TV’s Best of the Decade: No. 25 — ‘The O.C.’

12.07.09 8 years ago 6 Comments

Bear with me while I try something out here…
“The O.C.” was “The Decameron” for The Aughts.
Like I said, bear with me.
In Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” 10 young people flee Florence in the midst of The Plague. Holing themselves up in an isolated villa, they recount stories, many of them tales of deceit and debauchery, as a way of passing the time and avoiding directly facing the tragedy below.
Created by Josh Schwartz, “The O.C.” premiered in August of 2003 and aired 2007. Examined now, years after its 92-episode run, “The O.C.” stands as a time capsule glimpse at the second half of the second Bush Administration, a snapshot of an artificially inflated real estate boom and the fruits of an economy on the brink of collapse. Down on the ground, we might have had a sense of the growing unrest, of the increased frustrations of the lower classes, or the near-depression to come. But up in the hills of Orange County, we rooted for Seth and Summer, we pined over and then mourned for Marissa, booed Julie Cooper and gradually learned to love her, we went to concerts at the Bait Shop for a little while and then entirely forgot it existed, we celebrated Chrismukkah multiple times. Maybe society was teetering on the edge of an abyss, but we were driving over that edge, singing Phantom Planet’s “California” as we fell.
Maybe we could have learned from Jimmy Cooper’s corruption? Maybe we could have seen some of our own high profile CEOs in Caleb Nichol? Maybe when Marissa shot Trey to the halting strains of Imogen Heap’s “Hide & Seek,” that was the slo-motion death of our collective innocence? Maybe when Taylor Townsend donned a groundhog costume to woo Ryan Atwood, that was all of us descending into furry perversity?
No? Not buying it?
How about this: I just happen to love a good teenage soap opera and for two of its four seasons (and some moments in those other two seasons), “The O.C.” was either an addictive guilty pleasure or, quite often, a cleverly written, sharply performed treat.
If you prefer that explanation to my “Decameron” pitch, go with it. 
Either way, “The O.C.” stands at No. 25 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade and I’ll stand by that.
[More after the break…]
TV viewers have always been interested in bitchiness and decadence among the wealthy, but where “Dallas” and “Dynasty” had oil and “Falcon Crest” had wine, “The O.C.” painted a picture of people living lives of excess with little rhyme or reason to their wealth. Family money, shady investments and paper profits gave the show’s residents their infinity pools (and guest-from-Chino-ready pool houses), their lavish parties and their alopecia-plagued ponies. 
We should have distrusted these people immediately. Instead, “The O.C.” opened up the floodgates for an end-of-decade tsunami of interest in the uselessly, filthy rich. “The O.C.” begat “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County,” which begat “The Hills” and “The City” and the mere existence of L.C. and Kristin Cavallari and Speidi. It also begat “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” as if somebody had something to prove regarding a more accurate portrayal of Southland affluence. That allowed Bravo to focus on equally embarrassing housewives from exotic locations like New York City, Atlanta and Wichita. The appetite proved so utterly insatiable that Bravo has pretty much jettisoned whatever its programming image was before it became the home of TV’s most allegedly entertaining wastes of oxygen (plus “Top Chef”!).
The first thing that almost all of these “O.C.” imitators and successors left out, though, was the heart. In the Schwartz-scripted, Doug Liman-directed pilot for “The O.C.” — still one of the most instantly addictive pilots of my TV critic tenure — we met the Cohens and those of us who didn’t want to instantly move into their poolhouse ourselves probably would have been satisfied to live next door to displaced Brooklyn Jew Sandy (Peter Gallagher, whose performance started with his eyebrows, but went deeper, into his soul) and his Shiksa Goddess Kiki (Kelly Rowan). The Cohens were like Jim and Cindy Walsh in terms of togetherness, but they were also unquestionably cool and appealing tolerant of geeky misfit son Seth (Adam Brody). But just because Seth loved manga and Death Cab for Cutie and his only real friend was a horse named Captain Oats, we never doubted that he’d be worthy of deflowering by superficial hottie Summer (Rachel Bilson), nor that when push came to shove, Summer would be proven to have surprising depth, crackerjack comic timing and potentially outstanding SAT scores. 
The Cohens made things better for those around them and they loved each other, even folks like Bonnie Somerville and Billy Campbell were floated as half-hearted romantic distractions. The Cohens enjoyed morning bagels with schmear and they celebrated nearly every holiday on the calendary, serving a brief tenure as TV’s most (only?) plausible religiously blended family.
Season One of “The O.C.” remains one of my very favorite network TV seasons of the decade, in large part because of how sloppy it is at times. Schwartz, who had never run a show before, insisted on writing most of the episodes himself, which meant that the episodes were usually hilarious and often revolved around holidays, but also that the season burned through plotlines at a rate that eventually proved precarious. The season kicked off with a near-perfect seven episode arc culminating in a Tijuana cliffhanger that took melodrama to new heights. That the rest of the season was able to overcome the presence of Taylor Handley’s Oliver and an entire episode dedicated to people saying “Rooney” over and over is a tribute to the warmth of the core relationships and the gifts of the show’s main actors.
While Gallagher, Rowan and leading man Benjamin McKenzie were always capable and showed more range than the pilot ever could have hinted at, Schwartz and company learned in a hurry that Bilson and Brody were the show’s core couple and that any scene could be livened up by bringing in Melinda Clarke’s scheming Black Widow Julie Cooper. [That Bilson, Brody and Clarke haven’t all gone on to become TV and/or movie leads baffles me a little. Is it because Clarke is too “old”? Because Brody is too “Jewish”? Because Bilson is too “petite”? Dunno. I can only say that if CBS cast those three in “NCIS: Upper Peninsula,” I’d become an “NCIS” fan.]
Schwartz and company also realized early on that Mischa Barton’s Marissa Cooper was best used when she was having the maximum amount of pain inflicted on her. So poor Marissa went through a string of boys, girls, booze and drugs. She nearly killed Ryan’s brother and she jeopardized a promising college career. And finally, when there was no more Earthly pain Marissa Cooper could face, the show killed her, with the help of Cam Gigandet, long before he would attempt to wreak a similar vengeance upon the equally winsome Bella Swan. Of course, while snarky hipster critics always hated Marissa, the show’s actual ostensible demographic of young viewers loved her. I’d say “Ooops,” but killing Marissa wasn’t what killed the ratings for “The O.C.,” even if more than a few critics of the time tried to make that claim.
Many of those critics had also already tuned out by the time Season Four creatively resurrected the show, getting series best work from Bilson, Brody, McKenzie and Clarke, as well as Autumn Reeser, who would be a welcome addition to that “NCIS: UP” cast that only I would watch. Killing Marissa may have been cold-blooded, but it also was true to the show’s soap opera ethos. On “The O.C.,” you never knew who was going to be burning down a house, crushed in an earthquake or falling face-down in a swimming pool. Even if those middle seasons were a creative disappointment, they were never predictable. 
Then again, even the trough between Season One and Season Four wasn’t as bad as the naysayers claim. I’d stand confidently behind most of the first-half of the second season and then much of the second-half of the third season. [No. Not the stuff with Johnny. Or Sandy’s shady real estate dealings.] And even if the second season finale, with the aforementioned Imogen Heap-themed shooting, was hyper-operatic, would “Saturday Night Live” have been able to parody it many moons later if it weren’t also equally awesome? I’d say “No, sir.”
It’s definitely true that “The O.C.” was a supernova, that it came on suddenly, built to an impossible level of hype and then burnt out almost as quickly. FOX, prone to abrupt cancellations, did the show a solid by letting them wrap up the storylines and shoot a finale that offered closure and brought the series full circle.
But the chord that “The O.C.” struck wasn’t insignificant, as the show’s legitimate and illegitimate offspring would suggest. There’s always an appetite for a sudsy teen soap in primetime, but I’d argue that “The O.C.” was the most zeitgeisty and, in retrospect, significant of the decade.
Don’t make me go back to my original “Decameron” comparison. I’ve still got more ammo.
That’s why “The O.C.” stands at No. 25 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
Up tomorrow? The advantages of being a workaholic outweigh the disadvantages.

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