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The O.C. ‘Pilot’ Had No Right to Be That Good

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The O.C. ‘Pilot’ Had No Right to Be That Good

Revisiting The O.C.’s Pilot

It’s 2003 and the first week of August. In one month, it’s back-to-school time. But before that, newbie showrunner Josh Schwartz is coming to get you. He’s coming to claim your soul – to sink his hooks into you and drag you into the deepest recesses of his soapy teen drama. Little do you know how much this 90210 knock-off will surprise you with its stubbornness, subversiveness, intelligence, and, most of all, heart. Welcome to the dark side. Or, if you prefer…*punches reader in the face*…welcome to The O.C., bitch.

The O.C. had no right to be as good as it was. Most of these characters appear to be walking, talking cliches: the nerdy kid who gets picked on, the silent brooder from out of town who shows him life outside of video games and comic books, the popular-but-secretly alcoholic girl and her surfer boyfriend who has about as many brain cells as fists.  But as you watch, you realize how self-aware this show is and how it’s taking familiar stories and infusing them with renewed vigor or letting them run alongside very unconventional storylines for this kind of show or even just poking fun at itself. If some things didn’t click – a troublesome mid-season story or an uninteresting character – Josh Schwartz had about a million other things to occupy each of the 45 minutes. The end result, even after a truncated final fourth season, was something truly engaging and worthwhile despite what the haters would tell you (I was going through high school in tandem with these characters and had to make sure no one knew I watched this show). It made premier critic Alan Sepinwall write a friggin’ book about it. And it all began with a kid named Ryan Atwood.

The O.C.‘s pilot begins with the event that eventually takes our protagonist (Ben McKenzie, most recently of Southland fame) out of Chino and into Orange County: his brother steals a car while Ryan is with him, and the two get arrested. Public defender Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher) pays him a visit and ends up bringing him home for the weekend after Ryan’s mom kicks him out. In these first few minutes, so much of what the show represents is set up. Ryan tells Sandy: “Where I’m from, having a dream doesn’t make you smart. Knowing it won’t come true? That does.” As our viewpoint character, we are also aliens entering into the Cohen home with Ryan and slowly feel its residents chip away at that worldview. Mother Cohen, Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), is the resistant one in the pilot – she’s just looking out for her family. But Sandy and Seth (Adam Brody, who literally forced his way into this role) begin to melt away some of Ryan’s natural defenses bred from conditioning and skepticism with their up-front emotion and sympathy. Even the theme song, Phantom Planet’s “California,” is a huge contributor to the tone of the show and would end up being associated with it more than the band (and The O.C. began to focus more and more on being a vehicle for bands trying to break through). As soon as we meet Seth, we’re given a definitive scene of the two main boys playing video games – during which Seth doesn’t think before he speaks and asks if Ryan wants to play Grand Theft Auto, because stealing cars is cool, right? Later in the pilot, the boys return home to talk about the events of the party they were just at. This would go on to be called Seth-Ryan time, something I’m sure rubbed off on more than just me and my brother.

By the end of the pilot, so many ideas have been introduced surrounding all of these characters, including Summer (Rachel Bilson) and Julie (Melinda Clarke), who were given “Guest Star” credits initially but went on to become two of the most important characters in the series. There’s even an unintentional joke thrown in when Kirsten approaches Ryan to explain why she wants him to leave: Ryan is making bacon, which surprises her because we’ll soon find out just how bad Kirsten is at cooking. The adult drama is especially interesting. That would be the thing that would make the series more universally relevant. The Fab Four kids – Ryan, Marissa, Seth, Summer – would always have things going on, but sometimes those plots would play B-story to the A-stories of Sandy, Kirsten, Jimmy, and Julie and the show was better for it.

Josh Schwartz took a lot of risks with The O.C. The first season touched on every single thing that the pilot even peripherally sets up, which made successive seasons intriguing if just to see what Schwartz could do after burning through so much story. But most of those risks eventually paid off, and you can really see a behind-the-scenes passion in the pilot. Right down to the way it is shot, the pilot is trying to convince you it has a story to tell and that the integration of this kid into this society is just as important for the people around him as it is for him. Like another one of my favorite shows, Spartacus, it’s easy to write off The O.C. without giving it much of a chance to impress you. And I understand that. If we had seen a preview for a show like this at the most recent broadcast network upfronts, we probably would have all been rolling our eyes. But if you haven’t seen this series – more than just an episode here or there – you’re missing out on seeing a great writer pull off a great series in a very difficult context. The pilot serves as a representative introduction to a series of seven initial episodes that aired before a break that was over a month-long. More than that, it’s also a great episode of television. If that introduction isn’t enough to convince a viewer to keep watching, then fair enough. But the challenge here, unlike with things more immediately appealing, is to watch in the first place.

  • Sean Colletti
Written By

Sean is a TV and film critic and a poet based in Birmingham, England. His first pamphlet, 'Saeculum', was published with Bare Fiction in 2018.

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