TV

Why ‘The O.C.’ Is Worth More Than Just Nostalgia

Like Marissa Cooper, The O.C. was incredibly pretty and popular and underestimated — there’s much more going on under the surface.

Ready to feel older than a grown man playing a school boy in a teen soap? It’s been ten years since the final episode of The O.C. was broadcast into lounge rooms around the world.

But if you’re anything like me (or any O.C. fan), February 23 2007 wasn’t the last time the show played on your (now multiple) screens. Every year I return to sunny Newport Beach, teleported through my screen back to the balboa bars, shootings and social events that frame all four seasons of The O.C.. This isn’t about overdosing on memory lane in Tijuana — there’s something in addition to the nostalgia that draws me back; it’s the same impulse that drew in fans at the time.

On this diamond anniversary I’ve been wondering about the lasting impact The O.C. had on fans and why, unlike its televisual contemporaries like HBO’s The Sopranos or Six Feet Under, Fox’s teen classic merely inspires “where are the cast now” articles but very little serious acclaim or attention. Genre-defying cult favourite Buffy was set in a high school, involved monsters and in-jokes, bad decisions and great narrative arcs, and inspired an entire academic field dedicated to the show dubbed Slayage. In 2012, Duke University dedicated a single class to Fox’s primetime teen soap, ‘California, Here We Come: The O.C. and the Self-Aware Culture of 21st Century America’.

The O.C. was less a cult favourite than a smash hit with viewers. Locally, in 2005 The O.C. received the Logie for Best International Program. In the States, it drew in more weekly viewers than Dawson’s Creek had in years prior. Like Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton), The O.C. was incredibly pretty and popular and underestimated — there’s much more going on under the surface.

So, why are the golden beaches of The O.C. overlooked during all the discussion of this “golden age of television”? Simply put: like a Newpsie yogalates class, you can guarantee there’s some serious snobbery going down.

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The look people give when you say The OC is just as important than The Wire.

The O.C. relied on melodramatic turns and themes, structured stories around drug and alcohol abuse, sex, romance, marriage, divorce, death and (the worst of it all) high school. Accordingly, it still falls in the ‘lesser’ category of soap opera over the more admirable prestige drama. And while television is a popular medium for the masses — in 2010 Ohio State University researchers discovered that The O.C. wielded more power than any current affairs program over young women — there are still cultural lines drawn as to what is deemed valuable, and what is not.

If nothing else, The O.C. should be recognised for being one of the last truly IRL social viewing experiences. For many like myself, the characters of The O.C. felt like friends: over four seasons, we’d hung out with Seth, Summer and Ryan, and spent an intense three seasons in the doomed orbit of Marissa Cooper before mourning when she was killed off. The ‘fantastic four’ may have driven cars worth more than our houses and had hair shinier than our rusted cars but, like Ryan to the Newport community, they drew us together.

In the outer suburbs of Melbourne, my friends and I had a one way ticket to Newport Beach each week. Every Tuesday night I would drive to a friend’s house for drinks and drama. Others gathered in front of the big screen at local pubs or, if they couldn’t make it out of the house, called friends during commercial breaks to discuss the episode as it unfolded. Closer to the real setting, international viewers felt the same: “At our ‘O.C. parties,’ we laughed at all of Seth’s jokes and winced when he was about to fail with Summer,” wrote Orange County local Ryan Chang about growing up with the show in the place it was set.

The O.C. brought viewers together at a time when there was no 140-character limit on commentary, no Twitter — in 2007 only 5,000 tweets were being sent per day — and no digital television to stream. It was event television that required an actual RSVP. The comfort of shared spectatorship was matched only by the couch beneath you, the connection between friends reflected on screen via an aerial connected to a roof that we all gathered under.

The draw of watching fictional friends enact their lives with your own friends was heightened by the re-watchability of The O.C. — its themes were eternal and it characters were extremely loveable/hateable. The rapid-fire jokes and narrative complexity that extended across the series-long arcs created a sense of comfort that invited audiences to come back to re-watch on the box-sets released between seasons. As we became more obsessed, and became more and more literate in the nuances of its construction and character development, we saw ourselves intentionally mirrored through Summer’s commitment to reliving her favourite episodes of The Valley (the fictional-show-within-a-show) on her DVDs. She really was just like us. OMG we have flip-phones too!

This was an exceptionally smart show, at exactly the right time, for exactly the right audience.

The self-aware nature of The O.C. proved that creator Josh Schwartz — who went on to produce Gossip Girl — crafted an exceptionally smart show at exactly the right time, for exactly the right audience. Through a series of will-they-won’t-they, life-and-death cliffhangers broadcast audiences were enticed to stick around to watch The O.C. week after week; to talk about it, mull over it, and get pissed as networks toyed with the schedule (it originally aired on Channel Nine before moving to Ten in Australia).

It was apparent to viewers that The O.C. was speaking directly to us and deliberately cultivating a new form of spectatorship. In 2003, the same year that the show debuted, DVD sales and rentals made up for 52 percent of Hollywood’s revenue. Horizontal integration saw best-selling soundtracks come out alongside DVD box set editions of the seasons too; The O.C. literally became the soundtrack to our lives and a show for a generation. The O.C. meant business — in every sense of the word.

From the outset, The O.C. knew the television history and teenage cultural heritage it played on and the audience it was playing to: it was much more than just an intergenerational teen TV show. The O.C. was funny, self-aware and pop culture reference-addled (before it was overcooked). It had high drama at high stakes, a killer soundtrack, and one of the all-time best TV villains in the form of Marissa’s mom Julie Cooper (Melinda Clarke), (love you forever JuJu).

Ten years after it wrapped — beyond the recent tabloid trashing of Barton, how her alleged breakdowns mirror Marissa’s — the rest of the cast seem to have moved on. After their IRL break-up, Bilson and Brody have become parents with their significant others, and McKenzie swapped out his role as a kid in a prison jumpsuit to a suit-clad Detective James Gordon in Gotham. But why can’t I?

Unlike Veronica Mars or Arrested Development — shows originally airing on networks that were eventually revived by fans — The O.C. ended when it should have. There were no unresolved moments of hope or potential — Seth and Summer got married, the Cohens had a baby, JuJu went on to graduate and have a son — and it didn’t go on for seasons and seasons beyond its expiry date: “You know these teen dramas just run on forever,” Summer says about The Valley in the penultimate episode of The O.C.

Yes there’s nostalgic comfort in re-watching; in remembering that once upon a time, long before digital and social media ruled our lives, television was an IRL communal experience. The O.C. also trained us to return to it, it know it would always be there. Chant “Californnniaaaa here we come” three times — or, y’know, just pop in a DVD — and The O.C. would appear. Now as technology and patterns of spectatorship have moved on, we can stream it on whatever service it’s available (Stan in Australia).

Ten years since our broadcast break up with the show, I’m not over it and never will be. I will continue to watch time and again because I truly believe that The O.C. will always be an “aspirational brand” for what TV can be to audiences: forever young.

Stephanie Van Schilt is a co-host of Sisteria podcast, editor of The Lifted Brow and a former TV columnist for Kill Your Darlings. Follow her Twitter on @stephvanschilt.