Test Pilot #7: The OC
Debut date: August 5, 2003
Series legacy: The pivot point for a new generation of teen dramas, a genuine cultural phenomenon that burned out very quickly and perhaps the most well-respect straight-up teen drama of all time.
Welcome to the newest regular feature here at TV Surveillance, the fantastically titled, Test Pilot. In this bi-weekly feature, I will be joined by a rotating batch of guest writers in an analysis of, you guessed it, television pilots. In this space, we’re hoping to analyze pilot episodes in a number of ways in hopes of discussing its historical, cultural and industrial context. To get a well-rounded opinion, this feature will include two perspectives from individuals who have just watched the pilot, one coming from a writer with full knowledge of the series following the pilot develops, the other coming from a writer who is not as familiar with the series. I’m hoping that this can be a fun way to add some less time-sensitive material to the site, but also expand coverage back through history of the medium.
We have now entered to the second quadrant of Test Pilot Files. After touching base with four of the medium’s most important series of the current era with a fair amount of success, this space is now kind of open to whatever direction we would like to take it. For the next batch, it’s time to explore my favorite genre of television texts, teen dramas! Teen dramas represent an interesting conundrum, as the critical community usually avoids them or derides them, yet there is certainly an audience out there for this kind of series. Despite that schism, there’s no questioning the fact that teen dramas have value in American television. Perhaps more so than any other genre, they exist in a very specific moment that can tell us things about the how, what, when, where and why they came to be and were successful. Teen dramas depict trends of certain times with relative ease and serve as time capsules for their moment. But how do the genre’s capstone series relate to one another? How do they differ? What have been the evolutions in the cycle since the early 1990s? That’s what we hope to discuss over the next four entries.
Today we’re here to discuss my — and I’m guessing a lot of people’s — favorite teen drama of all-time, The OC. I guess it’s fitting that we’re discussing The OC right before Thanksgiving, as the series always made great episodes out of the biggest holidays, including Thanksgiving. After the late ’90s WB era of teen dramas succeeded with a very high level of earnestness and sometimes precociousness of small towns and too-intelligent-for-their-own-good teens, The OC brought the genre into a new era with more self-awareness, less pretentiousness and even more pop culture references, while almost reverting back to Beverly Hills, 90210‘s sense of heightened storytelling. Like Dawson’s Creek, I’m very, very familiar with this series and thus will be serving as the veteran voice. Let’s do this:
I think The OC is my favorite television series of all-time. Period. I know that it’s not the best television series of all-time, not even close. I’ve had other series I’ve felt more interest in over an extended period of time — Lost, Supernatural most notably — but there is absolutely no series I go to before The OC when it comes to a random time to watch a TV series on DVD. After I watched the pilot episode for the 10th or so time for the purposes of this post, I just wanted to keep going until I made it all the way through the series again. Well, I’d probably skip a good part of the Johnny stuff from season three, but who in the hell could blame me? I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that I was in the same year school-wise as Ryan, Seth, Summer, Taylor and Marissa, which made it feel as if the series was the backdrop to my high school life.
But I do think it’s more than that. What the series nailed the best, aside from the grandiose emotional moments like the Spider-Man kiss, the ferris wheel kiss, the New Year’s Eve run or the earthquake, or the pop culture quips, is what it means to be an outsider, or at least feel like one. Ryan and Seth are legitimate outsiders in the Newport world, but the pilot and subsequent episodes do a really great job of showing how even in the most popular corners of the world, there is loneliness. And importantly, the series approached these kinds of stories without making it seem like “Oh, woe is me” for the rich and fabulous, instead the money often felt like a surface tension to really get to the messed up psyches that come along with living in a suffocating world, whether you’re rich or not, or cool or not.
The series debuted in the summer of 2003 (more on this in a bit), I had just finished my marathon mainlining of Dawson’s Creek that I talked about in the last TP entry and was totally ready to consume another teen drama television series. But as much as I liked Dawson’s Creek, I couldn’t believe how much better this series was, even from the very, very beginning. The OC pilot and for the most part, the whole first, second and fourth seasons — don’t ask me about the third season, sigh — are just sharp.
It’s not particularly edgy, but it is self-aware in how the stories it is telling exist as fairly familiar tropes of not only the teen drama genre, but storytelling in general. The pilot is perhaps a little darker than the series is overall, but it’s not melodramatic or self-involved like some of the WB series of the ’90s and from the beginning, all the elements that will later be important to the series’ full run are here — Ryan and Seth’s relationship, Ryan trying to fit in, Sandy being an awesome parent and lots of punching — that it’s hard to say this episode doesn’t exemplify what The OC is. While I’d probably argue for another season one episode as the kind of epitome of what the series was in those early days — the Tijuana-centric “The Escape” — the pilot still holds up with relative ease today. I’m not sure if that’s all to do with the fact that it is so good or not, because it probably feels generally more “recent” because, well, it is more recent.
A few things really stick out about the actual events of the pilot episode that seem worth mentioning. First of all, despite the undying love I think every fan of the series has for Seth and Summer as a couple, the pilot depicts what I always thought were the strongest relationships in the series: Seth and Ryan, Ryan and Sandy and Sandy and Seth. I don’t mean to sound sexist or suggest that there weren’t strong female characters on the series, because I think Summer, Taylor, Julie and at times, Kirsten, were really wonderful characters to watch. But it seems fairly obvious to me that Josh Schwartz, as a brand-new showrunner and television writer, was much better at writing for the men on the series, and that’s fine for a pilot. But as a dude, I guess I always gravitated towards the strong male relationships on The OC, particularly Seth and Ryan, which is still one of my favorite male friendships ever. And Sandy Cohen is just such a bad-ass it’s hard to not mention his earnest greatness.
Moreover, I’ve always appreciated the series’ dedication to Ryan’s “otherness,” I guess you could call it. So many series or movies have the stereotypical “outsider” from “the other side of the tracks” or whatnot who aren’t really that different (just like 90210‘s Brandon and Brenda), but this episode — which is really just part one of a three-part pilot, if I remember correctly — goes out of its way to make sure that Ryan doesn’t really understand how this place operates whatsoever and is from a legitimately bad place. It even has a name! Chino! Doug Liman’s direction smartly makes the Chino and juvy sequences seem darker, dirtier and grimier, especially in comparison to the bright, clean lines of Newport Beach. And though it’s not pertinent to this episode, the series never shies away from Ryan’s past, constantly going back to Chino and bring back other people from his neighborhood as a way to create dramatic tension.
Finally, despite some clumsy line deliveries here and there, the pilot of The OC reminds me of a time where I didn’t want to punch Marissa Cooper in the face, as Mischa Barton and Ben McKenzie have a nice rapport that works because of, not despite the slight awkwardness between them. Part of the reason the series slumped in seasons two and three was because it kept trying to sell us on Marissa and Ryan as a couple even though it wanted to continuously keep them apart in all sorts of dumb ways as if it were a deep way of emphasizing that they weren’t really meant to be together. Unfortunately for the series, its attempts to emphasize that they shouldn’t be together worked, and it by the time the thing that happened happened at the end of season three, it felt needed above all else.
Outside of the text itself, The OC brings us a lot to discuss. The series exists as one of the biggest legitimate cultural phenomenons that came out of the broadcast television world in the 21st century — others being Lost, Grey’s Anatomy, The Office, Idol, Glee and probably 24 and Desperate Housewives — but barring a complete Glee flame-out, it also exists as the series with shortest time in the spotlight since Twin Peaks back in the early part of the ’90s. There are probably a lot of reasons for the series’ quick rise and fall, but what is perhaps most interesting is the impacts of having a fairly young audience, especially in the 21st century.
Young viewers have surely been fickle since the beginning of television, because if you’re 15, there’s probably a lot of more cool things to do than watch television. However, FOX smartly debuted the series in the summer when kids were most likely to be free and presumably, that approach worked.* However, when Dawson’s Creek or Beverly Hills, 90210 were on, there was officially less to do thanks to the internet, online video games, cell phones, etc. and also less ways to watch a television series. Thus, if you wanted to watch the chic teen drama of the day, you had to watch it live. I know, crazy. But by the time The OC hit the airwaves in 2003, things were a lot different in how teens lived, I’d argue. And while DVR usage, DVDs and friends texting each other to watch probably helped at the beginning, when things took a downward trend and the series got moved around on the schedule, then 17-year olds had better things to do, bro.
*Interestingly, all three teen dramas we’ve discussed in this space thus far have debuted outside of the fall launch period. This and Beverly Hills unspooled in the summer while Dawson’s came on in January, which not as desolate as August, still isn’t as jam-packed or “important” as the fall. Therefore, there is probably something to be said for launching a teen drama on network television that involves avoiding major competition, not only from other series but external factors like school (kids could presumably still have been out in early January) so that once those kids get back to school, there’s all sorts of discussion, gossip and trends related to the series itself. Something to think about for later.
Although it would be easy to blame the series’ demise on the declining quality or FOX moving it around on the schedule, I think there was something more interesting going on, even aside from the audience getting bored and moving on to sexting their significant others (this was totally happening in 2004, even if CNN wasn’t reporting on it): The OC‘s impact on reality television. If we think back to the time before the FOX drama began, there were obviously a lot of reality television series, but the “documentary” style series about non-famous people in beautiful locations hadn’t really spread from MTV’s seminal Real World. But once The OC came on the air and was a relative success, it seemed to signify that audiences were ready to not enjoy the lives of fictional rich people, but real ones as well. From this sprung MTV’s Laguna Beach, which then led to The Hills, The City and probably three other awful and unreal series I can’t think of right now and also Bravo’s Real Housewives series, which has brought us countless seasons of terrible human behavior from gated communities all around the United States. I’m not saying The OC was the only scripted series to influence a now dominant format in the reality genre because obvious Desperate Housewives is right there in terms of measured influence, but it certainly opened up some flood gates. Thus, by the time the series started slumping and finally got itself out of it, the teenagers who loved it before had not only gotten bored of The OC, but they had also found more “real” and “relatable people who brought them the same sort of enjoyment each week. It’s a scary thought, but I think a true one.
But just as The OC had impacts on the kinds of people we wanted to see on our television moving forward after it fizzled out, there is definitely something to explore with when the series came on the air. The middle part of the aughts were an odd time in that there was a whole lot of fear and cynicism out there about what was happening geopolitically, but after the 9/11 recovery, the economy, especially the housing and real estate market, seemed to be doing very, very well. In that sense, The OC‘s depiction of a ultra-rich, gated community full of beautiful homes was appealing on another level and served as a signifier for a certain time, one where people were buying and building houses with little question. It’s probably fitting that the series later explores the sketchy world that is real estate development, as it served as some sort of prescient example of the kind of thing that was actually happened during 2003-2006 that we as a general public didn’t know about because we’d rather just oogle at the giant houses and gated communities being built.
As a series a part of the teen drama genre, The OC serves as an interesting change of pace, but also something of a return to form in some ways. By that I mean it discards a lot of the pretension and earnest hues of the WB’s lot that tired folks out by the first few years of new millennium and instead brings back some of the debauchery and excess that defined 90210. However, the series takes the self-awareness of Dawson’s Creek and ramps it up to 11, maybe 12, which helps serve as something of a commentary on how stupid lives of excess can be. The Cohen’s might be rich, but they don’t really live like it in a luxurious or lavish sense, and they often make fun of the stupid parties and celebrations that the other people want them to go to. Moreover, the intelligent use of the meta series-within-the-series The Valley works as a nice reminder of how ridiculous these heightened plotlines are.
And if we think about the pop culture references and the holiday gimmicks, The OC was definitely the most post-modern entry in the teen drama genre, even if there’s an indication that it’s been passed by Gossip Girl. However, the FOX series was always willing to clash together things that shouldn’t presumably go together — Christmas and Hanukkah! — and comment on itself while things went along while continuing to inject all sorts of off-hand references to Japanese anime, Journey and Wildstorm comics.
Additionally, The OC obviously takes the genre’s use of music and makes it more important and influential than ever before. I know Beverly Hills had some real-deal artists on their series and Creek put out a soundtrack or two, but no television series before or since has been more tied to its music than The OC. Josh Schwartz and his music supervisors turned the series into a soundtrack for a new generation, one that legitimately made stars out of artists like Death Cab For Cutie and The Killers and helped pushed other bands into the mainstream, if only for a bit. Schwartz has tried to apply that approach to his two newest series, Chuck and Gossip Girl, at least with the needle drops, but neither touch the impact that The OC had.*
*Perhaps because no one cares about buying music anymore anyway.
In a similar way that the series served as a gateway to the rich folk reality series, I think The OC certainly retrenched the teen drama in more upper class concerns. After the WB focused on mostly middle or TV’ed up “lower” classes in the ’90s and early part of the ’00s, nearly every entry in the genre since The OC has focused on immensely wealthy people, which isn’t just an aftershock of this series, but it certainly had something to do with it.
Finally, I think the biggest point to make about The OC in relationship to the teen drama genre is that it basically killed it. Hear me out: While certain smaller networks and channels like the CW and ABC family can produce and air their fair share of new teen dramas here in 2010 and for as long as they want in the future, I would be shocked to see one become legitimately “successful” in the traditional television sense. Though some of that has to do with the lack of successes across television in general, the teen drama has seemingly been hit particularly hard and turned into something of a niche genre. The OC rose and fell so quickly that it scared any of the bigger networks off, particularly FOX, and now series like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars have to redefine their values based on internet buzz, Gawker coverage and tweets — or something. Thus, I think it’s absolutely fair to call The OC as the last “real hit” teen drama, and I kind of love it that way.*
*I guess there’s probably an argument to be made about Glee, but I’m going to consider it as outside of the teen drama genre because of the musical facet. But if someone were to tell me I’m an idiot and mention Glee as an example of the teen drama still succeeding on a massive level, just in a new way, I could probably be persuaded. So perhaps The OC is the last “real” teen drama to be a “real hit.”
In closing, let’s take a moment to discuss the series’ overall legacy. For someone like me, who regards the series very, very highly for probably too personal of reasons, it’s interesting to see how quickly the series has been forgotten, especially since Schwartz has moved on to two other series that take elements of this one in earnest — Chuck is obviously an extension of Seth Cohen, Blair feels like a similar extension of Summer in some ways and Serena is an exact extension of Marissa in that she sucks majorly — but it seems like time hasn’t been kind. However, I think it’s fairly apparent that the series exists as the most well-respected mainstream successful teen drama of all-time and that’s where it should be.
Cory’s conclusions on legacy: Still the best the genre has to offer, one that is wrongfully discarded because of a weak third season and just a damn good television series, completely outside of the genre discussion.
And now, a fresh take from a Twitter pal of mine, Daniel Walters. Daniel is the television critic for the Pacific Northwest Inlander in Spokane, Washington. You can — and should — follow him on Twitter and check out his Inlander television blog. Daniel is fan, although a critical one, of The OC‘s creator Josh Schwartz’s new series, Chuck, but had never seen any of the FOX drama that put him on the map. Take it away, Daniel:
Call it Beverly Hill’s Law: The amount of bitchy drama in any given high school is directly proportional to the average income level of its students.
The wealthier the parents, the more concerned with social hierarchy are the kids. Cut-throat, status-obsessed parents have a habit of raising cut-throat status-obsessed children. Especially in that certain part of TV land, where, in their fancy houses and prestigious income tax bracket, live the teen dramas.
It’s a place where guilty pleasures don’t get much more guilty or pleasurable.
There are dramas featuring teens, like Friday Night Lights. But those are very different than teen dramas (pronounced duh-raaamaas,) those shameless stories rife with OMGs and WTFs I-can’t-believe-he-just-said-thats. Think Gossip Girl.
Gossip Girl — at least the TV show — was created by Josh Schwartz. He’s the guy that, when he was 26-years-old, became the showrunner of a little show called The OC
Until now, my knowledge of The OC, generally, has been limited to: 1). a brief clip of the pilot on the big screen TV at Grandma’s house in 2003 2). passing references on Arrested Development, and 3). that one Saturday Night Live Digital Short where everyone is shooting each other to the tune of Imogene Heap.
I didn’t start watching TV — at all — until 2006 so the fact that I missed The OC pilot isn’t surprising.
I have, however, seen the first season of Gossip Girl. But where Gossip Girl’s carefully-coiffed hyper-clever dialogue was its focus, in The OC the dialogue less showy. Instead, it’s a show about setting. Newport, Calif. is instantly drawn as a place of a glorious excess, gilded and glowing, but rotten to the core. It’s everything we love and hate about wealth. It’s simultaneously seductive and repulsive — the perfect TV-friendly combination.
Even more audience-friendly, the protagonist is a bad boy — no, a 15-year-old girl’s dream of a bad boy.
He steals a car. He disrespects authority figures. He punches all sorts of people. He even smokes.
But he has a baby face, perfectly non-threatening hair, and he dresses smooth and wrinkle-free. At least the 10 Things I Hate About You ABC family show shelled out for leather jacket for its harmless rogue. Ryan looks like the clean-shaven evangelical church boy pretending to be a sinner in the First Presbyterian “Jesus Saves” theatre dance number. Tim Riggins nailed the uncomfortable-in-a-suit look. But Ryan Atwood looks uncomfortable out of them.
But he serves a crucial narrative purpose. Ryan is both The New Guy and the Fish Out Of Water. He’s the audience surrogate, letting us see the crazy/beautiful hedonism of Newport through his eyes. Even more importantly, he’s the catalyst to upset the status quo.
Peter Gallagher, as Sandy Cohen, the kindly defense attorney who takes Ryan in at a whim, is a less predictable choice. He looks odd. Meaningful. Soulful, even. Casting only conventionally-beautiful people is one of the biggest mistakes a teen drama can make. Gallagher’s presence is a good sign for the show’s future.
Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), meanwhile, is your typical Josh Schwartz nerd: A decent-looking guy, who’d probably be pretty cool if he just stopped stuttering and had a little confidence. Knowing almost absolutely nothing about the future of The OC, and a whole lot about the general Josh Schwartz M.O. I predict Seth becomes a lot more cool and confident over the series run.
The template for a successful pilot is seen even more clearly in the plot points. Every event you’d expect in a salacious teen drama is hit instantly.
It begins with a crime. It morphs into lifestyle porn. It throws in two or three love triangles. It gives you the requisite cuh-razy party (did you hear about that threesome, bro?) that ends in the requisite fight.
Some pilots throw two or three baited lines in the water to keep the viewers hooked. The OC throws in a dozen.
Check out the number of plotlines that, within a single episode, The OC sets up:
1) Ryan’s brother is bad influence on him.
2) Sandy sees some of himself in Ryan, and trusts him far more than he probably should.
3) Sandy’s wife is suspicious of Ryan.
4) There’s a wee bit of tension between Sandy and his wife.
5) There’s an entirely different sort of tension between Sandy’s wife and Marissa’s mom.
6) Ryan may be a destructive influence on Seth
7) Seth likes Summer…
8 ) … but Summer’s totally into Ryan…
9) … who is sort of interested in Marissa…
10) …who is dating a clichéd jock asshole.
11) Marissa has a drinking problem.
12) Summer, in all likelihood, seems like a bad friend to Marissa.
13) There’s something really really weird going on with Marissa’s dad — what with the angry bathroom visits and the suits at his door — and Ryan knows about it.
14) Ryan’s mom left him.
15) There are multiple bared midriffs and low-cut blouses in Newport, California, a plot-point we will continue to follow very closely.
Teen dramas subsist on a voracious amount of conflict, twists and plot momentum. Ultimately, this sort of show burns up under its own unsustainable metabolism. But a methodical show that metes out its plot points — well, those rarely get past the first season. And The OC pilot gives the show enough fuel to keep it burning hot and burning fast for a very long time.
This is a shameless show, but it — and this is key — is never desperate. In some pilots you can hear cynical wheels of market calculation turning. But, in The OC pilot the wheels spin so smoothly, so effortlessly, they lull you into just succumbing to entertainment.
Daniel’s conclusions on legacy: One episode in, I don’t see The OC as a revolution of teen drama as much as a refinement. In the same way Modern Family is a masterful refinement of the family-sitcom formula, The OC nearly perfectly hones the teen drama formula. “Trust me,” 26-year-old Josh Schwartz tells TV executives and the American public, with a gleaming roguish smile. And we did.