How do you live with yourself?
Here, I correct one of the massive gaps in my own TV knowledge-base: The O.C.
At the Television blog, TV Surveillance, critic Cory Barker runs a bi-weekly feature called "Test Pilot," where two critics watch one pilot of a significant television show. One has seen the pilot, and, ideally, the rest of the show. The other has not.
In this case, I'm the know-nothing. Barker asked me, from my perch of ignorance, if I'd review the O.C. pilot. I agreed.
If you want to watch along, most episodes are streaming at, for some reason, The WB.
Here's my take:
Call it the Beverly Hill’s Law: The amount of bitchy drama in any givenhigh school is directly proportional to the average income level of itsstudents. —-
The wealthier the parents, the more concerned with social hierarchyare the kids. Cut-throat, status-obsessed parents have a habit ofraising cut-throat, status-obsessed children. Especially in that certainpart of TV land where, in their fancy houses and prestigious incometax bracket, live the teen dramas.
It’s a place where guilty pleasures don’t get much more guilty or pleasurable.
There are dramas featuring teens, like Friday Night Lights. But those are very different than teen dramas (pronounced duh-raaamaas,) those shameless stories rife with OMGs and WTFs I-can’t-believe-he-just-said-thats. Think Gossip Girl.
Gossip Girl (at least the TV show) was created by JoshSchwartz. He’s the guy who, at 26, became theshowrunner of The O.C..
Until now, my knowledge of The O.C. has beenlimited to:
1). a brief clip of the pilot on the big-screen TV atGrandma’s house in 2003
2). passing references on Arrested Development, and
3). that one Saturday Night Live digital short where everyone is shooting each other to an Imogene Heap tune.
I didn’t start watching TV — at all — until 2006 so the fact that I missed the O.C. pilot isn’t surprising.
I have, however, seen the first season of Gossip Girl. But where Gossip Girl’s carefully-coiffed, hyper-clever dialogue was its focus, in The O.C.,the dialogue is less showy. Instead, it’s a show about setting. Newport,Calif., is drawn as a place of a glorious excess — gilded andglowing, but rotten to the core. It’s everything we love and hate aboutwealth. It’s simultaneously seductive and repulsive — the perfectTV-friendly combination.
Even more attractive to audiences? The protagonist is a bad boy — no, a 15-year-old girl’s dream of a bad boy. He steals a car. He disrespects authority figures. He punches all sorts of people. He even smokes.
But he has a baby face, perfectly non-threatening hair, and he dresses smooth and wrinkle-free. At least the 10 Things I Hate About You ABCfamily show shelled out for leather jacket for its harmless rogue. Ryanlooks like the clean-shaven evangelical church boy pretending to be asinner in a First Presbyterian “Jesus Saves” theater dance number.Tim Riggins nailed the uncomfortable-in-a-suit look. But Ryan Atwoodlooks uncomfortable out of them.
Still, he serves a crucial narrative purpose. Ryan is both The New Guyand the Fish Out Of Water. He’s the audience surrogate, letting us seethe crazy/beautiful hedonism of Newport through his eyes. Even moreimportantly, he’s the catalyst to upset the status quo.
Peter Gallagher, as Sandy Cohen, the kindly defense attorney whotakes Ryan in at a whim, is a less predictable choice. He looks odd.Meaningful. Soulful, even. Casting only conventionally beautiful peopleis one of the biggest mistakes a teen drama can make. Gallagher’spresence is a good sign for the show’s future.
Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), meanwhile, is your typical Josh Schwartznerd: A decent-looking guy who’d probably be pretty cool if he juststopped stuttering and had a little confidence. Knowing almost nothing about the future of The O.C., and a whole lot about the general Josh Schwartz M.O., I predict Seth becomes a lot more cool and confident over the series run.
The template for a successful pilot is seen even more clearly in theplot, which touches on every event you’d expect in a salacious teen drama. It begins with a crime. It morphs into lifestyle porn. It throws intwo or three love triangles. It gives you the requisite cuh-razy party(did you hear about that threesome, bro?) that ends in the requisitefight.
Some pilots throw two or three baited lines in the water to keep the viewers hooked. The O.C. throws in a dozen.
Check out the number of plotlines that, within a single episode, The OC sets up:
1) Ryan’s brother is a bad influence on him.
2) Sandy sees some of himself in Ryan and trusts him far more than he probably should.
3) Sandy’s wife is suspicious of Ryan.
4) There’s a wee bit of tension between Sandy and his wife.
5) There’s an entirely different sort of tension between Sandy’s wife and Marissa’s mom.
6) Ryan may be a destructive influence on Seth
7) Seth likes Summer…
8 ) … but Summer’s totally into Ryan…
9) … who is sort of interested in Marissa…
10) …who is dating a jock asshole cliché.
11) Marissa has a drinking problem.
12) Summer, in all likelihood, seems like a bad friend to Marissa.
13) There’s something really, really weird going on with Marissa’sdad — what with the angry bathroom visits and the suits at his door —and Ryan knows about it.
14) Ryan’s mom left him.
15) There are multiple bared midriffs and low-cut blouses inNewport, a plot point we will continue to follow veryclosely.
Teen dramas subsist on voracious conflict, twists andplot momentum. Ultimately, this sort of show burns up under its ownunsustainable metabolism. But a methodical show that metes out its plotpoints — well, those rarely get past the first season. And the O.C. pilot gives the show enough fuel to keep it burning hot and fast for a very long time.
This is a shameless show, but — and this is key — it's neverdesperate. In some pilots you can hear cynical wheels of marketcalculation turning. But, in the O.C. pilot the wheels spin so smoothly, so effortlessly, they lull you into just succumbing to entertainment.
Conclusions on legacy: One episode in, I don’t see The O.C. as a revolution of teen drama as much as a refinement. In the same way Modern Family is a masterful refinement of the family-sitcom formula, The O.C.almost perfectly hones the teen drama formula. “Trust me,” 26-year-oldJosh Schwartz tells TV executives and the American public, with agleaming roguish smile. And we did.
Finally, Cory gives his thoughts on the series legacy. Here's a selection. The rest — and there is a lot — is at his blog.
Today we’re here to discuss my — and I’m guessing a lot of people’s — favorite teen drama of all-time, The OC. I guess it’s fitting that we’re discussing The OCright before Thanksgiving, as the series always made great episodes outof the biggest holidays, including Thanksgiving. ... Like Dawson’s Creek, I’m very, very familiar with this series and thus will be serving as the veteran voice. Let’s do this:
I think The OC is my favorite television series ofall-time. Period.... Ithink a lot of this has to do with the fact that I was in the same yearschool-wise as Ryan, Seth, Summer, Taylor and Marissa, which made itfeel as if the series was the backdrop to my high school life.
But I do think it’s more than that. What the series nailed the best,aside from the grandiose emotional moments like the [spoilers at Cory's blog] .. Ryan and Seth are legitimate outsiders in the Newport world,but the pilot and subsequent episodes do a really great job of showinghow even in the most popular corners of the world, there is loneliness.And importantly, the series approached these kinds of stories withoutmaking it seem like “Oh, woe is me” for the rich and fabulous, insteadthe money often felt like a surface tension to really get to the messedup psyches that come along with living in a suffocating world, whetheryou’re rich or not, or cool or not.
... The OCpilot and for the most part, the whole first, second and fourth seasons— don’t ask me about the third season, sigh — are just sharp.
It’s not particularly edgy, but it is self-aware in how the storiesit is telling exist as fairly familiar tropes of not only the teendrama genre, but storytelling in general. The pilot is perhaps a littledarker than the series is overall, but it’s not melodramatic orself-involved like some of the WB series of the ’90s and from thebeginning, all the elements that will later be important to the series’full run are here — Ryan and Seth’s relationship, Ryan trying to fitin, Sandy being an awesome parent and lots of punching — that it’s hardto say this episode doesn’t exemplify what The OC is...
A few things really stick out about the actual events of the pilotepisode that seem worth mentioning. First of all, despite the undyinglove I think every fan of the series has for Seth and Summer as acouple, the pilot depicts what I always thought were the strongestrelationships in the series: Seth and Ryan, Ryan and Sandy and Sandyand Seth....
Moreover, I’ve always appreciated the series’ dedication to Ryan’s“otherness,” I guess you could call it. So many series or movies havethe stereotypical “outsider” from “the other side of the tracks” orwhatnot who aren’t really that different (just like 90210‘sBrandon and Brenda), but this episode — which is really just part oneof a three-part pilot, if I remember correctly — goes out of its way tomake sure that Ryan doesn’t really understand how this place operateswhatsoever and is from a legitimately bad place. It even has a name!Chino! ...
Outside of the text itself, The OC brings us a lot todiscuss. The series exists as one of the biggest legitimate culturalphenomenons that came out of the broadcast television world in the 21stcentury — others being Lost, Grey’s Anatomy, The Office, Idol, Glee and probably 24 and Desperate Housewives — but barring a complete Glee flame-out, it also exists as the series with shortest time in the spotlight since Twin Peaksback in the early part of the ’90s. There are probably a lot of reasonsfor the series’ quick rise and fall, but what is perhaps mostinteresting is the impacts of having a fairly young audience,especially in the 21st century. [Reasons at Cory's blog]
As a series a part of the teen drama genre, The OC servesas an interesting change of pace, but also something of a return toform in some ways. By that I mean it discards a lot of the pretensionand earnest hues of the WB’s lot that tired folks out by the first fewyears of new millennium and instead brings back some of the debaucheryand excess that defined 90210. However, the series takes the self-awareness of Dawson’s Creekand ramps it up to 11, maybe 12, which helps serve as something of acommentary on how stupid lives of excess can be. The Cohen’s might berich, but they don’t really live like it in a luxurious or lavishsense, and they often make fun of the stupid parties and celebrationsthat the other people want them to go to...
And if we think about the pop culture references and the holiday gimmicks, The OC was definitely the most post-modern entry in the teen drama genre, even if there’s an indication that it’s been passed by Gossip Girl.However, the FOX series was always willing to clash together thingsthat shouldn’t presumably go together — Christmas and Hanukkah! — andcomment on itself...
Finally, I think the biggest point to make about The OC inrelationship to the teen drama genre is that it basically killed it.Hear me out: While certain smaller networks and channels like the CWand ABC family can produce and air their fair share of new teen dramashere in 2010 and for as long as they want in the future, I would beshocked to see one become legitimately “successful” in the traditionaltelevision sense. Though some of that has to do with the lack ofsuccesses across television in general, the teen drama has seeminglybeen hit particularly hard and turned into something of a niche genre. The OC rose and fell so quickly that it scared any of the bigger networks off, particularly FOX, and now series like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liarshave to redefine their values based on internet buzz, Gawker coverageand tweets — or something. Thus, I think it’s absolutely fair to call The OC as the last “real hit” teen drama, and I kind of love it that way.For someone like me... it’s interesting to seehow quickly the series has been forgotten, especially since Schwartzhas moved on to two other series that take elements of this one inearnest — Chuck is obviously an extension of Seth Cohen, Blair feelslike a similar extension of Summer in some ways and Serena is an exactextension of Marissa in that she sucks majorly — but it seems like timehasn’t been kind. However, I think it’s fairly apparent that the seriesexists as the most well-respected mainstream successful teen drama ofall-time and that’s where it should be.
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