Finding Redemption in The O.C.
Earlier this month, August 5 to be exact, marked the 15th anniversary of the day American teenagers were introduced to the world of The O.C, a world of unfathomable wealth and power, a world where cotillion balls end in fisticuffs, bagels are always on the breakfast menu, ponies suffer from alopecia, and everyone—from public defenders to bartenders to the yard guy—is inexplicably, breathtakingly gorgeous. After that summer day in 2003, nothing would ever be the same.
The O.C. lasted just four seasons—two of which are genuinely good television, two of which are enjoyable television (there’s a difference)—before poor ratings led to its demise. But the show’s immense influence can still be felt today. We’re 11 years removed from saying goodbye to the Cohens, yet pop culture writers and fans alike regularly indulge in heated discussions about this hyper-self-aware soap opera’s merits and cultural impact.
Indeed, its significance is hard to overstate. Without The O.C., there is no Laguna Beach. There is no The Real Housewives franchise. Most importantly, there is no Gossip Girl, its inferior Upper East Side twin. The ripple effects reach far beyond television, too. In The O.C., music didn’t just set the atmosphere of a scene; it was another character altogether, and the show is credited with boosting many artists’ careers. Would The Killers and Death Cab for Cutie be household names had it not been for their live sets at The Bait Shop? Yes, probably. But it’s safe to say Brandon Flowers and Ben Gibbard owe some of their success to The O.C. creator Josh Schwartz.We’re 11 years removed from saying goodbye to the Cohens, yet pop culture writers and fans alike regularly indulge in heated discussions about this hyper-self-aware soap opera’s merits and cultural impact.
[While we’re talking music, a quick aside: there’s a debate within The O.C. fandom about the show’s best “music moment.” A quick Google search reveals the depth of the obsession with this question: there are ranked lists from publications like Paste, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, Nylon, and Cosmopolitan, among others. I have personally been involved in more of these conversations than I can count, one of which ended in a chair being thrown. Most people get this one wrong. The correct answer, in this writer’s opinion, is found in season 1, episode 14 (“The Countdown”), when Ryan Atwood races against the clock to kiss Marissa Cooper at midnight on New Year’s Eve, while “Dice” by Finley Quaye plays in the background. Depending on the day, I could also be convinced it’s actually season 1, episode 9 (“The Heights”), when “Paint the Silence” by South (a song that shows up again later in the series, during a pivotal moment in the show) provides the soundtrack for Ryan and Marissa’s first, fateful kiss.]
One of my favorite activities is introducing The O.C. to people who missed it when it originally aired, usually because they were either too young or uninterested at the time. Most people are skeptical at first, but there’s almost always a moment during the pilot episode—usually somewhere between Ryan telling Marissa he’s “whoever you want me to be” and the now legendary brawl with the Harbor School’s water polo team—when it just seems to click, and I can see it in their eyes: I want to know these characters better, they think. Few things make my heart more glad.
Over the years, much to my surprise, I’ve met quite a few pastors who adore this series. In fact, I first bonded with my Reformed University Fellowship campus minister over a spirited discussion about our favorite episodes. In college, I often stayed up late into the night with my (mostly Christian) close friends analyzing the complex relationships between these fictional residents of Newport Beach. Of course, this is purely anecdotal evidence, so it would be unwise to draw too many conclusions or, say, assume there’s an underground network of Chrismukkah-loving clergy who get together to discuss the show’s representation of the Jewish faith (if that is a real thing and you’re a member: I want in). But it makes me wonder: What’s going on here? Why do I know so many intelligent, discerning followers of Jesus who find this fairly trashy, mid-2000s teen melodrama utterly compelling?
Shortly after The O.C.’s premiere, Plugged In, that bastion of Christian engagement with the arts, weighed in on the growing cultural phenomenon. You’ll be surprised to learn they weren’t fans, saying “the series… exults in teenage sensuality and alcohol abuse” and “this drama’s negative content will tug teens in the wrong direction.” This is not necessarily an incorrect view, just incomplete. To be sure, the show portrays Orange County’s elite, both the adults and their privileged offspring, engaging in prodigious amounts of self-destructive behavior. And at times, the thin line between portrayal and glorification is certainly blurred. No one’s making an argument for general wholesomeness here! That being said, while it may appear the show’s primary focus is bikini tops and tequila shots in Tijuana, a closer reading of these characters reveals that at the heart of this story lies profound explorations of family, identity, friendship, and grace. The O.C. is fundamentally redemptive.
The show’s moral center is public defender Sandy Cohen, played by Peter Gallagher’s commanding eyebrows and dark, gorgeous head of hair. In the first episode, Sandy meets Ryan, who is facing jail time for stealing a car, and he dares to do what no one in Ryan’s life ever has: he has hope for Ryan’s future. Sandy was once a troubled kid, too, but he turned his life around the old fashioned way (married into money), and he wants the same redemption for Ryan.
Sandy invites Ryan to move into his home with his wife and son—Kirsten and Seth— and it’s not long before the Cohens officially adopt him as their own. This adoption comes at great personal cost to Sandy and Kirsten. Newport Beach’s 1% are horrified by the idea of an outsider infiltrating their community and disrupting their yogalates and brunch routines. Despite the cruel push back from their peers, the Cohens never waiver in their acceptance of Ryan, choosing instead to provide the parental and financial support he needs to flourish.
It would be a cliché to identify Sandy as a Christ figure, but the comparison is unavoidable: he’s a Jewish man who embraces aliens and sojourners, advocates for the downtrodden, pursues justice, dispenses wise teachings to those blessed enough to be within his sphere of influence, and offers grace and forgiveness to the people in need of it most. In The O.C., morality is not relative; there are right and wrong choices, and characters regularly suffer the consequences of their actions. Sandy encourages his friends and family to do what’s right, and he always comes to their aid when they stumble. Here, Plugged In gets it right, even if they mean this as a critique rather than a compliment: “The O.C. hands out second chances like clowns hand out balloons.” In other words, to quote the Gospel of John, there is “grace upon grace.” Sandy isn’t just a father to Seth and Ryan—he’s a father to everyone in Orange County, and what’s more, he’s a father to us all.
Of course, like any good teen drama, The O.C.’s plotlines are frequently driven by angst-ridden young love. These on-again-off-again relationships are generally the least interesting and most straightforward of the bunch, though. By the end of season one, If you can’t guess that Seth and Summer will eventually get married or that Ryan will soon mourn Marissa’s untimely death, then you weren’t paying attention. The real relational complexity is saved for the time-tested marriage of Sandy and Kirsten and the devoted friendship of Ryan and Seth.
Portraying a true-to-life marriage, with all of its subtleties and hurts and hopes and joys, on television is difficult, but The O.C. does exactly that with the relationship between Sandy and Kirsten, all while subverting stereotypes. In a world where hedge fund husbands make millions while the wives stay home, Kirsten is the breadwinner in the Cohen household, the one who provides Sandy with his surfboards and infinity pool and BMW. This occasionally creates tension in their marriage, but rather than allow insecurities and resentments to build up and drive them apart, they challenge each other to be honest, confess, and forgive. They’re a team.
Over the course of the show’s four seasons, Sandy and Kirsten encounter more than their fair share of obstacles that would end many marriages—addiction, family turmoil, former lovers—yet they persevere, providing an example for Seth and Ryan to live up to. Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of their marriage is that the love they have for each other doesn’t just remain between them, but it overflows to their community. Their home is a regularly a safe haven for the hurting, even for those who are often considered enemies. If one definition of marriage, as Tim Keller has written, is “two flawed people coming together to create a space of stability, love, and consolation,” then the Cohens get the Tim and Kathy stamp of approval.
Ultimately, though, the show wouldn’t have succeeded without the unforgettable friendship at its core: Ryan and Seth, a modern-day David and Jonathan, two souls knit together in Newport paradise. When tough guy Ryan arrives at the Cohen’s pool house, Seth is a bit of a dweeb. He has no friends, and he is counting down the days until he can say farewell to the shallowness of Orange County and sail away to Tahiti with Summer (once he musters up the courage to actually talk to her first, of course). With Ryan as his new buddy, though, Seth is finally able to experience true friendship and build a life outside of his video games and comic books.
In a time when male friendships were often qualified with an insecure and offensive “no homo,” The O.C. allowed Ryan and Seth’s relationship to speak for itself. The two cared for each other, protected each other, and weren’t afraid to show their affection. In a particularly moving scene, Seth even tries to sell his beloved boat, the Summer Breeze, so he could give Ryan some cash in a moment of need. When Ryan temporarily moves back to Chino, it leaves Seth completely heartbroken. The O.C. knew that friendships are some of the most formative relationships we have in life, and men need their besties, too. Generally speaking, I consider myself a non-confrontational, pacifistic guy, but at the end of the day, there’s something reassuring about knowing your boys are ready to throw some punches in your defense when the puka shell-wearing jocks get out of hand.
Will we ever have another show quite like The O.C.? Doubtful. It was the result of a million little things falling into place at the exact right moment in time—the cast, the writers, the music, the fashion, etc.—and miracles like that only happen once, maybe twice, in a lifetime. But that’s okay. The profoundly redemptive themes at the heart of The O.C. all but guarantee it will continue to move viewers and inspire conversations far into the future. The door to the Cohen’s home is always wide open, and all are welcome. California, here we come.