While Alex’s first major solo project under the Tim+Alex banner concerns one of the fundamental pillars of modern pop culture, I’ve chosen something that, while perhaps not the opposite of that, is certainly diagonal from it. I’m going to be revisiting The OC, a teen drama that ran for four seasons about 15 years ago, and that is now primarily remembered for launching the career of the guy who plays Young Commissioner Gordon on Gotham and its insanely catchy theme song.
Why The OC? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself as I say down to begin this project. It’s a show I have fond memories of, certainly, but it wasn’t something that I watched religiously, certainly not past season one. The show is neither an underappreciated one season gem that was ignored at the time, nor a cultural behemoth that is still revered. It came, it kick-started the careers of some young actors, revived those of some older ones, and then it left after the appropriate amount of time. It’s not exactly crying out for a critical reappraisal. Yet here we are.
Perhaps it’s an age thing. The OC arrived roughly halfway through my life as it currently stands, and when it began showing, I was around the same age as the core cast of teenagers. Ryan, Marissa, Summer and Seth were my peers, even though their lives in no way reflected mine. In much the same way that I used to use Buffy The Vampire Slayer as a yardstick to measure my own teen accomplishments, The OC was a window into a life both similar and foreign at the time.
Perhaps it’s a legacy thing. You can draw a pretty clean line from ur-Glossy Teen Drama Beverly Hills 90210 to The OC, via Dawson’s Creek, and then beyond to One Tree Hill, Pretty Little Liars and other contemporary shows. While they share many commonalities (people in their mid-20s playing teens, aspirational settings, overblown drama), each iteration of this basic type has evolved the form, to the point where we now have the David Lynch-infused Americana of Riverdale. The OC’s own particular spin was self-awareness – no other show was so willing to comment on its own genre tropes, nod toward pop culture, and generally hang lampshades on things.
Whatever the reason, I have thrown my hat over this particular wall, so let’s take a look at the first episode, right back where we started from…
Revisiting the first episode, the thing that struck me most was how little really happens. Contemporary teen dramas have pulled in more and more storytelling tools from other genres, to the point that it’s now hard to think of a teen show that doesn’t start off with a death in the first episode. By comparison, “The Pilot” is practically a mumblecore affair. Ryan does a crime. Ryan meets Sandy. Sandy brings him home. Ryan encounters the rest of the cast, stirring things up among the wealthy of Orange County. Ryan and Seth get into a fight with some rich boys. Ryan goes home, only to find home is not there.
With 44 minutes of runtime to fill up, that means we’ve got plenty of space for characterisation and dialogue, which is where the show really shines. Many of the characters are still archetypes and sketches at this point, largely due to the nature of pilot episodes, but Ryan, Sandy and Seth are all deftly drawn, and we get enough of Kirsten, Marissa and Summer for them to carry out their roles and entertain, even if they are rather two-dimensional in this episode.
Ryan, and Benjamin McKenzie’s performance, is worth drawing particular attention to. The ‘bad boy with a heart of gold’ archetype is so well worn that I can only imagine the number of terrible versions of this role the casting directors had to watch. McKenzie manages to infuse Ryan with enough self-consciousness and confusion that it occasionally leaks through his façade of cool, which humanises him greatly. There’s a great moment of awkwardness after his “Whoever you want me to be” line that stops it from crossing over into full-blown camp, and suggests depth far beyond the rather hackneyed ‘kid from the wrong side of the tracks gets in trouble’ plot that he goes through in the pilot.
Moving beyond Ryan – and listen, I’m going to make a sincere effort to not let this turn into the Peter Gallagher Appreciation Column, but – have you seen his eyes? He’s so dreamy! He’s a font of charisma, he opens his house up to America’s troubled youth, and he looks damn good in a pair of surf shorts. Sandy and Seth are clearly the characters that show creator Josh Schwartz is most interested in writing for, and whenever they are speaking, the pilot is at its best, even if Seth’s antics now come across less as endearingly nerdy and more whining pissbaby.
Seth’s manic energy and glee at finally having a companion in the form of Ryan is palpable, and Sandy’s far more relaxed demeanour makes for a compelling portrait of a father and son who share many traits, but are made distinct by the ease that comes only with age and experience. In fact, while Kirsten doesn’t get a huge amount more to do in this episode than be extremely WASPy, it’s very easy to see aspects of both his parents in Seth. In contrast, Ryan’s relative sensitivity and restraint, given what we see of his home life in Chino, feels like a miracle.
As mentioned earlier, the female characters get pretty short shrift in “The Pilot”, and are largely viewed through their interactions with the male characters, rather than existing as characters in their own right. (For more examples of the patriarchy in action, compare the outfits of the male and female extras once we arrive at the house party). One of the few Bechdel-passing moments we do get is when Marissa and Summer compare their stolen booze haul, and their teenage glee does actually feel like a genuine moment, even if it’s coloured with the soap opera melodrama of Marissa’s burgeoning drinking problem.
Julie Cooper, who will go on to be generally amazing, is also barely there in the pilot, although she certainly makes an impact in her boobtastic leather dress and pink sweatsuit (is that velour?). And hey, it’s future teen drama star Shailene Woodley as Kaitlin Cooper 1.0!
The OC might not be great at women, and it’s certainly not breaking barriers when it comes to representation for people of colour (episode count: Steve Pearlman the SEC agent and an unnamed PA at the fashion show), but it does attempt to tackle class, something that most American shows typically shy away from. The distinction between Chino and Orange County is starkly drawn, and the show is hardly making nuanced observations at this point, but I’m intrigued how this thread will play out as the show continues, or whether any commentary will get lost amid the aspirational production values.
So, at the end of “The Pilot”, what do we have? The friendship between Ryan and Seth seems well established, having swiftly gotten past Seth’s shitty tantrum at seeing Summer flirt with Ryan. Their relationship is one of the most endearing parts of the show, and already their dynamic seems to be shaping up, as Seth’s enthusiasm (he takes Ryan sailing! He gives him a map as a token of their time together!) bounces off Ryan’s prickliness. In contrast, this episode makes Summer seems like a really crappy friend to Marissa, dumping her passed out on her driveway. Not cool, Summer!
Beyond that core relationship and Sandy’s general awesomeness, “The Pilot” doesn’t exactly hit the ground at full speed. The fallout of Ryan’s crime has barely been touched on, let alone the consequences of his mother’s disappearance.
Perhaps it’s just a function of the way television has changed over the past 15 years, but the lack of plot really stands out. That said, it gives us plenty of unresolved issues to dig into next episode, before we even start diving deeper into Jimmy Cooper’s problems with the SEC, and Ryan and Marissa’s smouldering chemistry…
Captain Oats’ Napkin Notes
- Trey is very concerned about passing on to his brother his secret knowledge of smashing windows with tire irons
- This episode, along with 1.2, was directed by Doug Liman, who also directed Swingers, Go, The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow. He’s an executive producer for the first couple of seasons
- Ben McKenzie is not very convincing as a smoker. Mischa Barton is.
- The Cohens have a maid named Rosa and the Coopers have a dog named Dustin. Both will have disappeared without a trace by the end of the season.
- Luke’s Jeep appears to be about the size of the house I live in
- The show was originally going to be called Orange County, but wanted to avoid associations with the Colin Hanks/Jack Black film that had come out the previous year. This didn’t stop them from picking Phantom Planet’s “California” for the theme tune, which also plays over Orange County’s closing credits.