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Right Back Where We Started From: Rewatching All of the OC 10 Years Later

California, Here I Come.

California, Here I Come.

As everyone shoved down our throats the past few weeks, the 10th Anniversary of the OC has passed. And I had a miniature panic attack about it. Because I’m old now, and so is Ryan Atwood.

I think everyone has a show that they “grew up” with– my 2 older sisters had My So-Called Life and Dawson’s Creek and 90210– and with which they overidentified.  The OC was that for me– we entered sophomore year together (my best year of high school and the best season of the OC), we had a hellish and very confusing junior year together (Ryan and I both went into junior year with horrible haircuts. Although I didn’t have Marissa’s lesbian rocker phase), and after a senior year of emotionally distancing ourselves from friends, high school, and first loves, the OC and I graduated high school together. (And then had an existential crisis and got a year to pretend we were adults and try to get our lives on track.)

So when I sat down to rewatch the show I had once so loved, post-college jaded me was prepared for the OC to be much worse than I had remembered, but I anticipated I would still feel nostalgic affection for it. And Jaded Me (once again) was very very wrong. The OC is so much better than it has any right to be.

Hahahaha-- this goes out to my friend Heather, who snuck over to sit next to me during graduation. That ceremony was long, yo

Hahahaha– this goes out to my friend Heather, who snuck over to sit next to me during graduation. That ceremony was long, yo

Pathetic or not, rewatching the OC was concurrently like looking through a scrapbook and a time capsule– I got sentimental remembering high school touchstones the show brought up, and alarmed at how much things have changed. Being so of-the-moment and pop culture laden is a double edged sword I suspect–jokes and references that were fresh 10 years ago immediately date the OC. The “adorkableness” of Seth Cohen seemingly spawned the Man-Boy variation of the neurotic comedic Woody Allen type, which I hope at this point we can agree to be done with (sorry Seth Rogen, b/c I know this puts you in a rough spot). I once had such a crush on Seth Cohen, the snarky and smart and hotly neurotic Jewish wordsmith. Ryan Atwood, who i once saw only as annoyingly broody and violent, is so much more attractive now, with his quiet, emotionally closed off but so bighearted demeanor. Marissa, who I hated for being such a drag on the show, now stirs some kind of bizarre maternal/older sister instinct in me– she has such a talent for self-destruction and trouble and pain, I just want to save her from herself.  And Oh, Taylor Townsend, how I wish I had grown up to be you.

This is still a solid 1st kiss.

This is still a solid 1st kiss.

But I also remembered how exciting it was to get my first cell (I’m not 100% sure it even had an alarm clock. Definitely no camera) because Marissa had the same one. I was almost as excited by Marissa and Ryan’s first kiss on the Ferris Wheel as I was the first time I saw it, when my friends and I shrieked and jumped around as it happened. There are so many genuine bits of teenagedom here: the utter hopelessness of your bitchily unattainable first crush, the weird “Goodbye Forever!” quality of high school graduation, that time your girlfriend died and you became a cage fighter because you couldn’t deal with the pain. Ok, so it’s not all universal.

The flaws of the show were of course more apparent; TV has gotten much better in the past 10 years. Teen soap narratives really don’t hold up well, and there are lots of storylines I hated all over again: UGH Lindsay/Theresa/Johnny.  Marissa and Ryan’s relationship, for example, is ridiculous with its back and forth and forced drama, and it is to the credit of both actors (although hindsight makes me credit Benjamin McKenzie a bit more) that it was so well sold.  Seth and Summer are just as charming as ever, but Jaded Future Me doubts the sincerity of their love much more now– Seth’s deep love for a hot girl that treated him like shit (AND leaves her best friend drunk on the sidewalk in front of her house in the first episode) is a tad shallow. And the hell they put these teenagers through– your brother’s rape attempt on your girlfriend, pregnancy scares with the girl you don’t love, arrested parents– it feels a bit like Josh Schwartz was torturing Marissa Cooper and Ryan Atwood for fun.

But you can see the roots of all the best parts of current teen shows and the CW shows in The OC. Gossip Girl, naturally, has the most parallels, as Josh Schwartz’s 2nd teen zeitgeist juggernaut premiered only a year after the OC. Serena is a (surprisingly) less emotionally damaged and much more shallow Marissa Cooper, Lily van der Woodsen blends the self-involved villainry/skank past of Julie Cooper and the icy goodness and WASPiness of Kirsten Cohen. Blair has the razor wit, violent streak, and image obsession of Summer Roberts mixed with the Type A neuroses and intelligence of Taylor Townsend, godsend of The OC’s season 4. The OC’s self-referential, sharp humor and emotional investment in its romances is peppered all over Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, even Vampire Diaries, but none really reach the success of the OG Teen Show. The OC’s sharpness turns stabby in Gossip Girl, with all its characters so monumentally hateful that watching it in comparison to the OC is kind of like watching a Robert Rodriguez gritty remake of your favorite sitcom.  PLL is frankly too stupid and too desperate to compete, although PLL and Vampire Diaries both pace their stories so much better than the OC, which shot its wad plotwise in the overstuffed 27 episode pilot season. And the Vampire Diaries lies heavy on the melodrama and its violent supernatural premise, so any minute of wit that sneaks in is just precious relief. The archetypes are all here– The Brooding Hero, the Wounded Golden Girl, the Quirky/Snarky Sexpot, the Witty Geek/Outsider– but the OC managed to breathe some life into a very stale genre and characters. And of course it benefits from being the first to liberate teen shows from 90s earnestness and histrionics with something meta and adroit. Sure it beats the occasional dead horse, but The OC really has some alarmingly clever writing for a teen soap. They invented a whole show just to mock itself and its own popularity– don’t we all recall Summer’s obsession with “The Valley” and it’s Laguna Beach-like spinoff “Sherman Oaks: The Real Valley”? Colin Hanks was the Seth Cohen. Never forget.

That meta quality, gentle wit and snappiness undercuts the schmaltz and turns it into sweetness– the things that aren’t absurd still feel authentic. When I rewatched as Anna left Newport to move back to Pittsburgh and Seth runs to the airport to bid tearful goodbye to a friend who had been so good to him, I cried for a second time. The OC at its best was masterful at balancing its self-referential humor with melodrama, and the result is surprisingly stirring– it evokes the emotions it wants from you while simultaneously pointing and quietly laughing at it. And of course, the music is still phenomenal. Alexandra Patsavas is remarkable– I don’t know of a show that uses music more successfully with such a light hand. And its use of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” as Seth sails away from home and Ryan says goodbye to the Cohens and Marissa is THE BEST pop culture use of the song. Anyone who says differently is kidding themselves.

I am a completionist, so even though I was turned off by Season 2/3 as it aired, I forced myself to watch it off-and-on. The second time through, I was much more patient, and even liked story arcs I previously loathed, ie Oliver and Trey. And then came the light Season 4, which I unabashedly love. The show’s last season feels haunted by Marissa but also oddly free from her grasp–without Marissa’s giant baggage, The OC gets fun again. I read somewhere that a close watching of the entirety of the OC lets you watch Josh Schwartz and the show itself go through its own adolescence– it starts off fresh faced and exciting, gets mired down in its own (manufactured and otherwise) drama and damage, and then come out the other side realizing its mistakes and, though wounded, starts anew. Which makes its end particularly fitting. I wrote before about how I get really emotional at series finales, and the OC is a standout for me, if only for its last 10 minutes. In its closing montage, we see Seth and Summer’s wedding, an unanswered hint at Ryan and Taylor’s romantic future, the Cohens’ liberation from Newport, and other plots’ ends that one would only care about if they had stuck it out. And the whole thing ends as it started– Architect Ryan (congrats buddy!) leaves his work, he sees a troubled teenage boy abandoned and asks him if he needs help. The OC’s finale gives closure to the show’s narratives, but, as reflects real-life commencements, the end feels like a beginning.

So after 3 weeks of religiously rewatching a hammy but clever teen soap opera, here are the closing thoughts the OC stirred:

— Go ahead and feel free to love this show if you did. It’s so much better than most of the crap we watched/watch

–Ryan Atwood: SO MUCH HOTTER after all the nebbishy, self-involved sensitive nerds of college. Sorry, Seth Cohens of the world

–Marissa seems way less alcoholic to me now. That’s a little disconcerting. And don’t we all feel embarrassed that Summer Roberts got into Brown?

–Jimmy Cooper, World’s Worst Dad aside, the parents of The OC are way more involved and caring than teen shows now. Can you imagine Serena van der Woodsen being grounded? I think it’s one of the reasons The OC is manages to be the only relatable teen soap.

— Shoutout to The (previously) Unfamous OC cameos/guest stars: Stefan Salvatore (Thug Donny and your mad honeys!), Aria from PLL, Hanna from PLL, Mona from PLL, Olivia Wilde, Chris Brown (you were awful), Jamie King, Nikki Reed, Andy Dwyer, Shailene Woodley, Jess Brody from Homeland, etc.

–To (a solid 50% of) my high school friends– I miss you more than I’m ever willing to admit to you in person. And all it took to realize it was watching roughly 70 hours of The OC.


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