” was another cover, but looking back, it feels like a pretty iconic moment for this series to warrant its own sentence. Ryan’s unforgettable Chrismukkah Bar-Mitzvahkkah carved out slots for such timeless fare as “That’s What Friends Are For” and “YMCA.” Good times were had by all. Generally.

“Fall at Your Feet” – James Blunt (Episode 14)

“For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” – Sufjan Stevens (Episode 15)

“Paint the Silence” – South (Episode 17)

“Waiting for a Girl Like You” – Cobra Verde (Episode 17)

“Lover I Don’t Have to Love” – Bettie Serveert (Episode 18)

“To All of You” – Syd Matters (Episode 23)

The last thirteen episodes had great moments too, but that divide is right about where the season took a turn for the irreversibly foreboding. Johnny died, and was then buried, to the tune of two pretty decent tracks. “Paint the Silence” was a strong callback to season one. Ryan got his Journey (kinda), when Seth hired a “Journey” cover band, that really turned out to be a Foreigner cover band. It was a pretty good gag that poked fun at Ryan’s generic, under-developed, backstory. If these were ranked, the Bettie Serveert cover was a great track that would have fared well. It was used repetitiously, and created notable atmosphere throughout the course of Episode 18.

Power Rankings

For episodes 53-76.

1. Summer Roberts (TIE)

Summer was great this year. She turned out to have better SAT scores than Seth, and snagged his place at Brown University. She uncovered her past as a tuba-playing band camp attendee. She went toe-to-toe with Taylor Towsend before graciously accepting her as a friend. Julie, Marissa and Kaitlin Cooper invaded her home, and she really took the whole thing in stride. As the show’s writers grew more generous, Summer even stole some of the season’s best lines.

1. Julie Cooper-Nichol-Cooper (TIE)

Julie put up big numbers once again. She showed her true colors when she almost succeeded in framing Ryan for a shooting committed by Marissa. Then she showed her true colors again when she saved her best friend Kirsten from a long con. Then she got really into Skoal. Julie actually got into a normal-ish groove when she moved into Dr. Robert’s mansion in the back stretch of the season. You could say she had a Floyd Mayweather Jr.-esque third season. There were a few tantalizing flourishes, but she actually just sat back a lot of the time. Oh yeah, and she resided in five different domiciles. Five. In one season. You can’t simply gloss over that.

1. Ryan (TIE)

In his ill-advised defense of Marissa, Ryan punched a school official in the face and got himself kicked out of Harbor. He did the home school thing for a little while and was eventually allowed back when said official was found to be less than honorable. His savior complex was on overdrive this season. It got him into a lot of trouble, but Ryan’s gotta be Ryan. His ill-advised defense of Johnny arguably brought on the entire Volchok saga (see video above), and we all know how that ended. Ryan and Marissa were scarcely on the same page; often acting on behalf of, yet rarely communicating with, one another. Slowly, Ryan managed to grow and go with the flow a little better. He found momentary peace at the end of their relationship. It wasn’t much, but it was growth. And things weren’t all bad. He had some momentary happiness with Sadie, and managed to be a good sport for his Chrismukkah Bar-Mitzvahkkah, and 18th Birthday Bash.

4. Taylor Townsend

Taylor is the most important newcomer to season three. She’s Marissa’s arch-rival, competing with her for social chair and other resume-padding enterprises. She was a great villain at the beginning the season, nearly getting the entire Core Four kicked out of Harbor, and getting Ryan and Marissa temporarily banned. Her efforts were aided by her affair with Harbor’s new Dean of Discipline, Dean Hess. She was a perfectly spunky package of evil.

Then, not unlike Luke from the first season, she made the transition to unlikely friend of the group once it was revealed that she had an icy sports agent for a mother (Paula Trickey), and had interpreted her close proximity to Ryan, Seth, Marissa and Summer as her best opportunity to finally make some friends. As it turned out, there really wasn’t room for expanding the Core Four into a Fab Five, but Taylor proved a worthy supplement, filling in the cracks as the group fractured in various ways throughout the season. Taylor turned out to be a needed addition to the show. She’s a know-it-all, digs the Criterion Collection, and thinks handicap accessibility is reverse Darwinism. She also seems fluent in at least three languages. What’s not to like?

5. Marissa Cooper (TIE)

The Marissa farewell tour was bumpy, but had some nice moments. She adapted to new surroundings, making friends with Johnny and Chili, the lovable outcasts of Newport Union H.S. She finally had some quality time with her sister Kaitlin, highlighted by her going undercover to help Kaitlin get even with a jerky classmate. Unfortunately, some of Marissa’s old tendencies reared their ugly heads. She stopped communicating effectively with Ryan, upending their relationship once again. Sure, relationships are a two-way street, but Marissa practically allowed herself to be wooed away from Ryan, which just felt weak. She developed a real apathetic streak, dare I say even a nihilistic one. She torched her relationship with Summer, forcing her to turn to Taylor Townsend of all people. Honestly, I’m surprised she landed this high in the rankings, but I guess the good outweighed the bad. I’m at peace with Marissa leaving the show more or less at her peak.

5. Kirsten Cohen (TIE)

Kirsten mostly got to chill out, getting over her father’s death, experiment with cooking, and recuperating from her alcohol rehab. Kirsten almost fell victim to Charlotte The Rehab Grifter, but in the end, Julie had her back. To the untrained eye, this may seem like a strike against Kirsten, but truth be told, Kirsten’s friendship and generosity toward Julie is ultimately what foiled Charlotte’s scheme. Season Three Kirsten cashed in on some good karma.

7. Sandy Cohen

The Sandy Slide continues. The main Sandy arc was his taking stewardship of The Newport Group. Though he wanted to sell it off right away, he went against his better judgment and followed in Caleb’s hooved footprints. While he could be painted as a villain here, he actually just cleaned up other people’s messes while maintaining plausible deniability. I guess we could convict him of not sticking to his guns, but by the end of the season, the groundwork for leaving the Newport Group for good had been laid. Defend the poor, sing the classics, baby.

8. Seth Cohen (TIE)

For all those who believe Seth is the perfect and most-dreamy TV boyfriend, I hereby submit this season of The O.C. as evidence to the contrary. In fact, since winning the heart of Summer in the first season, Seth has proved time and time again to be selfish and cowardly. In the face of any slight adversity, you could pretty much count on Seth to make the wrong decision. In season three, he repeatedly lied to Summer, including refusing to admit that he wasn’t admitted to Brown University. He goes through a dope phase, and even burns down a building, and wouldn’t have been a stretch to worry that the building was a symbol for his relationship with Summer. Seth was really pushing his luck all season long. He even lied to Ryan, trying to pass off a Foreigner cover band as a Journey cover band at his 18th Birthday Bash. On the other hand, he did stand strong when confronted by Dean Hess, refusing to tattle on Summer even with the Dean brandishing a lengthy detention. And he did manage to pull off Ryan’s Chrismukkah Bar-Mitzvahkkah. And he’s so totally stealth. I guess Seth isn’t all bad.

8. Kevin Volchok (TIE)

The group was busy dealing with Taylor Townsend at the beginning of the season, but she soon gave way to Volchok. Volchok, a.k.a. the Surf Nazi, quickly became the “big bad” of season three, and perhaps the entire series. He only managed to enter their lives thanks to Marissa’s stint at Newport Union (public high school, gasp!). He confronted Ryan on many occasions, keyed the Cohen family vehicle, and immediately set his predatory sights on Marissa. Volchok was trouble incarnate. Volchok wasn’t a big talker, but Cam Gigandet made the most of the role. He played up the villainy just right, and was believably vulnerable during the key stretch in which Volchok developed a relationship with Marissa. Apparently surfing and substance abuse weren’t enough for him. It’s never enough.

10. Neil Roberts

The great Michael Nouri played Summer’s dad. The character, a plastic surgeon and often absentee-father, became a more integral part of the series in season three when he struck up a romance with Julie. Nouri played this calculating wet-blanket of a character with warmth and world-weariness. While Julie could be a real terror at times, I couldn’t help but root for the relationship (at least temporarily) if it was really what Dr. Roberts wanted.

11. Sadie Campbell

Sadie (Nikki Reed) made homemade jewelry. She’s probably never going to strike it rich, but hey, it’s a portable business plan. That’s gotta count for something.

12. Charlotte The Rehab Grifter

Charlotte (Jeri Ryan) met Kirsten in alcohol rehab, but Charlotte wasn’t an alcoholic. She targeted Kirsten for a long con revolving around throwing a substance abuse benefit that was supposed to end with Charlotte making off with the dough. Charlotte was a tough customer. She manipulated Kirsten, Sandy and even Julie, the queen bee herself. But Julie was on to her quickly enough, and sent her away without cab fare. For a few episodes we had a true competitor for Julie’s crown. It didn’t last long, but Charlotte gets points for helping us to appreciate Julie a little bit more.

13. Kaitlin Cooper

Kaitlin got into a lot of trouble. That her return happened to coincide with the lowest of the Johnny doldrums, I think this character actually deserves a lot of credit for helping to pull the show out from its nadir. She stole money from a college frat for dubious reasons. She put Seth on the weed, and then (arguably) helped kill off Johnny. After returning to boarding school, she sprang up once more at the end of the season and had a nice moment in which she enlisted big sis Marissa to seduce and destroy some jerk from her boarding school. Wait, isn’t she supposed to be 14 in this season? Wait, wasn’t she in fifth grade in season one? NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!

13. Dean Hess (Harbor School’s Dean of Discipline)

Dean Hess (Eric Mabius) was evil and genuinely seemed to relish the idea of destroying the futures of Ryan and Marissa. That said, his ranking could be the result of riding coattails. Not only were most of his malevolent actions spurred by Taylor Townsend’s insistence, he may also have enjoyed an artificial bump merely by tangling with Sandy. Sandy The Kingmaker.

15. Seung Ho

Also known as the random Korean waiter that Taylor appears to be whispering naughty nothings to in Korean. Seung-ho (Chase Kim), always the gentleman, takes Taylor to prom.

Also Receiving Votes

16. Anna Stern (TIE)

Ana (Samaire Armstrong) makes a brief, yet triumphant return as Seth’s spirit animal (more on that in season four).

16. Gus (TIE)

See “Gus Jokes” section in By The Numbers.

18. Matt Ramsey

Every future billionaire needs a flame-out story early in their career, and Matt (Jeff Hephner) certainly has his.

19. Johnny Harper

Normally, #19 in the Power Rankings doesn’t warrant a lot of ink, but Johnny (Ryan Donowho) was a very important character. He was also a very terrible character. He turned out to be the saddest puppy dog in the entire series. Flirting with Marissa meant losing his girlfriend to Volchok. Involving himself in Ryan and Marissa’s relationship got him run over by a car. With his knee destroyed, and his surfing career euthanized, Johnny got even more sad. For a minute, he and Marissa seemed to come to terms that there was nothing serious between them. Then Kaitlin showed up. Kaitlin manipulated Johnny to make Marissa jealous, and Johnny transferred his intense passion from Cooper to Cooper. Then he died. Boy could really surf though.

Not Ranked




Jack Harper

Sandy Quotes

As mentioned above, the writing got a bit more democratic as the show progressed. The siphoning off of cherry one-liners to Summer, Julie, Taylor and Seth was noticeable. Sandy still had some great lines, but he really hardened after the inaugural season. To reflect this shift, here are five choice cuts of Sandyism from season three.

“I tell you, the air is crisp. It must be 70 degrees out there.”

“A pirate war?”

“Ornery judge, captive audience, righteousness on my side. I feel right at home.”

“And I was lying! Your forehand sucks!””

“Defend the poor, sing the classics.”

From → Television

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