Every generation has a show that it’s lucky to get. Our generation has dozens.
Some will lay claim to Seinfeld, The Sopranos or Mad Men. Others would say Breaking Bad or maybe even Friends. For me, it’s The OC.
I count myself privileged to have spent so much time with Seth Cohen, Ryan and Marissa and the rest of the gang, listening to Phantom Planet in the sun and shadows of Newport Beach. The show was a phenomenon of Southern California fascination, a precedent upon precedents for how an upcoming generation would think about emo bands and comic book nerds. It was a primer on leather cuff bracelets and Spoon songs. Every twenty- or thirty-something who has not yet watched the show must do so, and can, as it is available on Hulu this month. More so than any show in the past decade, The OC has seeped into our cultural consciousness in indelible ways. We owe it significant thanks—especially the nerds out there.
Here are three ways The OC changed television:
Triumph of the Nerds
The OC did a lot for everyone in pop culture, but its real benefactors were waifish, sensitive boys who worshipped indie bands and had a penchant for comic book heroes. Suffice it to say, Adam Brody as Seth Cohen (sometimes it’s hard to separate the two) paved the way for the hot indie nerd/geek chic; a world in which Ben Wyatt on Parks and Recreation could be conceivably considered sexy. At certain moments during The OC, and especially during scholarly collegiate re-watchings, it was hard to believe that Seth Cohen’s character had ever been seen as a maladjusted outcast. Only within the live context of weekly viewings and the saturation of Hollister in 2003 does this make sense. It was a time where puca shell necklaces and Abercrombie & Fitch were still at the height of their suburban takeover. Seth Cohen (or, rather, Josh Schwartz) created the ironic, Modest Mouse-obsessed, sexually inexperienced and self-deprecatingly witty guy who also happened to be kind, thoughtful and the adoptive brother to a runaway Chino youth.
Before this, guys like that weren’t cool. The OC made them cool. This character recreated the idea of what could be socially acceptable through the lens of a hyper-sexualized Southern California backdrop, and a teenager who sat just outside the gated communities and cliffside beaches. He wore band t-shirts, read Michael Chabon and listened to The Thrills while Britney Spears was still snake-dancing her way through MTV. Throughout four seasons, he slowly but surely shifted the tectonic indie plates into the mainstream. In fact, future generations may never understand how seismic this shift actually was, given that it’s no longer cool to wear puca shell necklaces and listen to Hoobastank. Seth Cohen gave us Chrismukkah, a Wonder Woman fantasy and a reason to learn how to skateboard. After The OC, the whole definition of “nerd” took on layers, and a lot of them were cool.
The End of the Boring, Bored Girl
It was hard to imagine in 2003, but after watching The OC in its entirety approximately fourteen times, I feel comfortable with the idea that Marissa Cooper may have been the last of the tragic and beautiful boring girls, in the grand tradition of Winnie Cooper and Julia Salinger. Although Marissa was the de facto heroine of the show, she had no notable qualities except a propensity for shifting her glance awkwardly down and underage drinking that felt so trite even the show’s own self awareness couldn’t save it. She had no memorable interests or positive qualities worth noting. Instead, she was positioned as cool in the most quintessential early 2000s way: perpetual boredom. She dated the water polo player (puca shells!) and inhaled vodka, and while the show tried to contrast this with a deeper, less conventional side (she listened to Sticky Little Fingers and The Cramps), it felt peripheral and inessential to her character. There was never any real sense that she had more substance than some fucking amazing cheekbones.
[The next paragraph contains spoilers]
So when she was killed off in the final season, it sometimes felt like she was one of the last of TVs boring white girls we saw for a while. In fact, the emergence of the manic pixie dream girl —and the AV Club’s coining of the phrase with Elizabethtown—almost perfectly coincide with Marissa’s demise in 2006.
[End of spoilers]
After The OC, there was an onslaught of leading females who bring so much more personality to the table. From Tami Taylor to Liz Lemon to Schwartz’s own Gossip Girl bitch, Blair, there are a lot more complicated females at the center of television now. Seth may have kicked off a wave geek chic, but Marissa gave us a bow and a wave to the blasé ennui of the pretty girl. After her, being boring was no longer an end to itself in leading ladies. The trope was put to merciful death. In fact, The OC seemed anxious to help bury the trope even as they typified it, forever winking and nodding that Ryan and Marissa were perfect for each other because of how dull they were. By the time the lively, opinionated Summer became a show regular, Marissa had already been established as a conveniently passive plot device, forever being hurtled into positions where she needed to be saved/rescued/picked up from an alleyway in Mexico. She’s both the crux of the show and its least necessary part, a contradiction that the show itself seemed to understand. She might be the most beautiful thing within a mile radius of anywhere she stood, but it was her ragtag circle of friends who carried the show (and her. So many times.)
Music as Another Character
You could argue no other show in recent history has done quite what The OC did for music. Through the guise of Seth Cohen’s own musical interests, viewers were “introduced” to Jem and Bell X1, to Rooney and The Killers, to Matt Pond covering Oasis and Imogen Heap becoming the background for a pop culture moment that was crystalized by its parodies. And, of course, it reintroduced us to “Hallelujah,” in all its glory and several different renditions.
Before The OC, it’s not that music wasn’t an important part of television, but outside of a few iconic opening jingles, it was never integral. The songs different TV shows used were obvious or forgettable, and they certainly never revealed anything deeper about the character themselves. But with The OC, we were able to watch Seth Cohen watching Rooney, while we ourselves became fans of Rooney (ever so briefly). We listen to Damien Rice’s “Cannonball” in the background of a true teenage moment between Seth and Summer, and it was suddenly more than just another angsty teenager scene. It was an angsty song, and was one of the many reasons we bought the soundtracks, of which the show eventually released six. The OC soundtracks became to independent rock what Now! That’s What I Call Music! had been to Top 40.
Without The OC, Death Cab For Cutie would have never become mainstream, and boyfriends would have never given Bright Eyes albums to their girlfriends for Valentine’s Day. Without The OC, we wouldn’t have the omnipresence of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” and we don’t have Ryan Adams’ cover of “Wonderwall” becoming temporarily as popular as Oasis’ original. We don’t have the rise of Bloc Party, the re-discovery of Spoon or the mid-career resurgence of Coldplay. We never even hear about the Album Leaf. We don’t recognize The Long Winters or Rachel Yamagata, and we never listened to Electric President or Guster ( people forget how much Guster owes to The OC).
If you want a comprehensive and overwhelming list of all the bands featured on The OC, don’t worry: there’s a comprehensive Wikipedia page right here.
The music was groundbreaking; it set a precedent for shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Parenthood, for Friday Night Lights and Scrubs. Music was more than just a backdrop on The OC; it was another character.