The O.C.’s first season is one of the most perfect set of episodes ever created. In tone, theme, authenticity and good old drama the show features a consistent string of adventures. Ten years after the season concluded, the show is as relevant, charming and outright entertaining as it ever was. It remains a prime example of what television can and should be.
One critical look at the story and anyone can deduce that there’s nothing new. Ryan Atwood comes from a bad neighborhood. The show opens when Ryan’s brother forces him to help steal a car and they are both arrested. Luckily for Ryan, he’s a minor and is assigned to public defender Sandy Cohen. In a polite move, Sandy offers him help if he needs it. After being released, Ryan’s mom throws him out of the house. Abandoned and lost, Ryan takes up Sandy’s offer. The good hearted lawyer takes the beat kid in for the weekend and introduces him to the luxurious, gated community of New Port Beach. There, Ryan meets Sandy’s wife Kirsten, a prime example of a modern power woman without sacrificing her motherly instincts, and their son, Seth, a scrawny Jewish kid as isolated and disengaged from the community as Ryan. Cue a series that portrays the fish out of water story in close resemblance to Rebel Without a Cause. The girl next door, the jealous boyfriend, the wicked stepmom and the love out-of-reach fulfill the other lead roles. This is not an original story.
A show is as strong as its lead characters, and as far as prime-time sudsers go, The O.C. excelled in many ways. The main characters always balance between right and wrong, being confronted with their actions in rich detail. The Cohen’s, particularly Seth, introduce their world and the viewer to the level of sarcasm and irony that balances between utterly delightful comedy and a worrisome affliction. Ryan, as stoic and silent as a white male lead can be, is enough of a blank slate to resonate with the audience and still plays the catalyst and center of the series. Special mentions go to shallow turned infinitely lovable Summer, as Seth’s childhood crush, and Julie Cooper, the woman who introduces prime-time television to the fierce female powerhouse with humanity as was later made common by the likes of Desperate Housewives and Revenge. Combine all those different characters trades into a coherent, self-conscious series that thrives on pace, debunking expectations and through and through soap operatic stories and you get The O.C.’s first season.
What The O.C. is, is a bridge between the formulaic episodic storytelling of mainstream television and the heart and soul of a passion indie project. The soundtrack, for example, primarily uses then unknown unsigned artists. A lot of which can be explained by first time showrunner Josh Schwartz, who was helmed by seasoned producers like McG. Schwartz brings an authenticity to this story in a completely unrelatable setting, few other show ever manage to deliver. Too often dramas with a simple set-up such as The O.C. disperse storylines into every possible direction only to lose its core values. The same fate awaits this particular show in later seasons. But in the already pro-longed stretch of 27 episodes, The O.C. manages to draw from its rich characters, playing stories close to the premise and always returning to it if the show does dare to step outside its comfort zone. The meaningful character beats, references and naturally build up stories prove to be as rewarding for viewers as the solving of a mystery on crime shows. But there’s instant satisfaction as well. The O.C. relishes in its procedural format, which puts its characters with small issues or missions on a weekly basis. It gives the adults as diverse and engaging material as the teenagers. This is a soap opera with ongoing story lines, but they simmer beneath a party or trip that contains the episode. It’s not unprecedented or even that impressive. But on very few occasions a TV series has been able to pull this combination of formats off so effortlessly and consistently throughout a whole season.
The show gets dramatic really fast, but it’s redeeming quality is its self-awareness and comedy. The show is as much of textbook drama as it was a commentary on itself. It dared to go over the top but at least it was aware of it was doing so. This makes the extravagant events and melo-dramatic outbursts not only bearable but enjoyable. Every episode is genuinely funny and truly entertaining. The fast paced stories, the scandals, the romance and the friendship work together to provide an hour of solid entertainment. As television continues to take itself more seriously, it’s refreshing to watch something captivating and fun without sacrificing quality.
The O.C. is everything a television show should be. At the same time it’s everything television has always been. The surrogate family, the star-crossed love, the buddy comedy, it’s all there and it’s not ashamed of it. Ten years after it concluded, the show’s first season shows cracks in capturing the zeitgeist. Technology has caught up and it puts a date on the show. Story wise, however, The O.C. is as unique as it always was. Delivering fun, drama and great music with strong writing, acting, editing and cinematography. It wasn’t based on a book series. It had an unapologetic nostalgia to it. It is just one of the few projects where everything worked in detail and the end result is without flaws. For someone, somewhere The O.C. meant something. And that truly is all a TV show needs to do.