Way back in 2003, The O.C. hit our screens. Like many fans, I watched every episode, as it aired, without fail. Last summer, I was up unreasonably early on a Sunday, and discovered an episode of The O.C. on Channel 4. At 22 years old, I fell in love with it all over again.
Ah, Orange County, California. I love everything about this show – even the theme tune is brilliant, and damn catchy too. In fact, I love most of the songs featured on the show, and actually have the first two CDs in my car, for those sunny day drives. When I lived by the sea, with the sun beating down on me and the wind in my hair, I could almost believe I was living the high life in California, not driving down the A38 to Asda in my car (which, sadly, is older than this show). A girl can dream.
But it’s not just the beautiful surroundings and rich lifestyles that appeal to fans of The O.C. What I love most about the series is that it touches upon so many crucial themes – social class, drug and alcohol abuse, homophobia, domestic violence, sex, inter-generational conflict, environmentalism and death – while remaining lighthearted and entertaining. You can really relate to and connect with the characters and their lives, despite any differences a poor girl from rainy England may have.
Here are my thoughts on the main characters and storylines, and how they impacted on a sullen, tearaway teenage girl, compared to a somewhat reclusive, tea-addicted graduate.
Ryan Atwood is probably the character I can relate to the most, though I’m still waiting for a rich family to adopt me and take me to live in sunny California. From rough beginnings, Ryan has to work hard to break the trend, in an attempt to create a better life for himself. He becomes the first in his family to graduate high school, gets accepted into college, and, by season 3, does his best to stay out of trouble. Like Ryan, trouble likes to follow me around. And, like Ryan, when I remove certain factors, it goes away (for the most part). Recognising the negative impact certain people and circumstances can have on you is incredibly important, and I enjoyed watching Ryan struggle with this realisation, because it reflected my own journey in so many ways.
My only problem with Ryan is his incessant need to rescue girls. I’m glad Kirsten brings that up with him in a later season, because it definitely needed addressing, from a feminist perspective. And it’s important for guys to learn that girls can actually take care of themselves.
Fun fact: When I was 14, I had a boyfriend who kinda looked like Ryan. If you squinted. (Or was drunk, which I was, fairly often. I can hear you tutting.)
When I was a teenager, I dreamed of being like Marissa Cooper. Although her antics outshine mine, I was once pretty different to the bookish, tea-drinking, cake-baking twenty-something I’ve grown into. From drug and alcohol abuse to family problems, violence to sexual assault, Marissa went through it all.
The damsel-in-distress theme did get a bit tedious, but I can’t really blame Marissa for going off the rails, and relying on the support of those around her to get back on them. I can certainly understand the desire to block everything out and escape from reality. I only wish I had such supportive friends around me when I was going through various issues.
The season 3 finale brought me to tears again this time around. Marissa received some harsh reviews from critics of the show, but I can’t help loving her. Like Ryan, I guess.
I realised something the other night, and it tickled me. I always wanted to be Marissa – above troubles notwithstanding – when I was a teenager; I had similar hair, wore similar clothes, and copied her make-up (confession: I still do that). Mischa Barton later starred in St Trinians, as a PR girl. Which I am now. (And I do wear glasses, but not because it makes me look smarter – I’m really bloody blind.)
In my younger years, I had quite the crush on Seth Cohen. I’m somewhat pleased to say that I recently saw Adam Brody in New Girl (which I love), and he is still pretty damn hot. I just can’t resist that shy, nerdy, socially awkward type, with curly hair and a taste for indie music (though my partner is absolutely nothing like that, more’s the pity).
I suppose I can relate to Seth so much more now than I could when I was younger. I’ve become something of a social outcast since I went to university, moving a couple of hundred miles away in the process. I stopped drinking, became a book reviewer, and started watching documentaries. I’ve drifted apart from a lot of my school friends, who still seem to think we’re 15, and haven’t quite gotten used to the idea that we can drink alcohol legally, and forged my own path in life, making new friends along the way. What I admire now about Seth is his strength. It may not immediately be apparent, but he sticks to his guns throughout the show, never deviating from his love of comic books or anime, never changing for anyone, despite the bullying he encounters. And that, my friends, takes some balls.
I have to say, Summer Roberts was always my least favourite character, especially in the earlier seasons. Her repeated use of the word “ew!” drove me up the wall, and did again this time around. But once she goes to college, she seems to grow as a person, and becomes a more well-rounded, likeable character.
Now I’m older, I can appreciate the influence your peers have on you. When I was at school, I still liked reading, but it wasn’t considered cool, so I put the books away and got the lipgloss out. But I still read books in private. I was a frequent visitor to the library, spending hours in there, or coming home with a small pile of books. I encountered several late fees because I didn’t want to part with them (and, since getting my own money, have acquired quite a substantial collection of books). It wasn’t until I grew up that I realised just how ridiculous it is to hide aspects of yourself in an attempt to be more popular. I don’t think it was a conscious decision for me to do so, but I guess everyone can be guilty of pretending to like something that everyone else does, or vice versa, at some point in their lives, in order to seem cool. I now know that what’s cool is being you.
The Cohens, the dream team. I love that, in this show, the parents aren’t just background noise, only there to thwart any crazy plans and embarrass their awesome children. They have their own lives, as real parents do, their own troubles, and their own story to tell. Kirsten’s struggle with alcoholism was an enlightening storyline, fraught with sadness and distress, but with a heartwarming theme too. Her relationship with her dad is also brilliantly executed, and one many of us can understand. Kirsten embodies the themes of dutiful daughter, loving wife and caring mother, but she’s also so much more than that – she’s a career woman, a sympathetic friend, a strong woman in every sense of the word.
Sandy is the guy who makes dad jokes, but is forgiven, if only because of his hilarious eyebrows. He brings a lot of comedy to the show, which I for one can appreciate. But he’s also an important role model. He shows young men that it isn’t about how much money you make, or being seen as the bread-winner; it’s about being happy in what you do. Having strong female role models is incredibly important, but the same can be said for male role models too. Sandy respects his wife, supports her, shows solidarity with her. He worked hard to get where he is, and he reaps the greatest reward of all – happiness.
Not only are Sandy and Kirsten the best parents anyone could wish for, but the Cohen’s relationship, though it isn’t always plain sailing, is one of equality, and that I like.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Julie and Jimmy Cooper. Julie came from a poor background, and made her way in the world the best she knew how. She’s portrayed as a gold digger, who loses interest in Jimmy as soon as he loses his money, and moves on to the next rich man she can get her hands on. This portrayal is important, because it teaches us not to judge people – though we may not agree with their behaviour, we don’t always know the full story. It isn’t until an old flame turns up and threatens Julie’s standing in the community with a porn video she made in her younger years that we truly understand her desire for the stability money brings. Although her relationships never seem to work out, I had high hopes for her and Dr Roberts, but it wasn’t to be.
Jimmy is a difficult character to describe. I like that the actor popped in for a few episodes after the character left in season 2, but I was also glad that he didn’t return for good. It’s not that Jimmy isn’t likeable, but it’s because he is, despite continuously getting into debt, and leaving his daughters without a constant father in their lives. I so wanted him to sail off into the sunset with Kirsten’s sister and live happily ever after. Sigh.
Taylor’s relationship with her mother is a difficult, complex one, portrayed brilliantly by Autumn Reeser. In season 4, when Taylor becomes a more regular character and falls into a coma alongside Ryan, she finally tells her mother what she thinks of her – albeit, in an alternate universe. But this dream allows Taylor to take control of her relationship with her mother in real life – she has to accept that she simply doesn’t get on with her. Learning that blood isn’t always thicker than water can be a hard lesson to learn, and one I can very much relate to. Taylor also brings some comedy to the show, which is always appreciated.
Luke embodies the rich-guy-who-bullies-others-but-stops-when-he-gets-bullied-back trope, but he does it very well. When he and Ryan discover that Luke’s father is gay, the way Luke handles it – and appreciates Ryan’s discretion – changes him for the better. Faced with homophobia and ridicule, Luke stands by his father, moving away to live with him. And the reaction of the other characters – despite their initial shock and perhaps disgust at the fact that he was cheating on his wife, no matter who it was with – was also largely encouraging.
However, the amount of times the “gay dad” insult was used in season 4 when referring to Luke’s younger brothers, who befriend Kaitlin Cooper, got on my nerves, and seemed to overshadow the more positive response in earlier seasons.
Marissa’s younger sister (originally played by Shailene Woodley, which I did not know), with her bald pony, is in and out of the show, having been shipped off to boarding school. She comes back in season 3, all grown up, and very much her mother’s daughter. Kaitlin’s character never really grabbed me, though I can see why she might appeal. She’s wiser than Marissa, despite her younger years, and often has some good advice to offer.
Kirsten’s father was an oddly fascinating character. It’s a shame we didn’t get to learn more about his past, particularly his marriage to Kirsten’s mother (apart from Kirsten’s outburst just before Caleb died). It might have helped us understand him better. His treatment of Lindsay, his illegitimate child, was sad to watch, and really resonated with me, as he reminded me very much of a member of my own family, and his treatment of his children.
I liked Lindsay. She certainly got a bad deal, so she deserves a mention here. I’m glad she moved away with her mother and put her time in Newport behind her – it showed real maturity and strength of character. When she discovered that Caleb was her father, he really didn’t live up to her expectations, and treated her pretty poorly. Acknowledging that people aren’t always going to be who you want them to be is another important yet difficult lesson to learn.
Boo, hiss! (Sorry, sorry.) Kevin Volchock, murderer of Marissa Cooper. Volchock is another character I would have been interested in learning more about, because I enjoy grey characters. A nicer side was hinted at (like when he rents The Sound of Music because Marissa mentions that she likes it), but not fully explored, which is a shame.
The antithesis of Ryan, Trey burst into their lives in season 2. Trey finds it harder to keep out of trouble, which in turn causes no end of trouble for Ryan and the others. But the worst sin Trey commits is his attempted sexual assault on Marissa. I liked the way the show handled such a sensitive subject, with Marissa fighting Trey off and getting away. And although Ryan goes to kill Trey when he finds out what happened (the “Atwood saves the day” theme), it is Marissa who shoots Trey, ending the fight and, in some ways, taking back control.
Johnny was such a tragic character. A friend at Marissa’s new school, Johnny soon falls in love with Marissa, coming between her and Ryan. When his leg is broken after being hit by a car, Johnny can’t afford the operation he desperately needs, and initially resists the efforts of Marissa to help him out. This rich vs poor theme is poignant, particularly in the US, highlighting the importance of affordable healthcare for all. Sadly, after allowing them to raise the money for his operation, Johnny died by falling off a cliff while drunk.
Anna is another great minor character. Smart, beautiful, and with funky hair, she’s the opposite of Summer in some ways, and yet so similar in others. I like that they managed to build something of a friendship, despite the love triangle with Seth. As mentioned before, seeing strong women on TV is very important for young women, and Anna is indeed a strong woman – she’s confident, sure of herself, and never afraid to speak her mind. Qualities we should all take to heart.
So, that’s it, my thoughts on The O.C., over a decade after I first watched it. As you can see, I still adore the show, and covet the DVD boxset so I can watch it over and over again, for decades to come.
Halfway through season 4, I discovered that eight novelisations of the series were published. I immediately ordered the first three. I may do another post with my thoughts on them, and how they stand up next to the show. You’re waiting with baited breath, I know.
All four seasons of The O.C. are currently available on Amazon Prime Instant Video.