The O.C. at 20: One of the most influential TV shows of the 21st century

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The cast of The O.C. poses with the sun in the background.
The Fox

20 years ago, teenagers Ryan Atwood and Seth Cohen attended a party at Holly’s beach house on one fateful summer night. After Seth got into an altercation with the water polo team, Ryan jumped in to defend his new, helpless friend. Outnumbered, a fearless Ryan took the first shot at Luke, punching the puka shell-wearing water polo captain in the face. Ryan and Seth didn’t stand a chance, as they received numerous kicks and blows to the body. As Ryan and Seth caught their breath with their backs on the sand, a cocky Luke puffed his chest out, smirked, and said the most famous line of the show, “Welcome to the O.C., bitch.”

This iconic phrase ushered in The O.C., Fox’s fish-out-of-water teen drama and spiritual successor to Beverly Hills, 90210. The O.C. premiered on August 5, 2003, and introduced the nation to Newport Beach, a wealthy area populated with gated communities, Range Rovers, and daddy issues. Just your typical rich people’s problems. However, these issues don’t apply to Ryan (Ben McKenzie), a misguided teenager from Chino whom we meet in the opening moments.

The O.C. pilot remains one of the very best

Kelly Rowan and Peter Gallagher stand next to each other in The O.C.

After getting caught stealing a car with his brother, Ryan is sent to juvenile hall, where we first meet Ryan’s lawyer, Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), a noble public defender from the Bronx who married into money on the California coast. After his release, Sandy tells Ryan to call him if he ever needs anything. Ryan is soon kicked out of his house and takes Sandy up on his offer. Sandy picks up Ryan in Chino and drives him to Newport Beach back to his house as the theme song of the series, Phantom Planet’s Californiakicks in.

All of the above happens within the first 10 minutes of the pilot. Creator Josh Schwartz, at the time one of the youngest showrunners in the industry at 26, does not waste any time in setting up the look and feel of the show. In the streaming era, the pilot has lost a bit of its luster because shows on Netflix or Disney+ are guaranteed a certain number of episodes, so there’s no sense of urgency in the first episode. In 2003, nothing was guaranteed on broadcast television, so if the pilot did not immediately resonate with an audience, it faced cancellation. With a compelling storyline, fleshed-out characters, and a killer episodic hook, The O.C. is one of the best pilots of the last 30 years, rivaled only by the much-lauded series openers from Lost and Friday Night Lights.

Every single main character (except for one) and their motivations are established in the first episode. Ryan is a troubled teen with a good heart. Sandy is a dedicated father and husband who can relate to Ryan as an outsider. Kirsten (Kelly Rowan) is a conservative mother who eventually opens her home to a stranger. Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton) is the girl next door with deep-seated emotional issues. The only thing missing in the pilot is Summer Roberts, Marissa’s best friend that briefly appears in the back half of the episode. Summer would become one of the show’s beloved characters in its four-season run thanks to fantastic work from Rachel Bilson.

Adam Brody and Rachel Bilson sit on a stoop in The O.C.

Don’t worry. I didn’t forget about Adam Brody’s Seth, the awkward and lovable son of Sandy and Kirsten. When we first meet Seth, he’s a dorky teen with zero friends and no social life. Within one episode, Seth immediately establishes himself as the standout member of the cast. The O.C. embraced nerd culture through Seth, who video games and comics cool. Seth was talking about the greatness of superheroes long before the MCU.

In previous teen soaps, the jock or bad boy would get the girl, but in The O.C., Seth’s wittiness and magnetism (confidence, Cohen) made it possible for a tall, lanky geek to land someone as popular and attractive as Summer Roberts. Brody became an instant heartthrob, jumping off the screen as a larger-than-life character full of charisma and charm. Brody’s career post-O.C. is solid, but I can’t help but think what could have been for this talented actor, who was on top of the world in his 20s. Brody should have been a megastar. Imagine a world where Brody won the role of Star-Lord instead of fellow O.C. alum Chris Pratt.

The show’s music was its own character

Mr. Brightside(The Killers) on The OC

Along with Seth, one of the lasting memories of the show was the music. Schwartz, co-creator Stephanie Savage, and music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas (who came on after episode 7) curated an indie playlist (six to be exact) that became the soundtrack to the lives of so many millennials watching the show. Schwartz said he wanted the music “to be an extension of the characters.” That starts with Seth, as his love for Death Cab for Cutie and indie music spilled into each episode.

The show’s crucial moments are forever linked to the song playing in each scene. Where to even begin? Well, the 30 seconds of Phantom Planet’s California at the beginning of each episode is the answer for the best needle drop. Other classic needle drops include Mazzy Star’s Into Dust, when Ryan carried Marissa out of a Tijuana alley after she overdosed on painkillers; Finley Quaye’s Dice to seal a New Year’s Eve kiss between Ryan and Marissa; Matt Pond PA’s cover of Champagne Supernova, when Summer and Seth reenacted a Spider-Man kiss; Coldplay’s Fix You at The O.Sea; Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek at the end of season 2 after Marissa shot Trey (a fantastic SNL skit); and my personal favorite, Jeff Buckley’s cover of Hallelujah to end season 1 with Ryan heading back to Chino.

Mischa Barton and Ben McKenzie stand next to each other in The O.C.

After the success of Rooney’s concert in season 1, The O.C. introduced The Bait Shop in season 2, a nightclub that would soon become a stomping ground for real-life bands. The Core Four would frequently be seen at The Bait Shop, and Seth even worked there for a few episodes under the manager, Alex (Olivia Wilde). Bands who played at the Bait Shop include The Killers, Modest Mouse, The Walkmen, Rachael Yamagata, The Thrills, and Death Cab for Cutie. That lineup is a music festival I would attend in 2023. Even Beck, a Grammy Award winner for Album of the Year, capitalized on the popularity of The O.C. by debuting five new songs in season 2’s The Mallpisode.

The O.C.’s legacy


The O.C. worked because it embraced a ridiculous premise and convinced the audience that it could be realistic. Would an affluent Orange County family take in a kid after he was caught stealing a car? Probably not. Kirsten was the only rational member of the Cohen family to question this decision, and yet Sandy and Seth made her out to be a villain. (Kirsten was penalized for being a caring mother.) Yet, you quickly buy into the idea that Sandy Cohen, who would become a Hall of Fame TV dad, would take in a struggling kid and give him a shot at a better life.

Season 1 of The O.C. is as enjoyable of a series as you’ll watch on television. Considering most television shows run anywhere from six to 12 episodes, the fact that The O.C. had 27 episodes in its first season* is an achievement in its own right. Schwartz wisely decided to focus on the male relationships — Ryan and Seth, Sandy and the boys — as the focal points of season 1. Frankly, anyone in a relationship with Seth was in a good spot because of Brody’s talent, which is why the show correctly pivoted to focus on Seth and Summer, not Ryan and Marissa.

However enjoyable the show was in that first season, and there were moments of greatness, The O.C. wasn’t perfect. Schwartz and the writers were creatively tapped by the end of season 1 due to the high episode count. The Oliver arc was a misfire of epic proportions. Many storylines felt rushed and burned out too quickly. For example, Julie Cooper (Melinda Clarke) had three separate relationships, Luke went from bad boy to Ryan’s friend within a dozen episodes, and Anna (Samaire Armstrong) dated Seth for only six episodes. In 2023, those arcs would last entire seasons, not a handful of episodes.

Four teenagers stand next to each other in graduation gowns in The O.C.

Losing Luke and Anna in season two hurt the show creatively. However, season two experienced highs in The Chrismukkah That Almost Wasn’tThe Rainy Day Women, The O.Sea, and the entire storyline with Trey (Logan Marshall-Green), which might be the best dramatic arc in the series. I can’t, in good conscience, tell anyone to watch all 25 episodes in season 3, the worst season by far, because of Johnny, Volchok, and the controversial decision to kill Marissa. (Marissa’s death did give us Imogen Heap’s cover of Hallelujah, so that’s a win.) Season 4 focused more on comedy and tried to recapture season 1’s magic, which it did to some extent. Also, the emergence of Taylor Townsend (Autumn Reeser) was a godsend.

The O.C. was a special moment in television when a show could shape the cultural zeitgeist – music, movies, comics, and fashion. (I would love to talk to the costume designer and see how many white tank tops, wrist cuffs, and low-rise jeans they used for Ryan.) Without The O.C., there is no Gossip Girl, Schwartz’s version of The O.C. on the East Coast. The HillsLaguna Beach, The Real Housewives of Orange CountyDesperate Housewives, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and All American can all trace their roots back to The O.C. 

So this year, when you’re sitting down to celebrate Chrismukkah, remember to look back and thank The O.C. for its influence on television, pop culture, and the entire millennial generation.

Stream The O.C. on Max and Hulu.

*I rewatched most of season 1 to prepare for this piece. 27 episodes is a lot. I had to skip some, but I knew which ones to skip. I’m looking at you, Oliver. My optimal season 1 lineup: Episodes 1-14, the Rooney clips in 15, the last 10 minutes of episode 18, and episodes 19-27. For an ever shorter season, watch episodes 1-7, 13, and 19-27.




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