Editor, White Cover Magazine
“I don’t remember what made the premiere of The OC such an event. This was 2004, pre-Instagram and Facebook—even pre-MySpace!!!—so there could only have been a few ads on TV here and there. And yet, despite the lack of “brand activations” and poorly generated hashtag campaigns, teenagers were brimming with devotion before the first episode had even aired. In front of my television that night, and for many nights to come, The OC, FOX’s teen drama was the world’s most important thing.”
That’s a solid paragraph, the nut of an excellently titled look-back article published on Vice today, ‘Welcome Back to The OC, Bitch’, written by Issy Beech. And that may or may not be the author’s real name.
It’s a fun exercise to look back and remember something that, at the time, seemed like the present and the future in one. And because of The OC‘s awareness of its own place in pop cultural history, the Josh Schwartz’s baby seemed to often have a couple feet in the past, too. Not necessarily in the past or elderly in any way, but more in the way you use your shoe to scoop sand from behind you into the batter’s box. A little bit of, ‘I’m going to take the best of what’s back there and use it right now.’
As Beech’s intro there notes, The OC was a phenomenon.
That’s the easiest and most obvious way to sum up a show that deserves so much more than just a sum-up. But it was also a show that doesn’t deserve one at all.
It existed in a vacuum, a bizarre one year slice of trend-setting glory. It was a comet with a satellite dish on top. FOX was, during those years of the early 2000s, the heavyweight network. When it came to after-dinner entertainment, at least. This was when TBS and Peachtree clocked in with an exhausting slate of Friends and Sex and the City reruns (all while those two shows were still, basically, airing new ones). This was an era of appointment viewing, where you’d actually head online to read fucking recaps of shows because you couldn’t catch up any other way if you missed it.
Oh, you didn’t see what happened on The OC last night? Too bad. All your friends did. And you’ll never get to watch it again.
It was really rather stupid, when you think about it. But I think that, because TV was so primitively experienced only 10 to 15 years ago, Beech is all the more flummoxed as to how or why or where The OC came from. How did it explode? How did we all know to gather around our own respective sets that first episode? How did we know to hit the watering hole if we didn’t know it was a watering hole?
It all seems so random. Like it never happened. And because that first season in Orange County carried more moments, more weight, and more lasting impact than a whole start-to-finish series boxset of most other sitcoms and hour-long dramas of its era, those 12 months of pure pulp and teenage soapiness feels like a decade’s worth of televised entertainment today.
But it wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t random, now that you see it. It all made such perfect sense.
We didn’t know it then, or maybe we did, but those years sucked. Florida fucked up an election. New York City was attacked from the air and, in the few years following 9/11, the United States was covered by a fog of conservatism and sensitivity, Christianity and Evangelism, with a default setting of over-compensating patriotism that fluctuated between ‘Freedom Fries‘ and erect crowds singing along to Star Spangled Banner. It was safer to pray than it was to pry. The corporate Yankees ruled baseball. So did steroids. The boring-ass Red Wings and New Jersey Devils won Stanley Cups, the even-more-boring-ass San Antonio Spurs and the stacked Lakers sank threes and threw down slam dunks, passing their trophy back-and-forth. 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004. Those years were all basically one elongated Lord of the Rings ending – never-ending, fading to black and returning to show the same shit you thought you just saw over and over and over… and over again. Chicago won Best Picture. Richard Linklater didn’t make a movie. Bill Maher got cancelled for suggesting that suicide took courage. And then he got a new show. Those years were years of dynasty – but only dynasties the majority of us never really cared about or benefitted from, just Steinbrenners and oil executives and Alex Rodriguez. It was all ugly ties and baggy suits and parking lots, Wal Marts and Microsoft without Apple.
Those years weren’t just black and white. Even worse. They were grey, too.
And The OC was an antidote.
It was aspirational. It was an in-crowd for outsiders. (“You know what I like about rich kids? Nothing.”) It was bright and beautiful and blemish-free. And California, here we come. It was the ultimate Netflix show, long before Netflix or binge-watching was a thing. But also, The OC was absolutely unnecessary. In the many ways it broke from American culture at the time, it also rode the conservative wave, too – it was super-white, and while it shit on idiotic wealth it had no problem praising idealistic wealth. The thesis seemed to be: you don’t need a Rolls Royce but you deserve a Range Rover, if you’ve worked noticeably you’ve worked hard enough, and you’ll be a 25 year old in Grade 12 for three years.
I mean, it was just a TV show. But TV shows are never just TV shows. You know?