The lockdown era has turned time into a flat circle — and with that changed our perception of must-see TV. Someone in your group chat is just as likely to be raving about the hottest show (à la Bridgerton) as they are to be returning to a comfort series like Grey’s Anatomy. When time has little meaning, what’s the rush to finish something new like The Irregulars?
Few old-school shows have benefited from TV’s temporal conundrum more than The O.C., FOX’s sexy aughts teen soap that heralded the likes of Gossip Girl. For the uninitiated, The O.C. — which ran for 90 episodes between 2003 to 2007 — is led by Ben McKenzie as Ryan Atwood, a promising (but troubled) teen transplant in wealthy Orange County. Once ensconced in the O.C.'s cocoon of privilege, Ryan meets future best friend Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), problemed Cool Girl Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton), and popular girl Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson), who is also Marissa’s best friend. From first-time viewers to old fans, the timeline is filled with people consuming The Horny Beach Teens Show like Juicy Couture sweatsuits are the trendiest thing at the mall (wait…). We can thank HBO Max for this much-needed comeback, as the streaming platform began beaming The O.C. into millions of people’s homes last year.
With O.C. conversation reaching critical mass — stars Rachel Bilson and Melinda Clarke will debut a recap podcast at the end of the month — we decided to jump into the fray and watch the series premiere as fully formed adults. For Refinery29 senior movie critic Anne Cohen, the experience was a return to a series she’s loved for decades; for our senior TV critic Ariana Romero, it was a maiden voyage. Cue up “Paint The Silence”— it’s time to dig in.
Anne Cohen: Ari, you had never seen a single episode of The O.C. until now. How did the pilot hold up to your expectations?
Ariana Romero: I was 10 when The O.C. premiered (and turned 11 exactly a week-and-a-half later). I’m pretty sure I was either too embarrassed to watch it or genuinely not allowed. This was the era when my mom wouldn’t let me watch American Idol because it was “too mean.”
Now that I’ve seen the pilot… Mariela Romero was probably right. At face value, I don’t think my prepubescent brain could have handled Ryan and Marissa’s overwhelmingly sexy cigarette meet-cute or the horny high school party (the tub threesome!). But it’s more than that. Our introduction to Ryan is sad. His mom abandons him without a hint of a new address — something seriously devastating for me to see even now, at 28. The way Marissa’s “best friends” abandon her in front of her house when she’s drunkenly incapacitated — it’s sad. They don’t even turn her on her side in case she gets sick. How did you feel returning to it as an adult after a t(w)eendom of loving the show?
AC: I have rewatched The O.C. multiple times since it ended with a devastating Patrick Park montage in 2007, but it’s been at least a couple of years since my last deep dive into the series. The thing that surprised me most this time around is just how skilled Mischa Barton is as Marissa. Playing an “it girl” is hard because by definition. You’re not relatable; you’re the girl everyone wants to be. But Marissa is genuinely likeable. She has this glow about her that is personable and also aspirational — I want to steal her boyfriend and her clothes (yes, even the low rise jeans I have forever sworn off — she’s that good), but also I want her to braid my hair. That is Acting! Every time she enters a room it’s like someone turned the lights up. I don’t think Barton gets enough credit for what she did with that character.
Another thing I realized is that though I will forever be a Seth Cohen girl at heart — even though he really is a very toxic boy — I am extremely horny for Sandy. The eyebrows! The dad jokes! The bagels! Peter Gallagher really did that.
AR: Though I may be extremely into high school shows now, I didn’t really watch many of them as an actual young person. I was too busy obsessively researching Supernatural. I’m deeply thankful I wasn’t given the chance for Seth to imprint on me at such an impressionable age (although I still date men exactly like him to this day). That inevitable crush would have owned my soul.
As a now-adult, I also see the massive appeal of Sandy. There is maybe no one I would love to see on dating apps more than a young Sandy Cohen: handsome, a good guy lawyer, and elated to support his high-powered wife. Seth Cohen is the crush, but Sandy Cohen is the dream. This is a man who will smile at the unnecessarily extravagant high school fashion show fundraiser and teach a struggling youth how to tie a tie.
AC: Okay, I’m happy you brought up the fashion show, because….the fashion on this show is truly unparalleled. We talk a lot about the influence of Gossip Girl, but for me, The O.C. was the North Star. It totally captured the Hollister look of its era — crop top henleys, low rise drawstring pants — and elevated it to couture. Marissa and Summer wear things you could technically find at the mall; they just own the very expensive version of that item. It was a lot more achievable to replicate as a teen. Since the show aired, I have never straightened my hair without asking myself “too Avril Lavigne?” Thank you, Julie Cooper (Melinda Clarke), for that defining life advice.
There are so many scenes from this show I think about on a daily basis — were there any that you knew of through general pop culture but were surprised by in context?
AR: So many, honestly. I had seen the juxtaposition of Summer shrieking “Look what I stole” over two glasses of Champagne, only to be one-upped by Marissa’s entire bottle of vodka so many times on social media. In the series, it’s more than a silly meme sibling to “You vs. The Guy She Tells You Not to Worry About” — it’s a really concise way of showing us who Marissa is. She’s past being impressed by a couple of glasses of bubbly in a bathroom. Marissa is at the point where she requires a mobile bar in her purse. This is both Cool Girl edgy, and concerning, considering she ends up passed out in her driveway by the end of the episode.
Then there is the “Welcome to the O.C., bitch!” of it all. As someone who professionally watches Greys Anatomy, I technically know Chris Carmack — aka Marissa’s awful boyfriend Luke — through the world of Grey Sloan Memorial. I spent so much of the pilot waiting to see Chris go full-blown, iconic quote jerk. The scene more than lived up to expectations. Plus, it was oddly emotional to find out Ryan doesn’t just get jumped at the party for being from “out of town,” like I had assumed. He ends up in the fight protecting Seth, and that is sweet! I love my handsome, brooding boy, as I keep telling you.
AC: Having seen only the pilot at this point, what are some of your predictions for the season?
AR: Sandy’s wife Kirsten, played by Kelly Rowan, must eventually warm to Ryan and his puppy dog eyes. I cannot wait to see him embraced by the entire family — it’s what he deserves. Speaking of the Cohens, I had no idea Summer had never even met Seth before the series. Thanks to their now-mythologized romance, I had assumed she had at least copied his homework during study hall or something. That relationship is due for an expansion.
Beyond that, the finale has to include someone screaming, “Farewell to The O.C., bitch,” right?
AC: Just you wait, Ari. Just you wait.