About a week ago, the CW’s streaming platform, CW Seed, started streaming every episode of The OC. Josh Schwartz’s first show aired from 2003 to 2007, and its first season still evokes wistful odes about the practical perfection of its awesome zeitgeist-seizing power and unparalleled hipness from pop culture journalists. And far be it from me to argue with them: I came to the show late, stumbling on an all-day marathon of its first season on the embarrassingly-but-accurately-named SoapNet, and was immediately seduced by its shiny, Chanel-clad wiles. I spent probably seven hours holed up in my parents’ bedroom drinking in the antics of Ryan, Seth, Marissa, and Summer, not to mention the grown-up but still wacky charms of Sandy, Kirsten, Julie, and Jimmy. Later, in college, I bought the complete box set, which I still break out on rainy days (read: when I’m bored at home and my internet is down).
I was too young (or too culturally ignorant) to be on the 90210 bandwagon during its heyday, so I don’t totally understand why The OC was considered such a revelatory reimagining of the teen soap genre. But even without that knowledge, it’s incredibly impressive that Josh Schwartz, at just 26, created such a fully realized world, with its own language, wardrobe, and (most important) soundtrack that burned through plot faster than a super-dramatic meteor streaking through the atmosphere.
Granted, some things don’t hold up very well; there are some pretty now-insensitive LGBT plots, and the characters’ utter inability to just freaking be upfront with one another starts to feel more frustrating and more like wheel spinning with each rewatch. What’s just as good today as then, though, is the rhythm of the show and of the characters’ impossibly witty dialogue. Scenes of the Cohens standing around in their gorgeous kitchen swapping quips about Yogalates over bagels and schmear made me long for a family whose sense of humor and words-per-minute powers of speech were so perfectly in sync.
Nowhere would you find the inarticulate mumblings of My So-Called Life or Freaks and Geeks (Ryan’s inability to drop the L-bomb notwithstanding); nor would you get the overstudied, tongue-twisting SAT test of a Dawson’s Creek or the Wikipedia-breakingly thick pop culture references of a Gilmore Girls. The show introduced its own terms into the lexicon (Chrismukkah and minty, anyone?), and despite all the gun-waving, face-punching, overdose-taking, embezzling drama it packed in, it for the most part remained a sunny, funny show.
It’s also interesting to see how Schwartz and co. let the characters evolve over time. As Ryan, Ben McKenzie was probably the best of the “teen” actors, but Adam Brody is the natural scene stealer, his almost-manic Seth adding much-needed zip to scenes with the more taciturn Ryan.
Kirsten and Sandy were of course one of TV’s most perfect couples, but my favorite was always Melinda Clarke’s Julie Cooper-Nichol-almost-Cooper-again, who softened over the years from a manipulative witch into a loving, game mother so believably it made her season one evilness seem mostly just like well-intentioned overprotectiveness. Mischa Barton remained a pretty terrible actress but was one of the most beautiful criers on television, and her death at the end of season three at least gave the remaining cast some poignant material to work with.
Josh Schwartz went on to make Gossip Girl, another teen-centric soap that took over the zeitgeist like a particularly invasive form of algae. You can see all its hallmarks in The OC: the bon mots, the fabulous wealth, even the onscreen relationships echoing in real life. But though GG lasted six seasons to The OC‘s four, it’s not as beloved by people still as The OC was, because it lacked the California show’s warmth and heart. There was no shortage of OMG moments, but Gossip Girl‘s characters were beautiful and nasty, power hungry and mercenary. At the core of The OC is a tight-knit family who love one another even when they don’t understand one another, who stand by each other even when things get rough. At the core of Gossip Girl is the last Birkin bag Barney’s had in stock. The OC grounds all its over-the-top drama in characters we genuinely care about (not you, Oliver), and though both series ended with a big wedding, only Summer and Seth’s brought me dangerously close to (happy) tears.
So I’ll raise my Newport Beach iced tea to you, The OC; may you live on for many Chrismukkahs to come.