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Tuning Out: Why I Stopped Watching "The OC"

Networks sometimes use the summer to launch new shows. Oftentimes these shows are complete and utter dreck--leftover episodes of now cancelled shows "burned off" in the primetime wasteland of the summer months--or new reality programs that soon spawn huge franchises(Survivor, Amazing Race, Beauty and the Geek, etc.). But every now and then, a network will throw a drama on during the summer in the hopes that, with little else on, an audience will find the show and nurture it and give it the strength to make it through the regular, primetime season.

One such show was The OC. Created by twenty-something wunderkind Josh Schwartz and launched in the summer of 2003, The OC seemed like it would merely be a retread of Beverly Hills 90210, just set slightly further down the California coastline.

When it premiered, however, even I was surprised by how much I liked the show, despite wanting to dislike it. Instead of embracing those familiar teen drama tropes, the show toyed with them in a sort of post-modern self-awareness. It was fun, it was well-written, it was flashy, it had hot girls in Marc Jacobs drinking and smoking and doing cocaine at house parties while a Chino-bred hoodlum, freshly adopted by his court-appointed attorney, started fights with the local water polo team captain as an unpopular yet charming geek cheered him on from the sidelines. It was unlike any other teen drama that had come before it.

One of the more rewarding aspects of the show was the complexity of its characters: Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie), the show's brooding resident bad boy, who burns down houses while romancing rich girl neighbors; geek chic Seth (Adam Brody), a comics-obsessed nerd who loved Death Cab for Cutie almost as he loved hanging out with best bud Ryan; rich girl Marissa (Mischa Barton), who seemed to have everything yet lived in a gilded prison of her parents' making; and spunky Summer (Rachel Bilson), Marissa's no-nonsense, rage-blackout-affected best friend.

And, unlike most teen drama, equal emphasis and screen time was given to the kids' parents. In the pilot episode alone, The OC gave us TV's best and most loving parents in Sandy (Peter Gallagher) and Kirsten "Kiki" Cohen (Kelly Rowan)... and TV's worst parents in Jimmy (Tate Donovan) and Julie "JuJu" Cooper (Melinda Clarke). And while we never saw any of these parents cleaning or cooking (in fact, the show had an ongoing joke about the dismal nature of Kirsten's culinary abilities), we got a sense of how these characters interacted and spent their time. The Cohens seemed as real as any family, fictional or otherwise.

The show's first season gave us a pitch-perfect mix of melodrama, whip-smart dialogue, love triangles, heartbreak, and teen angst, set to a hip soundtrack of hand-picked music and set before the sun-soaked California surf. It brought us the joys of Chrismukah (Seth's home-grown combination of Christmas and Hanukah holidays), a storyline in which deliciously evil Julie Cooper seduced her daughter's 17-year-old ex-boyfriend Luke (Chris Carmack), the heartbreaking scene at the airport where hipster Anna (Samaire Armstrong) broke up with Seth to the strains of Nada Surf's cover of "If You Leave" (not a dry eye in my house, I can assure you), and yes, the god-awful misstep of a storyline which had psychotic teenager Oliver stalking Marissa and then holding her at gunpoint in a luxe hotel room. (Note to self: why do people around Marissa keep ending up shot?)

And then something strange happened: the show got bad. Fast.

The second season had none of the promise and potential of the first and squandered its time introducing characters and then disposing of them faster than Kleenex. In once instance, the producers introduced a secret, long-lost-sister of Kirsten's--who happened to be Ryan's new girlfriend--forced a relationship between then two, and then promptly packed her off to another city... only to have her conspicuously absent a few episodes later at her own father's funeral. Seth and Summer's on-again-off-again romance, so wonderfully written in Season One, turned tedious in the sophomore season, especially with the introduction of Zach (Michael Cassidy), a well-bred jock who (shudder) loved comic books as much as Seth. (I swear that half the season was wasted on Zach and Seth arguing over the comic book they were supposed to be making together.) Marissa had a relationship with her Latino gardener, who seemed to wear the same clothes and drive the same cars as the Newport kids. Following Sandy's not-really-infidelity with his escaped loon ex-girlfriend from twenty years earlier, Kirsten nearly had a not-really-affair of her own with a co-worker and then suddenly became an alcoholic, a condition which worsened after the death of her father, who was married to Julie Cooper at the time of his death.

And somehow, Marissa ended up in close proximity to a gun once again and shot Ryan's ne'er-do-well brother Trey in self-defense.

I managed to stick with the show through the second season, desperately hoping that they'd be able to capture the magic of the first year. But nothing the characters did rang true anymore. Their dialogue became hopelessly stilted and self-aware, the characters' situations hopelessly contrived (the Seth/Summer Spider-Man kiss homage, for example). Where once before the storylines, while melodramatic at times, were grounded in reality (granted, a more toned and beautiful reality, but reality nonetheless), throughout the second season and well into the third, the storylines became mired in soapy hystrionics and unrealistic shock-value sensationalism (Johnny, we hardly knew ye).

But I realized at the beginning of the show's third season that I couldn't do it anymore. I couldn't handle the heavy-handed metatheatrical use of "The Valley," The OC's show-within-a-show. Nor could I handle seeing these characters I had once loved behaving so terribly out of character with one another. Gone was the magic and the camaraderie and the boldness of the early days of the show. In its place was something pre-packaged and plastic.

Sadly, I realized that the show had become just what it had originally set out to skewer: it was now just another teen drama.


Anonymous said…

I had to ditch it about 3 eps into this season.

I always say - I watched ELEVEN seasons of 90210. To the bitter end. I don't give up on anything. So for me to lose interest so quickly? Says a lot....


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