The OC: Primetime’s Slipperiest Soap

[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]

[California, Here We Come…]

“You guys really wouldn’t hurt me. Because that would be so clichéd. (Gets picked up.) Oh, I guess you’re fans of the cliché.” – Seth

What is the subtle distinction between good television and quality television? Do you draw the line at cable-produced prestige dramas? Do you expand the gap to include high-profile network series? Do you make room for teen-based shows about vampires and detectives and high school football?

Or do you just set the dividing line at the exact spot of a certain show about a bunch of preppy rich people in Orange County, California?

The OC is not a television series that is universally beloved, nor is it one that has ever come close to warranting cult status. Yet for four seasons (which originally aired on Fox from 2003 to 2007), no other show makes me ponder the exact difference between “good” and “quality” shows. Wondering why? Let’s explore a bit further.

Created by Josh Schwartz, a 26-year-old nerd with nothing on his television résumé to show for it, The OC, at first glance, looked like another one of those Beverly Hills 90210 clones that were popping up everywhere in the early 2000s. In fact, Schwartz claims to have never seen an episode of 90210 before developing the series, and instead drew influence from the works of Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (the producers behind My So-Called Life and thirtysomething), as well as the coveted Freaks and Geeks.

Although it ostensibly focused on the popular kids (more on that later), and it labeled itself a soap opera, The OC spent less time playing up the clichés of the genre than it did mocking them. In short, it was a series that, on the surface, was geared to a lowbrow teen audience – but offered plenty of intelligence to those willing to look deeper.

It helped that early on, despite his lack of prominence, Schwartz was able to latch onto a number of talented writers who helped bring his series to life – creating an unlikely writers’ room ensemble in the process. With exception of head writer Allan Heinberg (a comic book writer who helped develop the Young Avengers), all the staff writers Schwartz assembled for the first season were women. While this was not particularly uncommon for a soap-based series, the ladies writing for The OC were geared more toward the geeky and thoughtful than the romantic. There was celebrated Whedon scribe Jane Espenson, future Dexter showrunner Melissa Rosenberg (who is also developing Netflix’s upcoming Jessica Jones), future Orange is the New Black co-developer Liz Friedman, and several others. The popularity of The OC may have in fact helped these writers springboard into their later projects – and helped curb the male-dominated industry of TV writing.

Still and all, The OC was ultimately Schwartz’s show, and he took great pride in writing it from the start. (Over half the first season’s episodes have his name on them.) That’s understandable – unlike some other series of its genre, The OC was fairly male-centric. The premise revolved around Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie of Gotham), an up-and-coming young delinquent in Chino, Nevada. In the pilot (easily one of the five best episodes of the series), he is rescued from a detention facility by goodhearted lawyer Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher) and is invited to live at his posh, upper-class home in Orange County, California. There, Ryan meets Sandy’s concerned wife Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), bonds with his geeky son Seth (Adam Brody), flirts with pretty next-door neighbor Marissa (Mischa Barton), and completely turns the polished and pristine world of Orange County upside-down on at least a few occasions.

The show’s 90210 DNA – instilled from the moment Ryan responds to Marissa’s introductory “Who are you?” with “Whoever you want me to be” – was just a fake-out to whet the appetites of Fox executives, who were on the lookout for a spiritual successor to their decade-long hit. In reality, Schwartz had a more complex show in mind – and in that first season, he delivered it in spades.

In recent years, seasonal broadcast network model has become something to look down upon. The reason? Cable network seasons (which typically range from 10 to 13 episodes) offer more compact and concise season arcs, providing less need for filler and delivering its story in a tight and complete little package. Network seasons, on the other hand, air a standard 22 episodes a year, and are often forced to slow down stretch out their storylines to pad the lengthier format.

The first season of The OC contains no fewer than 27 episodes, making it one of the lengthiest works in all of 21st century television. Yet despite its duration, it is one of the fastest-paced seasons of serialized television ever crafted. I’m really not kidding here – this show moves at an almost breathless pace, whipping out new storylines before the old ones can even think to grow stale. There’s more plot development in the kinetically-charged first season of The OC than in all seven seasons of Mad Men combined.

That’s not to say that The OC is predominantly plot-driven, though. As with most great teen dramas, the show is fueled by its characters, many of whom are given strong and compelling arcs. In addition to Ryan and Seth (two opposite poles who slowly come to relate to one another), as well as the continually self-destructive Marissa, the series found great value in Summer (a shallow and vain Valley Girl who gained humanity without losing her acerbic edge), Luke (a dumb jock who, despite being the show’s least integral character, says the most famous line of the pilot), and Julie (an initially manipulative viper who would go through the most life-changing arc of the series). The world of the series was well-populated with characters that fit familiar stereotypes, yet grew far beyond the clichés they represented. (Alan Sepinwall’s book, Stop Being a Hater and Learn to Love the OC, analyzes the first season for all it’s worth, detailing just why all the characters and stories work as well as they do.)

Between its fast-paced storylines, lovable characters, and humorous self-awareness – not to mention the worldly introduction to a beloved holiday mixture of Christmas and Hannukah – the first season of The OC was terrific crackerjack entertainment. However, the sheer amount of plots that had been crammed into its running time put a dent in ideas for future seasons. Thus, the second season opted to slow things down, focusing less on “event” storylines and more on will-they-or-won’t-they relationships. Some of these ideas worked (and a few of them climaxed well in the season’s best episode, “The Rainy Day Women”), while others uncomfortably fizzled. (Most fans would prefer to forget that Rebecca Bloom ever existed.)

The second season of The OC takes a lot of heat from critics, but it’s not really that bad. If the first season subscribed to the My So-Called Life school of thought, finding hidden value in overused tropes, the second season is Archie Comics-lite, centering stories around love triangles and quadrangles that are usually pleasant to watch, even if the lack of forward momentum keeps it from ever hitting the heights of its predecessor. And the last few episodes introduce a new element that injects some real drama into the season (even as the finale’s ending remains one of the most mocked and parodied in recent television), keeping its quality well above that of Season Three.

Sigh… I have to talk about this eventually, right? Okay: Season Three of The OC is awful. It’s full-on 90210 melodrama, mixed with a side of overbaked angst and a decided scent of unpleasantness. It begins by “resolving” the Season Two cliffhanger in the most misguided of ways, and just gets worse from there. The season features lots of contrived lies and secrets, evil real estate planners, a completely out-of-character cocaine addiction, the insufferable figure of Johnny, and two castmembers from Star Trek: Voyager. It’s hardly the makings of a quality show, or even a good one.

And there, you would think, is the rub. How could I even consider a show like The OC to be quality television? Follow the path of its first three seasons, and you get the impression of a series that blew most of its lot in the first year, began losing steam in the second, and collapsed into a near-unwatchable heap in the third. Despite some beginner’s luck, it was no better than the rest of television’s rich-kid-centric trash. End of story.

But ah, the story doesn’t end there.

Most viewers had abandoned The OC by the time the fourth season rolled around. Fox cut the order to 16 episodes and banished the show to the dreaded Friday night slot. The fourth season of the show would be its last… but also, arguably, its best.

Schwartz and his writing staff – which now included the soap-savvy John Stephens and Leila Gerstein – had learned from the mistakes of the third season, and then some. When The OC returned after a six-month hiatus, it was no longer a serious drama, or even a humorously self-aware drama, but an hour-long comedy. It was the unlikeliest move the show could have made – and it proved to be the smartest.

The fourth season, unlike the first, was light on plot momentum, instead focusing on the littler moments of the Orange County world. (The lower budget may have helped prompt this.) One of the few things Season Three had done well was the introduction of new female characters – particularly Taylor (Autumn Reeser) and Kaitlin (Arrow‘s Willa Holland) , both of whom gained regular status in Season Four. They brought a fresh new perspective of humor to the series, making even the most trying of situations a true delight to watch.

The OC had returned to form, but in an entirely different way. Sensing that the end was near, the writers worked to resolve character arcs in time for the grand finale – an episode that proved satisfying on multiple levels, and featured a final scene that actually brought a tear to my eye. The show was a different kind of great than it was when it began – less an addictive drama than a contemplative comedy. And there was conscious thought put into that shift, making the series into something to reward viewers into sticking through the weaker parts of the middle two seasons.

Is that the mark of quality drama? Honestly, I can’t quite say. The OC never set out with the lofty aspirations to be one of television’s greatest shows – it was a fun show that eventually ran out of steam, a fact which forced it to look inside itself and find newer and more innovative life. If the tone of the fourth season had been that of the first – that is, if the show had come out of the gate wearing its stylishness and innovation on its sleeve – it would be easier to think of it as a pristine series. In the end, though, we got to witness the pros and cons of being a plain old good teen drama, before the series finally motivated itself to aim for greater things.

That’s the vexing thing about quality TV, isn’t it? It can come in strange and unexpected packages, as elusive in definition as it is in style. And The OC deserves to be celebrated for the way it covered all bases of the quality spectrum, all while remaining fairly simplistic in execution. Or if you don’t buy that, at least honor it for giving us the opportunity to celebrate the miracle of Chrismukkah.

Jeremy Grayson is a freelance writer and reviewer for Critically Touched. He hopes you enjoyed reading this article as much as he enjoyed copying it from the Film Studies student who sits next to him.


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7 thoughts on “The OC: Primetime’s Slipperiest Soap”

  1. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 5, 2015.]

    I actually find the original scene to be even funnier than the SNL parody. Not entirely sure what that says about me.

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  2. [Note: StakeAndCheese posted this comment on August 6, 2015.]

    Hah, that Jeri Ryan arc (along with my deep, deep hatred of Johnny) is why I’m still stuck on S3, despite my outsized love for all things Chris Pratt.

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  3. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 6, 2015.]

    The good news is that Jeri Ryan (I can’t even remember her character’s name) doesn’t stick around for too much of the season – and neither does Johnny, for that matter. The last few episodes of S3 are halfway decent, even if the arcs they pay off are poorly done to begin with.

    Just consider fast-forwarding through all the Marissa stuff (and most of the Sandy stuff), and you’ll be at the glory of S4 in no time.

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  4. [Note: Arya Stark posted this comment on August 29, 2015.]

    The first season of the O.C. imo is one of the greatest seasons of television ever made. With the exception of the Oliver storyline it was vitrtually flawless. The 2nd season was pretty good I thought, but not as good as the first. Season 3 was a train-wreck through and through. Volcheck (ignoring the fact that the actor was VERY easy on the eyes) and Johnny were absolutely unbearable.

    **spoiler alert**

    I agreed whole-heartedly with everything you said up until you got to season 4. I hated the 4th season almost as much as the 3rd, mostly because of how they dealt with Marisa’s death. Aside from Julie’s reaction, the rest of the characters reactions were sloppily handled imo. Ryan’s ridiculous cage-fighting. Summer becoming a tree-hugger. Pretty much nothing from Seth. I just didn’t find that authentic at all. I felt that they cheated us fans by not letting us see the other characters initial reaction to her death or the funeral. But I totally agree that Taylor Townsend really helped improve that season. Maybe I need to re-watch it again to see why you liked it so much. Anyhoo, great review!

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  5. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 30, 2015.]

    Thanks! I do agree that Season Four didn’t do a great job with dramatic followup from the end of Season Three, but it was one of the few instances of a TV show doing that where I actually didn’t mind. Because the series so completely and convincingly reinvented itself during that last season, I was more than happy to see it move off to a better angle, different though it might have been.

    (Though I could’ve done without the Chris Brown arc.)

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