Homeschool:

The O.C.

By SARAH YANNI & ZAKERY BENJAMIN

HOMESCHOOL is a recurring column that explores the current landscape of adolescent TV and film. Authors/partners Sarah and Zak review the cringiness of each drama, and perform some much-needed self-analysis, attempting to unearth why the genre dominates their viewing catalogue.

For our second installation of HOMESCHOOL, we’re diving into the seminal early 2000s drama, The O.C., which we diligently watched in 2021 in our Los Angeles apartment, a safe distance from the show’s Newport Beach setting. 

It seems that the show has had a recent resurgence. Perhaps it’s due to the Welcome to the O.C., Bitches! podcast, hosted by Melinda Clarke (Julie Cooper) and Rachel Bilson (Summer Roberts), which discusses each episode with special guests.

Or maybe it’s because nostalgia is nice, and like the shows we analyzed in HOMESCHOOL segment one, it feels both dramatic and safe. Except this time, it’s with a hint of undeniable early 2000s flair, akin to a Death Cab for Cutie guitar intro that will always hold a place in our hearts (and in, like, most of the episodes in season one). 

Ostensibly revolving around the four characters of Seth Cohen, Summer Roberts, Ryan Atwood, and Marissa Cooper, the show follows these teens and their families as they traverse high school, fall in love, break up, fall in love again, fight, run away, and hang out in an eternally open diner.

The show’s efforts to make satire of an era where Paris Hilton passed for a teen role model fell short, but still—if you’re looking for a cringey blast from the past, with an incredible soundtrack, stream these four seasons as soon as you can.

CRINGE-O-METER: SLIDING SCALE BETWEEN 7-9, DEPENDING ON SEASON

S: So this was my first time watching The O.C., although its presence permeated my Southern California upbringing in a vague way. I always knew it existed.

Z: Yeah, I had seen some episodes from the later seasons, but this was my first time really sitting and watching.

S: Something I was thinking a lot about is, what is it like to watch this show in 2021? What has aged the worst? If this show was made today, what do you think would be different? 

I keep returning to season two, when they make Marissa a lesbian for like, a handful of episodes. In general, the show never addressed that. I feel like in 2021, TV almost aggressively tries to be on the nose of “woke youth culture,” so it would probably become this central component of her character.

Which is not to say that having diversity is bad; it’s important! But shows today can also feel almost like they’re checking boxes, without actually having three-dimensional narratives about queerness or other identities? I guess The O.C. felt like it was doing even less than that; it felt like they were throwing it in because it was like, oh, this is reaallyyy edgy

Z: Yeah, edgy, but in the sense of like, we’re a cool show because we have this type of character. It feels like they threw that in for some sort of representation, whereas today that wouldn’t cut it. I also think their embrace of materialism would have to come off differently if the show was made today.

Is there a lesson to be learned about capitalism on The O.C., or are they just putting it on display? 

S: Is there a lesson to be learned about capitalism on The O.C., or are they just putting it on display? 

Z: I do think it’s just putting it on display, and kind of the only lesson at the end is like, you see what is it that ultimately makes them happy? They get a new house in a new place. And Ryan is the manager of the construction site instead of the worker. So it’s a kind of bootstrap narrative for the poor kid from Chino (a place that the show makes out to be third-world) and a look-how-much-happiness-money-can-buy-us narrative for the rest of the Cohens. In the end, dolla dolla bills. 

S: Yeah. I feel like there’s a lot of memes from season one where Ryan talks about hating rich kids. And I feel like there was more overt commentary on how stupid everyone is… although there are later scenes that address this, like when Summer becomes engaged and hangs out with the other young Newport Beach brides, and realizes they are horrifically vapid.

Z: But that has more to do with personality than money. Nobody in the show really ever breaks out of their class bubble. I think, though, the show had to toe a fine line between being a little bit satirical and also not alienating its entire audience, which was, you know, FOX TV watchers.

Something I thought about a lot is: do you think the show forces the viewer to sympathize with characters who are “bad?” 

S: Who are you thinking of? 

Z: Volchok. He’s clearly a bad guy—he’s a misogynist, and gets off on senseless violence—but they still make him almost sympathetic at times in a way that I’m wondering is harmful to an audience of potentially very impressionable teenagers, who are thinking about how the world’s going to be as they head off to college or start their own relationships? 

S: But then if they were just so clearly bad, then like, Marissa wouldn’t have a character arc.

Z: Okay, then take Oliver for example.

S: Clearly a psychopath. He’s constantly lying and manipulating the people around him, and once Marissa suspects all of this, he gaslights her and cries about being abandoned until she returns to his side. 

Z:  Yeah, clearly bad. 

S: But I don’t think they tried to humanize him. I do think he was clearly bad, it’s just Marissa has awful judgment. Like I think I was more frustrated with her the whole time… her involvement with these guys just really showed her intense savior complex.

Z: But do you think that they’re trying to portray her as clearly someone with like, stereotypical “daddy issues?” Also, she’s literally an alcoholic and no one ever addresses this the entire show…

S: Yeah, that’s true. I’m also thinking about something I read about the trope of the disaster girl, and like she obviously had neglectful parents and a substance abuse issue, but it still all looks almost glamorous, living with all this money and no supervision. And I don’t know if I’m just expecting her to be a role model? Maybe she was just meant to be disastrous and not anything more. 

Z: Yeah. I guess the fact that she dies is part of that. 

S: Yeah, that’s true. But it feels incomplete.

They couldn’t have dropped these kids anywhere else, you know, they’re constantly fleeing to the ocean for dramatic effect.

Z: Yeah, after Volchok kills Marissa, they try to show how his actions affected him negatively and ask the audience to excuse him. My point isn’t that people are irredeemable, but the show doesn’t exactly have the prison abolition vibe to match. I think, though, the most obnoxious was definitely Oliver, because he’s the most dangerous type. 

S: Yeah, the creator Josh Schwartz was from Rhode Island and went to USC, and that’s where he was exposed to the crazy world of Newport Beach dynasty youth. I also went to USC, and I mean, you and I are both from Southern California, so I think we can attest to having met people like this on more than one occasion. 

Z: Yeah, watching this show as someone from Southern California might have made it easier to see through Oliver. We meet a lot of Olivers—entitled and self-centered, without much regard for the lives of those they use along the way.  

S: The setting of the show feels pretty perfect in that regard; there’s something about the beachy rich youth culture of Orange County that can’t quite be replicated in other places. They couldn’t have dropped these kids anywhere else, you know, they’re constantly fleeing to the ocean for dramatic effect.

Z: Staring at the waves to “find themselves.”

S: Okay, ending bit, quick fire round: best and worst character arcs.

Z: The character arcs are just unrealistic. I think it would’ve taken Ryan longer to adapt to his new life. And it’s not even like they were, you know, limited by time—there’s almost a hundred episodes in four seasons—and it seems like the only thing that really made him uncomfortable about his new world was that he had access to a little bit of money, but it would be a lot more than that I think. 

S: Yeah, he just takes to driving the Range Rover like it’s normal. 

Z: But the most problematic is definitely Ryan’s dad who shows up in the last season, clean cut, handsome, and the object of Julie Cooper’s affections, despite the fact that he used to beat Ryan’s mom, who gets much less sympathy. 

S: And she’s always painted so negatively and frazzled and manic.

Z: I think that was the show’s way of “being real” about how difficult it can be to pull yourself together when the issues compound. Her portrayal isn’t a huge problem for me until they offer the father’s redemption story.

S: I also think Seth’s character arc is pretty bad. And Seth is so cute, okay, he’s supposed to be this antithesis to Newport vibe, loves indie music and comics, seems vaguely sensitive. There’s a reason we all have a crush on him! But I would have assumed that with Summer’s character arc, where she goes to college and becomes radicalized… I was waiting and wishing for Seth to also do that, but he just kind of stays the same.

Z: But it shows that at the end of the day, he’s not an excellent person. He’s still just the product of his unquestioned privilege; he doesn’t hate Newport because of its wealth and excess, he hates Newport because it’s the place where Summer Roberts could never love him (until Ryan shows up, obvi). He just wants a different type of wealth and excess. 

S: By the end, I honestly liked Ryan more. He was less childish, somehow? 

Z: Yeah. And I think that’s maybe the takeaway: if you never question it or reflect on it, your wealth and privilege will stunt you.

Sarah Yanni is a writer, researcher, and editor, who you can learn more about at sarahsophiayanni.com. Favourite season of The O.C.: 2

Zak Benjamin is a high school teacher, who has no online footprint so his students can’t stalk him. Favourite season of The O.C.: 1