The final days of the 2002-03 TV season featured the series finales of “Dawson’s Creek” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” two of the biggest and most loved teen dramas of the late ’90s and early aughts.
“Gilmore Girls” and “Smallville” were up and running for The WB, and “Everwood” had wrapped its first season, but it looked as though teen dramas — which had helped fuel the rise of FOX a decade or so earlier and were keeping The WB alive at the time — were on the wane.
Then on Aug. 5, 2003 — 10 years ago Monday — FOX unveiled “The O.C.” A phenomenon was born almost from the first notes of Phantom Planet’s “California,” and the show would, in terms of ratings numbers, become the biggest teen drama since the heyday of “Beverly Hills, 90210.”
Four years later it was gone, the victim of declining ratings and a network that no longer seemed to want the show. But it burned very, very brightly over its four seasons and 92 episodes — and it’s had a lasting impact on the TV landscape. Here are 10 reasons why “The O.C.” is still relevant.
1. Nerds ascending. When do-gooding lawyer Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher) takes in brooding, wrong-path-walking teenager Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie), Ryan comes to bond with Sandy and wife Kirsten’s (Kelly Rowan) son, Seth (Adam Brody) — who instead of being another leading-man type is a withdrawn, comic book- and indie music-loving geek who goes entirely unnoticed by the girl he loves.
The nerdy guy wasn’t exactly a new character in teen dramas, but rarely did he play such a central role as Seth Cohen did. Brody and McKenzie developed one of the great 21st-century screen bromances, and Seth’s love life and eventual winning of that girl, Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson), came to occupy a central place in the show’s storytelling. Throughout, Seth keeps his passions intact, paralleling and in some cases foreshadowing the mainstreaming and eventual primacy of nerddom in pop culture. It also led to scenes like this:
2. The music. “The O.C.” ran for four seasons — and had six soundtrack albums. The show helped make music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas a household name, and its roster of carefully curated indie bands, on-the-verge artists and mainstream acts — everyone from Death Cab for Cutie and Rooney to Beck and Coldplay — pretty well set the template for what a TV show would sound like in the 21st century (not least because Patsavas was seemingly working on just about every show on the air).
3 (or possibly 2a). Journey. David Chase rightfully gets credit for the pairing of “Don’t Stop Believin'” with the final scene of “The Sopranos.” And “Glee,” of course, made it inescapable a couple years later. But you know who was a Journey fan before it was cool again? Ryan Atwood, that’s who. (See: Season 1’s “The Goodbye Girl” — “Do not insult Journey. All right?”)
4. Plot, plot and more plot. When you see a show like “Revenge” burn through story like it’s about to be outlawed, you can partially thank “The O.C.” It completely abandoned the slow-burn, drawn-out pacing of most soapy dramas and charged ahead at a breakneck pace, covering more ground in its 27(!) Season 1 episodes than some shows did in three years. It was a lot of fun, but also may have ensured the show’s relatively short life, as that kind of pace is rarely sustainable.
5. Self-awareness. From the start, creator Josh Schwartz signaled to his viewers that he knew they knew all the conventions of a show like “The O.C.” — and then proceeded to goof on them even as the show wholeheartedly embraced them. The meta-humor, best illustrated in the fake show “The Valley” that Summer and other characters were obsessed with, served to undercut the self-seriousness usually associated with teen dramas (and which “The O.C.” sometimes indulged in itself) and maybe helped some viewers outside the target demo (ahem) enjoy the show without embarrassment.
6. Career (re)launches. Ben McKenzie, Rachel Bilson, Chris Carmack, Autumn Reeser, Amanda Righetti, Shailene Woodley, Willa Holland — all of them got their big breaks on the show. Alan Dale, who had a long run on the Australian soap “Neighbours” but was a That Guy in the United States, seemingly got every threatening rich-guy role on TV after playing Kirsten’s dad, Caleb. And, oh yeah, “The O.C.” was also the first series for one Josh Schwartz.
7. The grownups count too. Along with “Gilmore Girls,” “The O.C.” was notable at the time for paying attention to its adult characters in nearly equal measure to its teens. Sandy’s latest legal battle was not always the stuff of high drama, but the show took the relationships between its grown-ups, and between the adults and their kids, seriously — an idea that still hasn’t sunk in as far as it should have on television.
8. A thousand ‘ships. “The O.C.” did not give birth to the notion of fans ‘shipping their favorite characters and couples, but airing as it did at the dawn of the social-media era, the show’s makers could hear very loudly and clearly what its fans were thinking — as Schwartz and Co. found out after Marissa’s (Mischa Barton) death at the end of Season 3.
9. Orange County for everything. A year after “The O.C.” became a phenomenon, MTV debuted “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County,” a slightly less scripted version of life among the affluent in Orange County. (Schwartz and Co. had some fun with it in the show, giving “The Valley” its own reality doppelganger.) “The Real Housewives of Orange County” followed on Bravo in 2006, combining “The O.C.’s” locale with “Desperate Housewives'” avarice and petty warfare (minus the satire). It’s just a shame those shows don’t have to pay Schwartz residuals.
10. That scene where Marissa shoots Trey. OK, so this maybe hasn’t influenced traditional television (outside of a two-years-later, out-of-nowhere parody on “Saturday Night Live”) so much as it has YouTube, where countless parodies exist. The original scene and the “SNL” version are below.
What are your fondest memories of “The O.C.”?