Thursday, February 22, 2007

Happy "OC" Thursday...for the last time

I can still remember the agonizing wait freshman year, the need for the warm southern California sun, transmitted via FOX28, to counter the growing power of northern Indiana winters. Due to baseball coverage, FOX pushed back the premiere of The OC’s second season until November, and what an arduous gap that was to span. We made it work, even before the Season One DVD’s were released, downloading the first season off of the internet (it’s not stealing if you’re going to buy them anyway, only borrowing, like a pre-release) and catching everyone up. The campus positively buzzed – some very happy, others disgusted at the thought of this teenage dramedy distracting their drinking buddies for a hour – on the eve of that first Thursday.

Yes, boys and girls, before there were Grey’s Anatomy watches out on the quad there were signs for OC group viewings and AcousticCafes, OC-style, up all over the place. It was the “it” show, as every 24-hour lounge came to a screeching, darkened halt at 8:00 on Thursdays. Did you want to please the crowed at a freshmen dorm party? Play a little bit of Phantom Planet piano and listen to the cries of joys cut in before the first line.

Of course, by now you all know how this story ends. The second season wasn’t nearly as good as the first, and the third season killed off any of the Trey-aided momentum by adding Jeri Ryan, public schools, a timeslot change and a month-long hiatus due to the Fall Classic. Sure, they tried to make all of us happy by killing Marissa in the end, but the fanbase had dwindled out by then. When you added in the uber-depressing, “Ryan’s a cagefighter” season premiere and the fact new water cooler/college campus wunderkind “Grey’s” was now going head-to-head with it, the show was absolutely doomed.

The OC dies tonight, burning off the remainder of the episodes for a shortened season that returned many of the charms of the successful rookie campaign, but nobody really saw it. They got back to some of the things that worked so well in the initial twenty-two episodes, first putting the Sandy and Kirsten marriage back on a pedestal (marital troubles in the Cohen family really made things in Newport bleak, unless Jimmy Cooper was involved). Autumn Reeser’s deliciously adorable Taylor Townsend managed to become the supporting character so many others (Lindsay, Sadie, Zach, DJ the Yard Guy, Johnny…) had failed to be following Samaire Armstrong’s heart-wrenching exit from the show so many episodes ago, managing to extract the lighter, humorous side of Ryan Atwood. Little Jailbait, Kaitlin Cooper, provided a link back to high school, water polo and blowout parties, connecting the show back to Harbor, even if it was only to let Chris Brown awkwardly portray a band geek for a few episodes.

When you think about it, it’s amazing The OC managed to thrive like it did. It’s not like FOX is particularly adept at marketing anything that doesn’t involve Ryan Seacrest, and so many primetime teen soaps have flopped in the years following 90210. However, The OC powered forward, churning through storylines at such a reckless pace – no story arc lasted more than a month before it was time to move on - it doomed itself. The four season survival is even more remarkable when you consider that the female lead, Mischa Barton, most often resembled a mixture of cardboard and a wet blanket, lacking the ability to make anyone around her any better and generally acting as if she were the secret love child of Vinny Chase and Ellen Pompeo.

So as The OC airs its final episode tonight to a minimal television audience, I’d like you to reflect on the great things it’s achieved. First and foremost, without The OC, there would be no Laguna Beach, and I don’t need to remind you that with no Laguna, there’s no The Hills. Do you want to live in a world where there’s no coke-addled boyfriends and petty fights that are one hundred percent fake, all set to the soundtrack of Natasha Bedingfield and Hilary Duff? I didn’t think so.

Secondly, Josh Schwartz mastered the selection of indie music to frame every single important moment in the show, releasing nearly a dozen soundtracks to complement his art. Other shows have followed this same concept in an effort to add drama (paging Shonda Rhimes), and you mustn’t undervalue the fun in watching indie music lovers, those haters of all things mainstream, sulk as their favorite underground garage bands are used as mood music for some rich, beautiful beach bums on a primetime soap.

Finally, it’s hard to describe what made good OC so good (the magical first season, the revival in the fourth and the scattered flashes in between), but there was something special about it. In last week’s episode, as Seth tries to get an injured Ryan to the hospital following an earthquake (yes, an earthquake), they begin to reminisce, going all meta in a way only The OC could. All the great parts came rushing back, slightly faded but unmistakable, like when you wake up from a great dream and make a point of trying to remember as much of it as you can.

The Seth-Summer-Anna love triangle. Marissa flipping out on her computer and the poolside lawn furniture. Sandy Cohen’s eyebrows. Oliver getting arrested at the Rooney concert. Luke’s gay dad. The Vegas and Miami trips. Dean Hess and Taylor getting caught together. Alex and Marissa on the beach. The entire concept of Chrismukkah. Johnny dying. Any time there was an actual house or beach party, or anything else that reminded you the characters were in high school. The first season finale’s ending, featuring the pitch-perfect Jeff Buckley version of “Hallelujah”. The underrated cinematography, which had some great moments over the years, although no film aficionados would ever admit to such a thing.

The OC was not a perfect show, and unlike when they cancelled Arrested Development, I can’t blame people for not watching it. The show had viewers, but FOX jerked the timeslot around just as the quality dropped, and those same viewers earned the right to walk out. But please, remember the good times to go along with the bad. I wanted to write this to remind you that a dear old friend is on its deathbed, and tonight “California, here we come…” gets the last rites, so turn yourself away from the beautiful hair of both Zach Braff and Patrick Dempsey to say goodbye one final time. If you’ve chuckled at one Seth one-liner, admired Summer’s fashion sense or respected how Sandy could solve any problem in front of him, the show has earned your attention for the last sixty minutes of its existence.

California, rest in peace.

UPDAAAAAATE: Sepinwall interviews Josh Schwartz, the creator of "the defunct as of February 22nd at 10:00 EST" television show. I think he's answering questions later on EW's PopWatch, and I'll get a link up if/when that happens. When you look into what went wrong with The OC, or at least listen to Schwartz, it's less the show's fault and more FOX's for meddling. You see that both in this interview and in the Wall Street Journal piece from a while back. FOX, screwing something up? You don't say.

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