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The Group Chat

The O.C.'s Influence Remains Strong 20 Years Later

Primetimer's Brianna Wellen and Dianna Shen discuss how the teen soap affected viewers of different generations.
  • The O.C. (Photo: WB/Courtesy: Everett Collection)
    The O.C. (Photo: WB/Courtesy: Everett Collection)

    The Group Chat is where Primetimer staffers and contributors share everything from first impressions to warring opinions on TV's biggest moments. Because everyone needs a group chat.

    It took five little words to change the culture forever: “Welcome to the O.C., b*tch.” For Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie), it wasn’t the warmest welcome — the troubled but well-meaning kid from Chino made more enemies than friends during his first week in Newport Beach, California. But for those watching, it opened up a world of elite West Coast teens, soapy melodrama, and indie rock that would impact generations to come.

    On August 5, 2003, The O.C. premiered on Fox, introducing Ryan, Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton), Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson), and all the Cohens (Adam Brody, Peter Gallagher, and Kelly Rowan). The series followed Ryan’s journey to turn his life around after being taken in by his lawyer (Gallagher) and his family, trying his best to fit in among a group of rich kids who had plenty of problems of their own. Season 1 was met with mixed critical reviews — it was called “absorbing television” and “the most promising” fall premiere by some and described as a “moody moon-faced trifle” with “detestable” characters by others. But it was a ratings hit. With an average of 9.7 million viewers per episode, it became the highest-rated new drama of the 2003-2004 season.

    Series creator Josh Schwartz and the show’s stars have stayed busy since the show’s end in 2007. Schwartz executive produced Max’s Gossip Girl reboot and co-created the Apple TV+ drama City on Fire; Gallagher and Brody have starred in a steady stream of projects like Grace and Frankie and Fleishman Is in Trouble, respectively; McKenzie has become the number one crusader against crypto, and recently published a book on the topic; and Bilson co-hosted a The O.C. rewatch podcast with co-star Melinda Clarke that just wrapped on May 2023. But the show never really left the conversation — fans new and old have kept the drama relevant for the past 20 years. And thanks to Hulu and Max, which both feature the series streaming in its entirety, there’s the opportunity for so many more people to watch it for the first time.

    How The O.C. affected those fans, though, varies from generation to generation. What was it like watching some of the series’s most dramatic episodes in real time? How differently would the show have been received in the era of Twitter and TikTok? Certified millennial Brianna Wellen and Gen Zer Dianna Shen discuss the individual paths they took to becoming The O.C. superfans and how their fandom still affects them to this day.

    Brianna Wellen: When The O.C. premiered, it felt like a show created just for me. In August 2003, I was just about to enter eighth grade and felt like I was on the verge of adulthood, but wasn’t quite getting what I needed from the more grown-up shows my parents watched. This show had everything I was looking for at the time: over-the-top drama, totally crush-worthy stars who were seemingly age appropriate, and a glimpse at what life in high school would be like. I wasn’t completely naive — I knew that attending high school in a small town in northern Illinois would be slightly different than going to Harbor High in Newport Beach. But I could still look to Ryan, Marissa, Summer, and Seth (*sigh* Seth) for ideas about how to be the coolest kid in school.

    Watching the show became all I needed to be able to talk with almost anyone at my school. It was the first time I remember engaging in water cooler TV. The day after an episode aired, I knew exactly which groups to walk up to in the hallway to talk about what happened the night before, and soon it became a weekly ritual to go to someone’s house to watch the episode in real time, squealing at the TV and sobbing as a group when that episode (R.I.P. Marissa) aired. And later in life, when the DVD box sets were released, it was one of the first series I remember rewatching as a binge, staying up late with my portable DVD player under the covers.

    What was your first experience with the series like?

    Dianna Shen: I watched The O.C. for the first time just under two years ago, and it was truly a revelation for me. The show managed to fill in so many gaps in my pop culture knowledge that I didn’t even realize were missing. One of the biggest moments that stuck out to me was Saturday Night Live’s “Dear Sister” digital short, which gained new meaning after I had the chance to experience the Season 2 finale. The sketch became instantly more funny, almost like an inside joke I could finally fully appreciate. Another smaller yet equally delightful moment occurred when I noticed Max Greenfield portraying a young Sandy Cohen in Season 4, especially considering I had watched New Girl years before. For the longest time, I had associated Peter Gallagher with the role of Schmidt’s dad. So, when I saw Schmidt appear at Newport Beach, it felt like a subtle yet meaningful little Easter egg. And of course, we can’t talk about The O.C. without noting the everlasting joy of Chrismukkah!

    I always knew the show was a cultural phenomenon, but I never expected it to have such a profound impact on me, especially as someone who didn’t grow up with the series or have any understanding of what it was beyond just being your typical soapy teen drama. Even watching it so many years later, it’s understandable why The O.C. still holds up as such essential viewing. The show made every character’s storyline feel important — I found myself equally invested in Ryan and Marissa’s tumultuous love story as I was in Sandy Cohen’s transition into the real estate world, or in watching all of Julie Cooper’s unhinged behavior play out. And it tackled real-life conflicts and emotions while still maintaining an addictive and entertaining glimpse into the glamorous world of Orange County.

    It’s fascinating to think about how the series fits into conversations about traditional water cooler TV, which has slowly dwindled. As a member of Gen Z and, of course, child of the digital era, it feels like all my major TV milestone moments seem defined by how viral it’s able to go on Twitter. My sense of community is associated with discussing shows and their impact online, where social media has become the modern-day water cooler. I wonder if The O.C. were airing today, would it still have the same splash as HBO darlings like Succession or Euphoria? The sheer amount of drama within the teen show feels like it would’ve generated a fruitful amount of memes and reaction posts. Just imagining how the Season 3 finale would’ve played on Twitter sparks curiosity – would it have a similar effect as Logan’s death on Succession? Would there be outrage?

    Brianna: At the time, I remember Marissa’s death in the Season 3 finale being a huge shock — we knew at that moment that the show would never be the same, and only the most loyal viewers even continued watching Season 4. It definitely would have sparked a conversation on Twitter and the memes would have been endless, but beyond even just what happened in the show I think we would have had more clarity on why Marissa was killed off. Now there are endless entertainment blogs detailing the behind-the-scenes decisions of television shows, not to mention personal Instagram pages and podcasts for stars to speak out about their experiences on a series. It wasn’t until 2021, 15 years after the fateful episode, that Barton spoke out to E! about some of the real reasons her character was written off the show, including experiences of being bullied on set. If such revelations came out while The O.C. was still on the air, would the series’s legacy be affected? It’s hard to say.

    Looking back now, the series feels extremely tame when compared to something like Euphoria, but at the time it was one of the most scandalous teen shows out there. There was underage drinking, drug use, and teen sex scenes that got as steamy as they could at 9:00 PM on Fox. The storylines weren’t played with the cliche framing of after-school specials — as far as teenage Brianna was concerned, these were the authentic experiences of all West Coast teens. And why would I have thought any different? There was no TikTok or even Instagram or Twitter connecting me to anyone outside of my hometown. That’s probably partially why the reality show Laguna Beach became such a sensation in The O.C.’s aftermath, it was like a companion piece to the fictionalized view of teen life in California. And that’s a show that similarly would have taken on a completely different life had social media existed when it was on the air.

    While Euphoria certainly has had a huge cultural impact, I wonder if it’s affected the personality of teens in the same way The O.C. did for me and many of my peers. My musical taste was shaped by The O.C. soundtrack, Seth Cohen to this day is the blueprint for my ideal man, I’m still waiting for the perfect day to try out Anna Stern’s blonde pixie cut for myself. The show permeates my adult life — what Gen Z teen show, if any, has that same affect on your generation? In 20 years will we still be talking about Euphoria’s impact on the teens who watched it and pop culture at large?

    Dianna: God, I hope we aren’t still talking about Euphoria in 20 years time! On a personal level, I would consider the original Gossip Girl to have the same level of impact on me, much like The O.C. did for you. My experience, however, was essentially flipped. I watched Gossip Girl for the first time during my freshman year of high school, and it became 90% of the reason why I wanted to move to New York City in the first place.

    You bring up such an essential point about The O.C.’s larger cultural influence that feels almost untouchable. The soundtrack is definitely a huge part of that conversation, considering how it boosted certain indie acts. So much of my current music taste is also in line with what played on The O.C. — from Mazzy Star to Sufjan Stevens and even Rooney, every needle drop feels as though they were hand picked straight from my own playlists. I can’t help but imagine that if I had grown up with the series, I’d be going around telling people, “They played this song on The O.C.!” in a similar way to how people reference musical moments from Glee (I also do this, unfortunately).

    When considering the modern teen drama landscape, it’s hard to find a series that could have the same broader impact that The O.C. and other shows from the ’90s and early aughts. I think a lot of that can be attributed to contemporary shows not being allotted the same kind of longevity. I would argue that Genera+ion had the potential to hold a similar type of “it” factor, but it unfortunately wasn’t given the proper space to thrive. And so many teen shows now tend to run for fewer episodes and seasons, which limits their ability to create that lasting spark. The O.C., for instance, had only four seasons, but each of the first three seasons contained 23 to 27 episodes each. The first season alone, with almost 30(!!!) episodes, packed enough drama to sustain multiple seasons’ worth of storylines. I doubt we’ll ever find a teen show capable of matching that same type of storytelling in sheer quantity, pacing, and depth again.

    TOPICS: The O.C., FOX, Adam Brody, Ben McKenzie, Josh Schwartz, Kelly Rowan, Melinda Clarke, Mischa Barton, Peter Gallagher, Rachel Bilson