The first scene of Fox teen drama The O.C. is tense, gritty, and filmed with a shaky urgency as young Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie), a kid from the wrong side of the tracks that run through Chino, California, reluctantly joins his fuck-up older brother in stealing a car, fleeing from police, crashing, and getting arrested. It’s a striking opening, even more so because this style of filmmaking is almost completely absent from the rest of the series — not because the creators drop the ball, but because that kind of anxiety is not compatible with the fantasy story they’re trying to tell.
And The O.C. is a fantasy. Ryan is sprung from juvie by his schlubby public defender, Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher). After a fight with his mother and her brutish boyfriend, Ryan is kicked out of his house. With nowhere else to go, he calls Sandy for help, whereupon he learns that the underpaid P.D. is in fact rolling in it, driving a BMW and living in a Newport Beach mansion. Turns out his wife Kirsten (Kelly Rowland) is the second in command of a real estate empire founded by her father (Alan Dale, in the Alan Dale role). But the fantasy isn’t Ryan’s — it’s actually Sandy’s son Seth’s (Adam Brody). Seth is a nerdy comic book geek with an unrequited crush on the beautiful Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson), who doesn’t know he exists. But worst of all, Seth has inherited his father’s condescending superiority to the shallow lives of his Newport neighbors. That’s ok for Sandy, who gets to go downtown for work every day. But it isolates Seth. And this is where the fantasy comes in — even from their first scene, McKenzie and Brody have a believably fraternal chemistry. Within the first few episodes, Ryan will move in and join the Cohen family. And sure, Ryan’s newfound security (emotional as well as financial) is beyond his wildest dreams. But the fantasy is even more palpable with Seth, because within a day of Ryan coming to stay with the Cohens, Seth has been invited to his first teen party, has gone to his first beach bonfire, and has taken his first punch.
During The O.C.’s first season the line on the show was that every episode featured a party and every party ended in a fight. This is an exaggeration, but not a wild one. In the first episode, Ryan (and Seth) are attacked by Luke, captain of the water polo team (Chris Carmack, playing lunkhead to the hilt with the famous line “Welcome to the O.C., bitch!”), because Luke thinks Ryan is moving in on his girl, Mischa Barton as Marissa Cooper (oh, Luke, you have no idea). Later in the season, we will see Ryan get in many fights, because the character has a very highly developed sense of justice. And he doesn’t let polite convention stop him when someone mistreats Marisa, threatens Seth, insults Sandy, sucker punches Marissa’s embezzling father, or decides to shoot Luke. But the base of the show is not all the mayhem (even though it is pretty funny when someone takes a haymaker and ends up falling into the infinity pool). The reason we tuned in every week (or, in my case, binged the show while on paternity leave) was to watch the Cohens (including Ryan) support each other. At one point when Ryan gets in trouble (for burning down a house? for getting Luke shot? for stealing a car? for getting arrested? Who can remember — it was a busy first season) he apologizes and offers to move out. It’s at this moment that Kirsten and Sandy are confronted with just how much need this kid has at his core. He’s never had a place, or a family, that he knew he could rely on even when he did screw up.
The other half of the equation is Barton as wild child Marissa. She and Atwood also have an intense chemistry from the jump, and much of the plot of the early episodes is the two of them circling around each other despite Marissa’s boyfriend and dragon-lady mother Julie (Melinda Clarke) keeping them apart. Barton isn’t exactly the world’s greatest thespian (for that matter, neither is McKenzie), but both of them are very good at playing wounded when the moment calls for it. Unfortunately, once Luke is out of the way in episode seven (Marissa catches him macking on another girl in Tijuana so she gets drunk and overdoses on pills — this is different than my own high school experience), the show has to find ways to keep Marissa and Ryan apart for the next twenty episodes of the first season. The solution is poor little rich psychopath Oliver Trask (Taylor Handley — 20 years later, I still don’t know if creator and comics fan Josh Schwartz named Oliver after X-Men villain Bolivar Trask on purpose or if it snuck out of his subconscious). Marissa takes to wounded puppy Oliver out of the same openness that allowed her to make room in her heart for Ryan. There’s an interesting reversal where Ryan is now the only one to mistrust the strange outsider while the other characters rally around him, but the subplot just goes on too long and it works to divide the main group (Ryan, Seth, Marissa, and Summer), who are always more interesting the more screentime they share.
The show successfully course-corrects in the last several episodes of the season, however, by introducing a love triangle where we care about all three of the principles. This is a device the show already used in the middle of the season, featuring Samaire Armstrong as Anna, a rival love interest for Seth. Now the show reintroduces Ryan’s hometown ex Theresa (Navi Rawat). And smartly, Theresa and Marissa bond; Marissa even shelters with Theresa when she runs away from her overbearing mother. Unlike with Luke or Oliver, we care if Theresa gets the short end of the stick, strengthening the dramatic tension.
And the show manages to maintain this tension through the end of the first season. The show never reached these melodramatic highs again — Schwartz and the writers made a conscious effort to tone down the fights and spectacle in the second season, replacing it with more traditional teen drama. (Well, it’s still The O.C. — Ryan’s new girlfriend does turn out to be Kirsten’s secret sister.) The third season was a pale retread of the first, and while the short fourth season returned some verve to the show (along with a strong turn by new cast member Autumn Reeser and a recurring Chris Pratt), the writing was on the wall. At least the show goes out with a strong final episode that covers several years, allowing us to get a taste of the characters’ future and showing how that selfless act of Sandy’s in the first episode resounds along the years. You could do worse.