Welcome back to Welcome Back to The OC. We’re well into Season One of The OC now, but some of the series’ most iconic elements are still being introduced, whether that’s Orange County’s reigning patriarch Caleb Nichol, or a drama-filled trip south of the border for our four teen protagonists…

1.6: “The Girlfriend”

Given that it was 15 years ago, I hope I can be forgiven for certain aspects of The OC fading from my memory – for example, I’m not sure exactly when I stopped watching the show, and I’m sure as we get further into the series, there will be more and more elements I don’t remember from my first viewing. But one figure that always looms large in my recollections of the show is that of Caleb Nichol, and his arrival in this episode almost immediately adds a charge to the whole series, forcing our now-established characters into uncomfortable places.

Alan Dale was best known to British viewers as Jim from Neighbours, an Australian soap opera that was big in the UK during the late ’80s and ’90s. After leaving the show in 1993, Dale moved to the US to avoid being typecast, and 2003 saw him launched back into prominence with two roles – Caleb Nichol, and Vice President Jim Prescott in 24. He became a mainstay of that sort of primetime network drama for a while, popping up in regular roles in Ugly Betty, Lost, Entourage and more. Almost always a stern patriarch, he’s perfectly suited to the role of Caleb, whose conservative brusqueness clashes almost immediately with Sandy’s laid-back liberalism.

Of course, Caleb doesn’t arrive by himself. His girlfriend Gabrielle enters the picture in what has to be an homage to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and immediately sets about flirting with Ryan. The actress is actually the same age as Benjamin McKenzie and Adam Brody, and obviously closer to them in terms of age than she is to Caleb (leading to several moments where the cast basically splits into the grown-ups’ and kids’ tables) but Ryan is still meant to be a minor and around 16 at most here, so having the soft porn soundtrack kick in when they start fooling around in the pool house is deeply uncomfortable.

There’s a nice ambiguity to the episode title this time around. While the most obvious reading is that Gabrielle is “The Girlfriend”, it could also refer to Marissa, who is back with Luke following his injury last episode. Full credit to Chris Carmack in their first scene together, because his performance as Luke is overflowing with “My life was put at risk and now I want to bone” subtext. Sure enough, by the episode Marissa and Luke have done the deed, prompted by her witnessing Ryan in flagrante with Gabrielle. And hey, for such a douchey meathead, Luke actually displays a solid grasp of consent when it comes to having sex, even if Marissa is clearly having second thoughts afterwards.

Luke isn’t the only one showing a little emotional intelligence in this episode, with Seth clearly aware of the weird energy at the family dinner, and challenging Caleb on his “outdated cowboy speak”. His and Summer’s relation takes a step forward this episode, with her acting as his date to Caleb’s party, and the pair sharing their first kiss. While Seth’s frustration at Summer dragging him round while she flirts with young executives (and shows off some pretty advanced knowledge of the corporate world) is fair, his little speech during the build-up to the kiss veers awfully close to “I fancy you so I deserve your attention”. That said, I think the script just about manages to avoid this stumbling block, and the kiss itself is actually a very sweet moment.

As mentioned at the start, the introduction of Caleb brings out some new wrinkles to character dynamics, mostly in terms of Kirsten and Sandy. This is probably to worst we’ve seen Sandy act so far – our too-cool-for-school lawyer dad clearly rankled by the appearance of Caleb and everything he represents, he reacts by pushing Kirsten hard for the alternative. He pretty much steamrollers over her own thoughts and feelings about her father and quits for job for her before realising what a dick he’s being. Thankfully, he tamps down his behaviour and apologises before the episode is over, allowing him to resume his position as Best Human. While Caleb and Kirsten also get a moment of bonding towards the end of the episode, it’s clear their relationship isn’t so easily managed, and his patronising and distant behaviour will continue to hang over her.

In previous coverage I’ve hoped for more commentary from the show on the incredible wealth the characters live in, and how class informs relationships and opportunities. As well as the obvious source of drama that he represents, Caleb allows the show to dig into that area a little more. While the Cohens and the Coopers are both broadly liberal in their politics from what we’ve seen (albeit that specific flavour of white, wealthy liberal), Caleb is older and conservative. He has no patience for Ryan’s hard upbringing or Seth’s more artistic, slightly softer masculinity. While the Cohens may enjoy the money they’ve accumulated, he is the one who is in control of that wealth. This contrast between the three generations will hopefully unlock some more examination of Newport Beach’s different levels of class, and how they interact.

1.7: “The Escape”

Speaking of aspects that loom large in my recollections of The OC, our main quartet’s trip to Tijuana is another that stands out whenever I think of the series. While Sandy and Kirsten get a minor subplot and Jimmy obviously figures into Marissa’s storyline, it’s the first time the Core Four not only take over the majority of the episode, but are also isolated from adult supervision. With that extra space afforded to them, they of course get into a car accident and overdose on painkillers while staying in a foreign country.

This is also the first OC episode where I can actually speak to the show’s realism from personal experience, having visited Tijuana around four years after the characters. While I think Marissa’s verdict (“It’s kind of gross there”) is a lot more accurate than Luke’s (“It’s going to be so romantic”), and Tijuana is not a place I’d recommend anyone visit, I think the show actually exaggerates its griminess considerably. The Tijuana I visited resembled a sort of low-rent Disneyland designed by a horny 15 year-old boy. Then again, I was in a large tour group that didn’t really venture off the main street, so perhaps Marissa et al were exploring its seedier back alleys. The bar Marissa ends up in is certainly far more quiet than you’d expect one to be on the last weekend before school starts.

I think the less realistic portion of the episode actually occurs before they even reach Tijuana. My knowledge of cars is extremely limited, but wrecking the axle on the Cohen SUV feels a little bit like overkill for what seemed to be a very gentle accident, and given that they’re essentially driving from Orange County to San Diego, I sincerely doubt the disgusting motel they end up with would have been their only option. Maybe they were all just trying to save money, rather than pitching in for a Red Roof Inn or something?

Enough about realism – we’re here for the drama and the laughs, and this episode is certainly brimming with both. After their kiss in the previous episode, Seth and Summer are thrust together and almost instantly fall into ‘old marrieds’-style bickering, complete with them swapping the Saturday supplements as they eat breakfast together. While the speed with which they shift to this dynamic feels a little force, both Adam Brody and Rachel Bilson sell it well, and their combativeness makes a welcome change to Ryan and Marissa’s high drama.

Speaking of Marissa, she’s dealing with her on-again off-again relationship with Luke, her attraction to Ryan (and the fallout from seeing him and Gabrielle together), plus her parent’s self-destructing marriage. Bundle all those pressures together, many of which feed into and off of each other, and it’s no wonder that she spirals out of control in this episode. We’ve already seen glimpses of Marissa having issues with alcohol in “The Pilot”, and with even less supervision to rein her in, some non-prescription painkillers get added into the mix.

While finding Luke may be the event that triggers Marissa’s binge, it feels like the confirmation of her parents’ divorce is the much bigger factor. Luke and Marissa have been on-again and off-again since Ryan appeared on the scene, and it doesn’t seem like he was the greatest boyfriend even before that. The pair of them sleeping together was definitely a step forward, but it doesn’t seem like it swayed Marissa particularly in either direction, nor does it seem to be weighing on her mind. Her father’s departure, in contrast, feels like a big deal, and thanks to Jimmy Cooper being a monstrously self-centred and shitty father, the news of the Coopers’ divorce gets broken to Marissa in pretty much the worst possible way.

One positive development from this episode is that we get a clearer picture of Summer’s friendship with Marissa, as well as some general development for a character that so far has been pretty lightly sketched. We discover her parents are already divorced, which certainly factors into her (actually pretty good) advice to Marissa on how to deal with Jimmy and Julie splitting, and unlike in “The Pilot”, she doesn’t simply abandon the passed-out Marissa on her driveway. This was apparently the episode that confirmed to the showrunners that Rachel Bilson should be made a regular cast member. Between the additional insights we get into her character (rage blackouts etc) and her snappy rapport with Seth, we can clearly see the writers giving Bilson more to work with than the rather two-dimensional role she started out with.

While Marissa’s drinking binge is obviously a serious issue, especially when combined with who-knows-what pills, it doesn’t feel too overblown or unrealistic when it comes to the sort of mistakes a teenager could make in Tijuana. While my own behaviour there was relatively restrained, our guide group did encounter a couple of American teens who were so drunk they could barely stand, and had to be accompanied back to the border crossing. I can’t remember too much about how the next episode plays out, but it’s clear that there are going to be repercussions from everyone’s actions here, from Seth skipping San Diego Comic-Con to Marissa’s blackout booze session.

Next time: The Tijuana trip results in an ultimatum from Julie and therapy for Marissa, and our teens finally go to school, with all the fresh drama that entails…

Captain Oats’ Napkin Notes

  • Summer talking about The Fast and The Furious being based on real life seems like a joke, but the first film actually was based on an article about underground racing in New York City, published in Vibe magazine.
  • “Caleb Nichol is like the Donald Trump of the West” – a compliment that has aged pretty badly
  • Ryan is listening to what appears to be a first generation iPod in “The Girlfriend”.
  • We get the first mention of Hailey, Kirsten’s sister, in “The Girlfriend”. She’ll eventually show up in the latter half of the season.
  • As someone who never really rebelled as a teen, Seth’s speech about having “my entire life of never doing anything wrong which lulls my parents into a false sense of security” certainly felt familiar.
  • Seth prepares a 12-page itinerary for a two day trip to Tijuana. Given that level of over-preparedness, the fact they end up in pair of really crummy motels feels especially forced.
  • According to Summer, Death Cab for Cutie consist of “one guitar and a whole lot of complaining”. Speaking as a Death Cab fan, she’s not exactly wrong.
  • The two couples, back to back in their motel beds, is a really nice shot. Sandford Bookstaver, who directed “The Escape”, only does two more episodes of The OC, but went on to become a veteran of US television directing, working on Bones, House, Revenge, White Collar, Chicago Fire and Power, among others.
  • The club where Marissa discovers Luke and Holly is called Boom Boom, apparently. While there doesn’t appear to be a nightclub with that name in Tijuana itself, there’s a Club Boom Boom in Rosarito, around 40 minutes’ drive away, so perhaps the trip to Mexico was more firmly rooted in reality than I thought.
  • Seth’s Longbox: Just one comic makes an appearance in this pair of episodes: Azrael: Agent of the Bat vol 1 #95, which Ryan is reading when Gabrielle shows up to put the moves on him.
  • POCOC (People of Colour of Orange County): No speaking roles for anyone other than white folks in these two episodes, although some surly Mexican dudes get to stare threateningly at drunk Marissa. Not great representation.