‘The O.C.,’ 10 years later: J.J. Philbin looks back

By now, you”ve all surely taken large chunks of time today to read both parts of my interview with “The O.C.” creator Josh Schwartz, since tonight is the show”s 10th anniversary. If your appetite for Seth Cohen-related nostalgia hasn”t been sated by now, I also chatted that day with J.J. Philbin, who joined the writing staff midway through season 1 and stuck around all the way to the end, for all the marvelous silliness involving Ryan and Taylor Townsend, Chris Pratt as Ché, “Je Pense,” etc. Philbin”s now a writer on “New Girl,” but she was happy to walk down memory lane towards Newport Beach.
You came on when in season 1?
JJ Philbin:     I came on in December so I think we were doing episode 18 or 19 or something like that.
How aware were you of the show before that?
JJ Philbin:     I knew it was this big phenomenon and everyone was talking about it. And I think I was kind of jealous because I had been on “Coupling,” and that was supposed to be this huge hit. I had been on all the shows that had gotten canceled right away and so I was like, “I have finally arrived.” And then “Coupling” was an instant disaster. And there was this show “The O.C.” that I’d met on it before season 1 and then went on “Coupling” instead. I hadn’t been watching it but when I got the meeting with Stephanie (Savage), I binge watched 12 episodes in a row and fell in love with it.
What specifically made you fall in love with it?
JJ Philbin:     I thought it was a tone that I hadn’t seen before. And I just wanted to be in that house, that Cohen house. I wanted Sandy and Kirsten to be my parents. And the characters were really lovingly drawn.
So if you came in around episode 18, that’s two-thirds of the way through this insane 27 episode season. How burnt out was everyone even by the time you got there?
JJ Philbin:     Very burnt. And Oliver had just happened. And it was one of those things where, when you’re inside a writers room, it’s like the whole world is about whatever kind of a fiasco has just happened to your show. And I remember coming in and it was like, “What are we going to do about Oliver?” And I was like, “What? It seemed like Oliver seemed fine.” I remember there was just a lot of angst about that.
One of the things Josh has talked a lot is that he was new at this, 26 and 27. He had no idea what he was doing. So he basically went through five years worth of soap opera plot in a season. Was that something, as you’re getting towards the end of that season, anybody was aware of? Or it wasn’t until it was all over where everyone’s like, “What do we do now?”
JJ Philbin:     Yeah. I mean I think that it was just this break neck pace that they had become accustomed to. And then I remember sitting down at the beginning of season two and there is this discussion of like, how are we going to do this? How are we going to keep this pace up? And it was like, “Let’s tell some smaller stories,” and I’m thinking of “My So-Called Life,” but I think the transition was like a little bit bumpier for us. I think that that pace was just incredibly built go to keep up.
And of course at the end of season 1 you write out Anna, Luke, Jimmy. It’s like a whole bunch of people who had been significant parts of the show just go away and you’ve suddenly got to bring in new people to repopulate the show.
JJ Philbin:     Oh, my god. I remember in season 2 suddenly we were at The Bait Shop all the time. Every season of that show really had its own distinctive flavor.
Also in season 2, Trey comes back. A new Trey.
JJ Philbin:     That’s right. A new Trey. I think I wrote the episode where he first came back and he shoplifted in the store and like Ryan – someone got punched; I don’t remember who punched who. I liked that arc. But yeah, season 2, we tried to slow it down and tell slightly smaller stories. And season 3 we tried to pace it back up.
So do you think it was just you went too far with the pace? Because there are issues with season three.
JJ Philbin:     There’s some issues in season three.
So what were the issues as far as you were concerned?
JJ Philbin:     It got too dark and I think that we spent too much time with these peripheral characters. And that was a reaction to season two where it felt like nothing was really happening and the network was feeling like it wasn’t promotable so suddenly we had things to promote but it’s like who are these people and why should we care about them?
Johnny, Chili…
JJ Philbin:     Johnny, Chilli, Johnny’s knee. And I think we just drifted – the tone of the show was an elusive thing that we were always trying to grab on to. It’s just really hard to find that sweet spot. Often times we were telling stories that were too small or stories that were too big; too soapy, not soapy enough. And I was most comfortable writing season 4. Because that tone was much more in line with how I write.

It”s funny: season 4 has Ryan cage fighting and some other dark things, but it’s mostly a ridiculous season. It’s great, but it’s ridiculous.
JJ Philbin:     We were lucky because we had this whole new dynamic to play in season 4, which was the Taylor/Ryan love story. There had been other relationships for Ryan and Marissa in the first three seasons, but it was mostly 70 episodes of that one relationship.
And was it tough after a while to just keep writing “she pushes him away, he comes back…”?
JJ Philbin:     Yeah, absolutely. And what was fun for me about Taylor was that it was a new angle on Ryan’s character, instead of him having to save somebody who was like tragic and lost and doomed. It was somebody poking at him and trying to get him to open up, which was just more fun to write and more fun to watch.
And it turned out Ben could play comedy.
JJ Philbin:     Yeah, they were a funny, funny team. She just brought a new energy. In season 1, when Ryan and Marissa were getting together, it was so awesome. Probably Ryan and Taylor didn’t feel as epic as that. Nothing ever could. But I think we needed to do something different.
When Taylor”s introduced, she”s just this awful, snotty girl. Was there any expectation that this was someone you could slot into the main cast?
JJ Philbin:     No, I don’t think so.
So when was the realization of what you had with Autumn (Reeser)?
JJ Philbin:     Well I think in season 4, we were looking at the landscape, and in the past we would bring in sexy guest star for Ryan. And with Marissa gone, it had to feel substantial, whatever his love story was going to be that year. We had never done Ryan with any really quirky woman, but there was a sense in season 4 that the show was probably not going to be back, at least past those 16 episodes. So there was this feeling of throwing caution to the wind. We might as well give this a try. What have we got to lose? And we just were having fun. That makes such a difference if you’re like having a good time in the writer’s room.
Where did Ché come from?
JJ Philbin:     I think Ché was really (writer) John Stephens’ creation. We were thinking about how Marissa’s death would affect Summer, and we realized she’s probably got this whole new persona. We thought she would throw herself into a new relationship. And Ché is so John Stephens; that’s such his humor and such his creation. And then we saw Pratt and how funny he was, and we decided, “Oh, now Ché has to be in everything.”
I have to ask about Henri-Michel and “Je Pense.”
JJ Philbin:     That was another one of those things where you pitch something silly in the room and then you think someone’s going to be like, “Okay, come on. Now what are we really going to do?” And then it just kept being this insane Frenchman.
And they bring their wildly popular French philosophy show to Newport Beach to film an episode. This is a thing that you put on television.
JJ Philbin:     I know. During the whole shooting of that episode we just kept waiting for someone to come in and be like, “They can’t do this.” I mean, yes, it was ridiculous, but I think at the core we took seriously Taylor’s emotional conflict about her marriage and divorce, and the power Henri-Michel had over her. So we sort of couldn’t resist doing, of course, a French philosophy talk show. “Je Pense!” I have never drove myself more than during that episode, which was admittedly bonkers – someone should have probably stopped us, but we enjoyed that.
(NOTE: I’ve embedded “The French Connection,” the episode with “Je Pense,” at the bottom of this post. Re-live all the season 4 absurdity: Wacky Frenchmen! Seth and Summer’s engagement! Julie Cooper, madam!)
Was there any point or in the course of making that fourth season where anyone allowed themselves to be deluded into thinking that maybe you”d come back or did you know the entire time that this is the end?
JJ Philbin:     I really hoped that we could have more time. I was so at home there and I loved the characters and I had no interest in watching the show end. But I remember feeling while we were doing that insane season 4, one of the things that allowed us to do that was knowing that it was going to end. I don’t know that we could have maintained that tone. 
But at a certain point you had to start writing towards that finale where the house falls apart and they move to Berkeley.
JJ Philbin:     I Stephanie said to them, “If we’re going to do our finale, we need to know so that we can write to it.” They were like, “Yep, go ahead. Write it.” We kept expecting the phone to ring and someone to tell us like, “No, stop. We changed our mind.”
And I remember the finale was written when we were in such a silly mode, and we didn’t really want to deal with the fact that it was ending. So at one point the finale A-story was Seth and Summer really wanting to get home to watch “Briefcase or No Briefcase.” I remember pitching it to Josh, it was like every act break was, “and then she gets the answer wrong on ‘Briefcase or No Briefcase,”” then they wind up rewinding it and this is the finale of the series. Josh was like, “Alright, okay.” And then eventually he said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Seriously, we can’t do this.” So we tried to write something a little more emotionally substantial.
Now, technically it’s nine years for you, versus ten for Josh, but does it feel weird to hear that it’s the 10th anniversary of the debut?
JJ Philbin:     So weird. It’s really like made me feel crazy. I can’t believe it. It feels like yesterday to me. But then I think about how much I do feel like TV has changed since then. I can’t believe it’s been so long. Doesn’t it feel like yesterday?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com