After dissecting the pilot episode in the inaugural edition of Welcome Back to The OC, it’s time for us to slip into the comfortable pink tracksuit that will be our regular publication rhythm, taking in two episodes every month. This time, after the noticeably plot-light pilot, events start to heat up – quite literally in some cases…

1.2: “The Model Home”

As mentioned above, The OC’s pilot episode felt relatively sparsely plotted compared to more contemporary teen soaps, which have often had a dead body appear before the first ad break. In a lot of ways, “The Model Home” feels less like the second episode and more like the back half of a double-length pilot. Many of the beats are similar to the pilot (Ryan and Seth’s brotherly bonding, Ryan and Marissa’s angst-filled Romeo & Juliet-ing, punching rich kids, adult drama hovering in the background) but they build to a much bigger climax involving fights, fire and arrests, instead of the downbeat ending of an abandoned home.

As well as reinforcing the dynamics of the pilot episode, “The Model Home” also serves to introduce some of the ideas that I think of as quintessentially OC – Ryan and Seth sitting around in inflatable chairs in the pool, hushed conversations being overheard in cavernous McMansions, and of course, the ongoing saga of China the Pony’s alopecia. The episode could serve as a template for the standard season one episode, while also continuing the work of establishing the characters.

With Ryan, Seth and Sandy all fairly well established in the pilot, “The Model Home” puts a lot more attention on Marissa. I’m not gonna lie – a lot of Marissa’s characterisation comes across as a man trying to create a rounded teenage girl without really knowing what that looks like, and part of me would love to see what a version of The OC with a more gender-balanced writing room looked like. In particular, while I can definitely see Seth being a fan of On The Road, I feel like Marissa would either be terminally bored by it, or see straight through Kerouac’s bullshit. She certainly does some worthwhile and much-needed cutting through Seth’s superiority complex.

All that said, the episode does a decent job of portraying a young woman trapped by expectations and fighting to break free in any way she can. It’s not quite enough to make me buy the scene between her and Ryan at the end of the episode. But if we presume we’re viewing it through a lens of teenage magnification, I can understand her desire to grab onto him as a beacon of honesty in a world layered with deception and performance. That doesn’t excuse telling Ryan that Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” reminds her of him though, not even back in 2003.

While Marissa gains a few layers in this episode, the same cannot be said for Summer, who between this episode and the next still seems mainly to exist to stand around in her bikini/bra/low-cut dress. It’s disappointing to see a character I remember so fondly so reduced at the beginning of the series, but I hold out hope she’ll get some decent development quickly, and more closely remember the version of Summer I have in my head. Her birthday tiara is on point, though.

Speaking of excellent fashion choices, lets turn our eyes to the adults, and Sandy’s wonderful, almost The Dude-esque deployment of pyjamas throughout the episode. With his extra-casual casualwear and relaxed, twinkle-eyed charm, Sandy is leaning hard into ‘cool dad’ vibes, which leaves Kirsten to take up the role of both ‘responsible parent’ and ‘drama instigator’. Her clandestine dealings with Jimmy serve to add a few tangles to the swiftly developing quadrangle that is the Cohen and Cooper parents.

Her role here is important, helping to set up future conflict and ensure that as many people as possible are caught in the potential fallout, but it also has the unfortunate side effect of making her far less sympathetic than Sandy at this early stage in the series. Luckily, Josh Schwartz et al appear to have clocked this, and episode three seems determined to claw back some audience affection for Kirsten. Speaking of which…

1.3: “The Gamble”

Following the blaze at the end of “The Model Home”, Ryan’s back in jail, and after positively dawdling through its plot points in the first two episodes, The OC decides to slam the accelerator down. Not only do we get advancements regarding Jimmy’s money troubles, the Cooper/Cohen love rhombus and Ryan’s status with the Cohens, but Ryan’s mother returns, only to once again leave him by the episode’s end.

But before we dive into all of that – hey, it’s Weevil from Veronica Mars! Francis Capra doesn’t exactly get a lot to do here, especially compared to his nuanced performance in Veronica Mars, but it’s enough for me to summarily declare that The OC and Veronica Mars happen in the same universe.

Beyond a guest appearance from everyone’s favourite PCH biker, Ryan’s time in jail is mainly used for him to demonstrate the slowly-thawing bond between him and Kirsten. Which, after he stands up to proto-Weevil for her, is enough for her to bring him home and official make Ryan…the Cohen’s foster child I guess? They’re not particularly forthcoming on the details, but it’s all very heartwarming all the same.

While in juvie, we also get a little taste of some class commentary, as Luke gets out quickly while Ryan languishes in a cell, but the show doesn’t seem particularly interested in pursuing that angle, focusing on how it’s more to do with Luke having a family that is there to receive him than on any institutional biases. Unfortunately, the shadow of Veronica Mars, which was happy to delve into the class divides prevalent in Southern California, hangs heavy here. Again I find myself wishing the show was just a shade more ambitious when it came to tackling the inequalities hiding behind its sun-kissed setting.

The show is willing to focus its critical lens on certain aspects of Orange County life, however, and in this episode it aims to skewer the hypocrisy of the town’s gossip-hungry socialites, personified by Julie Cooper. While the relentless background chatter and stretched truths surrounding Ryan’s presence in the town feel broadly accurate, this plot thread left the uncomfortable aftertaste of misogyny in my mouth, due to its tight focus on women as the only ones talking behind people’s backs. I mentioned above how this episode attempts to endear Kirsten more to us, but it mainly does that as holding her up as the one exception to the stereotype of the entitled Newport Beach housewife – hardly a great way to elevate your female characters.

It’s a sign of how much this episode squeezes in that I haven’t even gotten to Ryan’s mum Dawn yet, and while I’m happy the show has started pushing forward with plot developments, I think it’s a shame she’s discarded so quickly. I realise that, in order to establish the dynamic the show wants, she’s a question that needs to be answered then swiftly shuffled off, but as another outsider to Orange County, she’s a different perspective, an adult one that quickly establishes a fun rapport with Ryan, Sandy and Kirsten.

Daphne Ashbrook, who people of a similar age and nerdiness may remember from the ’90s Doctor Who TV movie, does a lot with relatively little, painting a sympathetic portrait of a women who genuinely loves her son but can’t hold her life together enough to take care of him. She and Ben McKenzie demonstrate a great uneasy tension in their early scenes, and watching them together during Casino Night feels like a wonderful insight into what their life was like together during better times. Also, she knows how to card count like a pro, which seems to imply a fascinating background for the character which we never get a chance to explore.

Of course, by the end of the party, Dawn is a drunken mess, and it’s only to long before she’s headed off, presumably to rehab or some other form of recovery. Her conversation with Kirsten at the end of the episode feels like another attempt to frame Kelly Rowan’s character in a more sympathetic light, but in a much more positive way, by building her up rather than tearing down other characters. And it serves as just the push Kirsten needs to fully accept Ryan into the family.

Next time: Cotillion, the Crab Shack, Jimmy’s financial mistakes come to light, and a certain Miss Stern arrives in Newport Beach…

Captain Oats’ Napkin Notes

  • Seth’s essentials for Ryan’s potential squatting life: golf putting practice set.
  • Marissa’s essentials for Ryan’s potential squatting life: loofah, Kiel’s cucumber moisturiser, mix CD, toilet roll.
  • Squatting supplies of unknown provenance: pop tent, Ramones poster, enough candles to swiftly start a fire.
  • When it comes to my own teenage years, Ryan on a BMX accompanied by Marissa on stunt pegs and Seth on a skateboard is a lot more relatable than Luke’s tank of an SUV.
  • Confirmed: Summer and Luke smoke that good good kush.
  • Marissa’s punk credentials are pretty strong, but I’d have loved if she was more of a riot grrl aficionado.
  • Seth is reading Batman Vol 1 issue 616 in “The Gambler”, part nine of the Hush storyline. I can buy that.
  • Love the subtle gag of Julie Cooper saying that the “big, strong, strapping men” can tackle the heavy lifting, then cutting to Seth… filling balloons.
  • Luke seems to have settled into a place of uneasy tension rather than outright hostility by the end of “The Gambler”, but is still maintaining an unfortunate line in homophobic abuse. Hopefully, upcoming plot developments will put paid to that…
  • I really like Seth’s t-shirt which says “True Love” under a picture of a burger. I know that feel.
  • The music featured in the Casino Night (or is it Vegas Night?) scenes is “Sing Sing Sing (With A Swing)” by the Benny Goodman Orchestra. It really reminds me of The Mask, despite not actually featuring in the film.
  • Dawn drinks a 7 and 7, the same drink Ryan orders in “The Pilot”.
  • POCOC (People of Colour of Orange County): The cop who arrests Ryan and Luke; the delinquent formerly known as Weevil.

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