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Yeah, we're still talking about The O.C. 20 years later

Two decades after the show began, we reassess the teen drama's legacy and why it made us want a bagel slicer so badly

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The O.C. poster
The O.C.
Image: FOX

In August 2003, Fox debuted what seemed like just another soapy teen drama. The O.C. had all the usual trappings: rich kids, supportive but sometimes hapless parents, beautiful homes, and a truly wild lack of supervision. But 20 years later, we’re still talking about The O.C. It was exactly the right show for the moment, capturing that early-’00s malaise and speaking to teen viewers (and plenty of older viewers as well) without talking down to them in a way that made The O.C. feel special. And even though it took some wild turns over the course of its four-season run, the series still resonates today. Here, in a roundtable conversation, A.V. Club staffers Mary Kate Carr, Cindy White, Saloni Gajjar, and Matt Schimkowitz delve into the show’s legacy and discuss why it still means so much to so many.

Welcome to the O.C., bitch

Mary Kate Carr: What’s everyone’s first memories of The O.C.? I remember in middle school all the girls I considered “cool” were watching it, but it was never on at my house. (Maybe because they had older sisters.) I didn’t get around to it until I was in college studying in California, which felt like the most appropriate time. I guess I had a pretty shallow understanding of it all those years in between, because I remember being surprised at the depth of it, how funny and clever it was.


Cindy White: I remember the year The O.C. premiered and everyone was talking about it, but it was up against Buffy The Vampire Slayer on Tuesday nights back then, so I never got around to watching that first season until Buffy went on hiatus. So I was a bit behind, but I still got into it. I also remember having discussions with locals at the time about how no one who actually lived here in Orange County ever actually called it that (sometimes just “O.C” but never with “The” in front of it). Now they do. That was the power of that show.

Matthew Schimkowitz: Mine was definitely the Phantom Planet music video, which seemingly played every five minutes on MTV2. Jason Schwartzman was still in the band, so that gave it some credibility. I loved Wes Anderson, so I guess I knew him from Rushmore. But a quasi-celebrity in an “indie rock” band was something of a revelation. Also, the song was catchy as hell—even if I had to put up a strong, “This is poser shit” attitude. The show really didn’t factor into my life at all—other than I think my sister liked it. I thought there was some connection to the Jack Black film Orange County, which I had seen and liked. This must’ve been born out of confusing Adam Brody for Colin Hanks, who of course does an amazing guest spot on the show, but it just didn’t appeal to me. Much like Buffy, I had this impression that because my sister liked it, it was a show for girls and so I was a little embarrassed to be caught watching it. As we all learned for the first time in Barbie: Masculinity is a prison.


Saloni Gajjar: I also didn’t watch it when it aired, but binged it when season four ended. It was my teen drama phase so I was consuming The O.C., One Tree Hill, and Veronica Mars all around the same time (no, it didn’t impact my brain at all, why do you ask?). But I think my earliest memory of The O.C. specifically includes forming a crush on Ryan Atwood, vibing to and discovering new music, and also deciding I Must Visit The O.C. because it feels like the coolest place on the planet. And when I did visit for the first time in the summer of 2011, trust that my family got sick of listening to “California” on day one.

I almost wished though that I watched it when it was airing instead of a binge, because a) I had friends who were watching it in real-time so I knew exactly who Seth, Ryan, Summer, and Marissa were but also b) the early seasons are so long, a break would’ve been nice.

MKC: Right, to this day if the word California comes up in ANY conversation, you know I’m wailing, “California, here we COOOOOME!”

Relative to my age at the time, I don’t think I would’ve appreciated it as much watching it live as I did when I binged it. And I had pretty similar feelings to Matt actually—a little bit of snobbishness, a little bit of not trusting the taste of the girls I knew who watched it. At the time it sort of became synonymous with tabloid culture in my mind because of everything that happened outside the show. It’s nice that at this point 20 years out, the show is appreciated as a smart cultural touchstone that has actually impactful things to say about class. I think The O.C. probably deserves some credit for why we’re (at least somewhat) more willing to take teen shows seriously today.


MS: It’s worth remembering that a lot of people outside the teen demographic were watching it at the time. It was a cultural phenomenon, a humongous show.


SG: I rewatched it in early 2021 after spending 2020 watching comfort shows like Community and New Girl again. I wanted something more dramatic and decided on The O.C. because, well, it’s only four seasons. But also because I wanted to see how my thoughts would differ on it now after all these years. It was so interesting seeing it as an adult. You can really tell how hugely the show impacted pop culture at large—just consider how Seth being a comic book fan would play out now vs. in 2003.


MS: Seth Cohen is really the beginning and the end of an archetype. The last time a dork could be both hot and an outcast on TV. The idea that he’s some sort of loser is laughable now.

MKC: That’s so interesting you say that because I was just going to say, the Seth Cohen type itself has really permeated culture. I can think of a few teen sidekicks who are a Seth blueprint. Stiles from Teen Wolf: a Seth.


MS: Totally. I think I mean that superheroes become cool shortly after The O.C. airs. Spider-Man, which they also do a great parody of, hits in May 2002, and superheroes take over the culture. It really was ahead of the curve in a lot of ways. It was the first to take emo mainstream, too. Another thing for 15-year-old me to be pretentious about.

CW: Seth is the male equivalent of the pretty girl with glasses. Like, don’t try and pretend that he’s not hot just because he’s a nerd.


MS: I’m sure I reacted to Seth the same way other people reacted to Rachel Leigh Cook in She’s All That.

CW: I’m kind of envious of people who got to binge it instead of watching it live. It was a long wait in between seasons. It was the kind of old-school TV schedule they don’t do much anymore. I just looked it up and the first season had 27 episodes! How did they do that?


MKC: Yeah, TV has obviously changed so much, but the way people are still in love with those characters to this day I think can at least partially be attributed to spending that much time with them.

MS: If the writers’ and actors’ strikes go in the artists’ favor, we might get a TV schedule like that again…


CW: Yeah, there was a time when a TV gig was a steady job you could count on.

Saloni Gajjar: The 27 episodes really allowed them to go wild. I know during the course of this conversation I’ll have to Google storylines to confirm what happened when you can’t keep track.


MS: Not to deviate the conversation, but a long schedule like that forces the show down unexpected avenues. And the show got really wacky for better or worse.

I guess this is confession time: I never finished The O.C.

MKC: Let’s get into it!

The OC - 1x09 - Ryan and Marissa Kiss

Season three struggles

MS: Ok, for one thing, I think there is too much pressure on people to start and finish shows. There is only so much time in the day and if something isn’t working, I think it’s totally valid to get off the train. That said, it wasn’t intentional. The show starts getting really creaky in season three, and it became less fun to check in with.


CW: No worries, Matt. You can just go on believing that Ryan and Marissa rode off into the sunset and lived happily ever after. I won’t ruin it.

MS: They get so rude to her! Like I couldn’t believe how cruel the writers are to that character, especially considering how important she was in the first two seasons. I know they kill her off, so no need to hide it from me. I started watching during the pandemic, and as soon as Ryan’s brother came back and Marissa shoots him, I began to lose interest.


SG: Season three is 100 percent the worst one. I don’t blame you for quitting and not coming back, but I will defend four enough to say they try to get back to form and it surprisingly works in some ways. If that’s any motivation …

MKC: Agreed, I liked season four too. They never got more boundary-pushing than Marissa Cooper though. She really experienced everything!


MS: That poor woman.

MKC: In a way, it makes complete sense that she’s the character who got killed off. Where else do you go with her? NOT that I’m condoning the death of Marissa!!


SG: She really did experience everything but I think The O.C. also was a trendsetter in that sense with the rich, troubled teen girl that we also see in shows like Gossip Girl and the 90210 reboot later, but they just took it to the hard extreme by the end.

CW: Also, Veronica from Riverdale? (I only watched the first season or so).

SG: Not to mention, shows like Euphoria, where Cassie feels like a Marissa template in some ways if you really think about it. MK can speak on Riverdale more but that one feels like its own unique category.


MS: I think it’s in season three, but after Caleb dies, Marissa makes an off-hand comment to Summer, I think, like “that’s my step-father, remember?” And it’s this moment where the show acknowledges that it forgot about her.

Okay, I went wild scrubbing through HBO to find this moment, and it’s much earlier than I expected. It’s during “The Chrismukkah That Wasn’t” (sidenote: Chrismukkah was my first memory of The O.C. because my cousins kept talking about this at Hanukkah, but I digress). After Caleb reveals that Lindsey is his daughter, Summer and Marissa have the following exchange:

Summer: “...Suddenly my family, not so dysfunctional.”

Marissa: “You do know this is my family too.”

Summer: “Right, sorry I forget sometimes it’s ... it’s confusing.”

I read this as the show acknowledging that it really didn’t know how to deal with Marissa in the Caleb/Julie storyline and chose to just kind of ignore it.


Anyway, weight off my shoulders. The show never should’ve killed off Caleb.

The OC - 2x24 - Heartbreaking Kirsten Scene

Grounded but messy

CW: Was it in the first season where Julie tries to frame Ryan for murder? These rich daughters always tend to have messy mothers.


MKC: The balance of how absolutely wild it was while still feeling kind of grounded in reality is a testament to the show. Or did it feel grounded? Is that me looking back with rose-colored glasses?

MS: It’s grounded from a very teenage perspective, which is one of its strengths.


CW: It feels that way when you’re watching. It’s not until you try to explain it to someone else that you realize, “Hey, that’s actually bonkers.”

MS: I always laugh at the depiction of adulthood on The O.C. It’s very much like “I have to go make deals in court at my job in a suit because I’m a grown-up!” Very non-specific in a very adolescent way that I find endlessly charming and funny.


SG: Totally agreed. It’s a good mix of “Of course this is how wealthy teens behave because they think they rule the world” but that’s where The O.C.’s gimmick of including Ryan holds up—he was a substitute for us, the outsider, in some ways who gets caught up in their world just like we do.

CW: Ryan is our way in and our POV character.

MKC: And shout out to Sandy Cohen, who was also there side-eyeing the whole business the whole time. And is one of the best TV dad’s EVER.


MS: I love him. I would die for him.

SG: To this day, I want a bagel slicer because of him.

MS: The bagel situation on that show is something else.

A perfect example of “Thanks for making this huge breakfast, but gotta run, mom!”


SG: And I did appreciate during the rewatch that the adult storylines were also messy and silly but with an underlying sense of realism, like Kirsten’s alcoholism

MS: Totally, Saloni. It exists in that late-night soap world. She has one glass of wine and suddenly it’s a whole storyline.


CW: Complete with a classic TV intervention, if I recall correctly.

George Lucas on The OC

Bizarre guest stars and divisive plotlines

MS: Ok. When are we going to talk about George Lucas’ guest appearance? It is so funny.


MKC: There were so many good cameos! The Paris Hilton one sticks out in my mind too. So early 2000s.

SG: Let’s do it now because The O.C. had so many notable appearances! Another 2000s teen drama staple.


MS: Ok, I just want to point out that George says, “alone” very funny at the end of his big speech about skipping the prom to make American Graffiti.

CW: So good. I think Chris Pratt was in season four, wasn’t he?

MS: It’s also one of like nine acting credits in Lucas’ whole career. It must’ve been advertised in 2005 because it was just before Revenge Of The Sith came out, but watching it in 2021, I was flabbergasted to see him pop up.


SG: Pratt is in four, yes.

CW: And Olivia Wilde.

MS: A divisive storyline.

Mary Kate Carr: SUPER. And speaking of: What’s the O.C. storyline that has stuck in your heads the most?


SG: To go back to the beginning, it’s Marissa OD’ing in Tijuana.

CW: After seeing Luke cheat on her!

SG: I think it showed The O.C. was not messing around. But they really went all in with the emotional drama and made it clear Marissa’s story was going to be tragic, in retrospect.


But I also like how that trip was the fun start of Summer/Seth banter because she also opens up to him. So that whole Tijuana storyline feels memorable and still takes up space in my head after 20 years.

MS: I really found that story sad. I find all the Marissa stories sad. She’s such a baby. Won’t someone help this child!


MKC: I love your empathy for her, Matt. There’s a lot that we can say “made the show what it is,” but solidifying that core four chemistry was crucial.

MS: Well, this kind of leads to one of my grand conspiracy theories about the show: Ryan from Chino is cursed.


SG: Say more!!

MKC: Once again: Let’s get into it.

MS: If he’s in the room, gtfo because something bad will happen to you.

MKC: Well, Seth made it out okay. Seth, I would argue, came out better for having Ryan around.


SG: I think they all kind of did. Ryan famously tries to help Marissa all the damn time.

MS: So the expanded version of my theory is that Ryan is forced to relive the series over and over until he gets it right, and every time he helps one person, he creates a new challenge for another. It’s Sisyphus by way of late-night soap opera. Did I mention I was watching a lot of Twin Peaks concurrent with The O.C.?


CW: I would read that fanfic, Matt.

MS: One day, I’ll lay it all out, but first I gotta finish the show!

SG: Matt, I really want you to watch season four now, specifically the seventh episode. It’s a “what if” episode about what everyone’s life would be like if Ryan never came into their lives.

The OC theme song

That soundtrack

SG: What’s also super memorable about The O.C. is its soundtrack. Does anyone recall discovering a major artist or something because of it? And has any teen show since The O.C. been as impactful in that sense?


CW: There was a lot of that going on in these teen shows from the 2000s I believe.

MS: I think you can point to Stranger Things and Wednesday as recent examples. But The O.C. had a musical vibe about it that made it distinctive.


CW: New artists breaking out because they were on a show.

MKC: It set the bar for sure—another way the show is genre-defining. The Summer I Turned Pretty is trying to pick up the mantle, too.


SG: The O.C. and I guess One Tree Hill too made such a huge deal of bringing the artists on the show, not just using their songs but displaying them to the audience, which I think made a real impact.

MS: I think there’s a power in sticking to one genre to capture the atmosphere of the show. And it was a style that was resonating with teens at the time.


CW: I remember that Veronica Mars also had a killer soundtrack. Turned me on The Dandy Warhols.

MS: This pop-punk/indie/emo boom of the early-to-mid-00s.

MKC: To your point, Saloni, the teens themselves were really specific about their music taste. Seth being a Death Cab stan was such a part of his character. And I love that representation for teen music snobs, it’s such a specific and true kind of kid.


SG: Every show under the sun can use Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You,” but I’ll always think of The O.C. when I hear it.

CW: I think that came from Josh Schwartz, who was a big indie music guy (Seth’s taste, that is).


MS: The idea of a teen club, like The Bronze, helps. They always had a place to go and drink soda.

SG: Adam Brody was also a huge Death Cab fan, according to our interview with Rachel Bilson. So they all definitely helped cultivate that vibe. They weren’t actual teens but damn if their music taste didn’t cater to the demographic.


CW: We’ll always have The Bait Shop.

The O.C. - Bait Shop Boom {Marissa Scenes 2x24 #3}

How we see The O.C. today

SG: The O.C. really is a genre-defining teen drama after 20 years. It captured the setting, teen behavior, pop culture, music, fashion, etc. of that era really well (a time capsule as MK aptly put it) and a lot of it holds up today. It was like a weirdly great mix of aspirational yet intangible yet relatable. Some of the storylines are cringe, like Julie and Luke and a lot of season three, but all that was ridiculous enough even when it aired. So revisiting The O.C. after all this time is still a very fun process overall. I think it influenced a generation far more than we realized it at the time, especially because ratings dropped heavily and it ended after only four seasons. All this to say: I think it’s still the type of show that will linger as more people bury themselves in it and find lots of it resonant. (Also shoutout to Rachel Bilson and Melinda Clarke’s Welcome To The O.C. podcast, which also sheds really good light on the making of the show).


CW: As we’ve all demonstrated, it’s still sitting there waiting for new viewers to discover it. I think that will keep happening. It’s hard to explain now what the TV landscape was like back then, because so much has changed. But it will always be seen as a launching pad for a lot of young talent. And as they keep doing more things, I think it will bring more people back.

MKC: I think the longevity proves that people still like good, clever, meaty teen TV. The fact that you can find Seth Cohen fancams on TikTok just shows that young people still want to watch those long seasons and those convoluted crazy storylines! If you build it, they will come.


MS: I really don’t know if there is a The O.C. today. It burned so brightly so quickly, and even then it has way more episodes than the most popular shows now. To my mind, it captures the perspective of being a teen better than most shows because it sees the world through teenage eyes—a very narrow perspective, but still an original one. There’s a charm to that, a charm to watching television that was specifically made for one demographic that suddenly had to serve a bigger one. I keep going back to how adults are portrayed on the show (frankly, the adults take up a lot of air time, so I think it’s valid), but I just find it so funny how it nails how I used to see adulthood. It feels like it was written by a teenager in the best way possible.

MKC: It’s a time capsule in a lot of ways, both in how it’s made and how it was received.


MS: Oh, and I just want to give a shout-out to the original himbo, my favorite doomed dude, Luke, an incredible character whose life was absolutely ruined by Ryan from Chino.

Final thoughts?

CW: I just want to know, if you had to pick one: Seth or Ryan?

SG: Ryan Atwood FTW. Seth is fun and lovely but, and I think my rewatch confirmed this, I couldn’t tolerate him as a boyfriend and they revolved so many of his storylines around Summer so…


MKC: Watching back in the day I was a Seth girl for sure. But I think Ryan would really take care of you. He experienced true growth. I don’t want to experience the Ryan from Chino curse though so I’ll take Sandy Cohen instead!

CW: Seth is totally my type, but as a human being I think Ryan comes out better in the end. Maybe Sandy is the best of both worlds.


MS: Luke. JK, despite the curse, I’m a Ryan man. But the show’s hottest is obviously Julie Cooper. Sandy is so hot, too. Peter Gallagher’s voice is so soothing.

SG: Luke deserves credit for coining “Welcome to the OC, bitch,” at the very least.