Revisited: The Five Best Episodes Of The O.C.
Let's remind ourselves of our fading mortality by reflecting on our all-time favourite episodes.
When I was just a fresh-faced undergrad, my local student watering hole, The Regatta Hotel in Toowong in Brisbane, would play episodes of The O.C. on a big screen. My memory of those nights is pretty hazy — because I was a student, and there was a not inconsiderable amount of alcohol involved — but I seem to recall deck chairs and fake palm trees, and a lot of annoyed shushing during key dramatic developments. It seems like ages ago now, but The O.C. — which aired on this day in 2003 — was once a very, very big deal.
The show, about a kid from the wrong side of the tracks finding his way in affluent Newport Beach, had all the expected elements of a teen drama: an attractive cast, a glamorous setting, and shocking plot twists aplenty. The writing, though, was sharp and self-aware in a way that no teen drama had truly attempted before. The dialogue was alive with riffs, gags and references, and TV nerds soaked it up. TV critic Nancy Franklin praised The O.C.’s pilot in her New Yorker column at the time; Duke University even taught a course in the show’s cultural influence.
For a brief period after the show’s 2003 debut, The O.C. wasn’t just a part of the mainstream — it defined the mainstream. Paris Hilton made a guest appearance, skewering her socialite persona at a time when she was the biggest and most inescapable tabloid star in the world. A whole genre of shows about the opulence of the California lifestyle launched off the back of The O.C., while meta-humour and self-mockery became the language of TV comedy. ‘Chrismukkah’ became a thing. The O.C. even mocked its own success via a show-within-a-show called The Valley.
That’s to say nothing of the show’s influence on music. In the wake of The O.C., the word ‘indie’ took on a new meaning: where once it described a means of distributing music independently, it came to define a genre of earnest guitar rock. Death Cab For Cutie became the poster boys for the sound — literally, Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) had a poster of the band’s 2003 album Transatlanticism on his bedroom wall. Similarly, The Walkmen, Modest Mouse and even The Killers passed through Newport Beach’s very own live music venue, The Bait Shop, on their way to fame and fortune.
Ten years on from that initial moment when public defender and stand-up guy Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher) welcomed the troubled Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie) into his family’s Newport Beach mansion, it’s hard to believe that this much time has passed, but reflecting on this milestone is a handy reminder that we’re all getting old and we’re all probably going to die pretty soon. Before we do, I went ahead and made a list of my top five episodes of the show. As you can see, the list is pretty heavily weighted towards Season 1, but that’s when the show was at its creative peak and where so many of its most memorable characters appeared (Oliver Trask, anyone?).
‘The Secret’ (Season 1, Episode 12)
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This episode from the midway point of Season 1 exemplifies everything that was great about the early days of The O.C., from the fast-paced plotting to Peter Gallagher’s comic timing, as seen in the excellent banter above. This is also the episode in which rivals Ryan and Luke (Chris Carmack) are reluctantly teamed up on a school project, only to walk in on Luke’s dad during a steamy make-out session with his male business partner. The show seldom got more dramatic.
‘The Best Chrismukkah Ever’ (Season 1, Episode 13)
Chrismukkah was Seth Cohen’s very own festive blowout, a made-up holiday that combined the best parts of his Jewish and WASP heritage. Such was the show’s popularity at the time that Chrismukkah became a meme unto itself, but this episode was also great for a lot of other reasons – for instance, Marissa Cooper’s (Mischa Barton) epic meltdown began here, when she was busted for shoplifting at South Coast Plaza, leading to her fateful meeting with Oliver Trask…
‘The Truth’ (Season 1, Episode 18)
Oh, Oliver. The O.C. shoehorned in this unbearably smug villain as an obstacle to Ryan and Marissa’s love, but Taylor Handley’s performance as the coked-out, unbalanced rich boy was so bad, it was actually wonderful. Marissa and Oliver’s relationship simmered for several episodes, through awkward golf trips and Rooney shows, before the epic flip-out in which he pulled a gun and held her hostage. Oliver and Marissa’s bad romance was Soap Opera Plotting 101, but the combination of seriousness and silliness made it totally work.
‘The L.A.’ (Season 1, Episode 22)
One of The O.C.’s more self-referential gags was a running joke in which Rachel Bilson’s Summer was obsessed with The Valley, an angsty teen drama series that essentially mirrored the one she was on. During a trip to L.A., Summer met the star of The Valley, an uber-creep played by Colin Hanks, who sleazes on her in the back of his SUV, and proves himself to be the anti-Seth Cohen. This episode also featured a bizarre guest spot from Paris Hilton, in what may be her best performance in anything, ever.
‘The Mallpisode’ (Season 2, Episode 15)
While there were great moments scattered throughout the later seasons of The O.C. (like Julie Cooper’s riches-to-rags-to-riches storyline), this episode from the midway point of Season 2 was one of the last that really made the most of the core four characters. Seth, Summer, Marissa and Ryan find themselves locked in a mall overnight, where they play hockey and have a slumber party, but trapped in close quarters, their various friendship dramas start to surface.
Julie Cooper’s Entire Relationship With Gus (Season 3, Various Episodes)
At her lowest point, rich bitch Julie Cooper (Melinda Clarke) found her funds tapped out and was forced to move in to a trailer park, where she found herself in a battle of wits against her inscrutable landlord, Gus (Sven Holmberg). Melinda Clarke was The O.C.’s secret weapon, bringing humour and humanity to her scheming, social-climbing character. Frankly, I would’ve watched an entire show solely about her living in a trailer.