Although it’s frequently lumped in with the TV series it inspired, The O.C. brought back the teen drama in 2003 with great finesse. The story of troubled teen Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) being adopted by the wealthy Cohen family was much more than a primetime soap, although it often thrived in that mode: The O.C. was, first and foremost, an excellent family drama, one that relied on the dynamics of the new Cohen-Atwood clan in surprisingly beautiful and effective ways.
The O.C. also deserves credit for expanding the reach of indie music, highlighting artists like Death Cab For Cutie, The Walkmen and Sufjan Stevens; taking phenomenal chances, like creating an entire parody show-within-a-show to comment on audience reaction and make fun of itself; and, shockingly, for killing off one of the show’s main characters late in the third season, addressing the series’ narrative problems with a bold, unforgettable twist. The O.C. wasn’t always a fantastic TV show, but its heart, humor and engaging characters made it a gem.
With the series now available on HBO Max, grab your Captain Oats and yarmul-Clauses and put on Transatlanticism: We’re ranking every episode of The O.C.
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Season One of The O.C. was a surprisingly effective dramedy about the bonds of family, friends and finding your place in the world. Season Two quickly turned the show into what people who’d never watched it assumed it was: an overly melodramatic soap with twists and turns in every episode. With J.J. Philbin taking over as executive story editor in Season Two, The O.C. fell headlong into cliché—as seen in “The New Era.” Philbin has since done great work, namely on New Girl, but “The New Era” is an episode written by someone with no more than a passing knowledge of The O.C.. The episode is almost entirely focused on who will date whom. (Sure, the characters talked about their relationships a lot on the show, but it was rarely the driving force of an episode.) The Killers’ performance is one of the show’s worst musical appearances, as the band is clearly going through the motions to a backing track, and the episode ends with a terribly cheesy montage set to U2. Oh, and Seth (Adam Brody) says one of the worst lines of dialogue in history: “She was my shorty last year, but then she got served.”
Usually, The O.C. excels at holiday episodes, especially when they’re two-for-ones. While Season Four had been a shot of adrenaline for the series, “The Groundhog Day” shows The O.C. running out of ideas: It has animal theft and a surprise baby announcement, but the episode is cobbled together out of disparate threads that never connect. This is a season all about taking big chances before it’s too late—for our characters and for the show’s writers—but “The Groundhog Day” is a swing and a miss. The spark seems to be missing from the relationships, too. Kirsten (Kelly Rowan) and Sandy (Peter Gallagher) having another baby doesn’t add any real excitement, and Seth and Summer (Rachel Bilson) barely see each other. In a season full of wacky, go-for-broke ideas, “The Groundhog Day” is the biggest misfire.
“The Dream Lover” shows how the broadness of The O.C. could be to its detriment. Che (Chris Pratt) believing he’s in love with Seth is an inexplicable twist, and Henri-Michel (Henri Lubatti) continues to be nothing but a French stereotype. By this point, when it comes to relationship drama, The O.C. has fallen into a pattern, as Ryan and Taylor (Autumn Reeser) are currently having the exact same problems that Seth and Summer did only a few episodes prior. Thank God “The Dream Lover” gets rid of those troublesome secondary characters, as Henri-Michel just leaves, while Kaitlin (Willa Holland) drops Will (Chris Brown)—tying up one last unnecessary thread before the series finale. With only five episodes left, The O.C. forces us to question the show’s romances, when by the time we get to “The Dream Lover,” these relationships are clearly set in stone.
The O.C.’s creator, Josh Schwartz, has said that Johnny (Ryan Donowho) was a big mistake for the series. In “The Last Waltz,” we meet him for the first time, along with his bland girlfriend, Casey (Kayla Ewell), and their horrible friend, Chili (Johnny Lewis). The trio’s introduction is an attempt to give Marissa friends at her new public school. It doesn’t work, which is unfortunate, since Marissa (Mischa Barton) has finally started to become a decent character, not a whiny and complaining one. Marissa and Ryan’s struggle with being at different schools is a bit thinly drawn, but it still works. For a while after “The Last Waltz,” The O.C. will be far too interested in the adventures of Johnny, Casey and Chili and their mediocre shot at recreating Season One’s magic.
Despite the near-constant fights and parties that figure in the first four episodes, “The Outsider” is the first time The O.C. is silly in its excess. Seth befriends someone from the wrong side of town (The Vampire Diaries’ Paul Weasley), which leads to laughable bad boy attitudes, and Luke (Chris Carmack) gets shot. (NBD!) Though “The Outsider” reinforces the teens’ character traits through bombastic storytelling, the episode does deepen our understanding of the adults: The resilience of the Cohens’ marriage is paralleled by the fragility of the Coopers’, and Julie (Melinda Clarke) finally comes off as more than just a gold digger. But neither teens nor parents have particularly engaging stories, as the former go too big, too fast, while the latter remain too bland to care about.
In many ways, Season Four of The O.C. seems like a completely different series. The writers knew the show was coming to an end and decided to take some chances with their remaining episodes. But in doing that, the show goes wild—too wild for its own good. Che appearing as Summer’s conscience? Sort of works. But Taylor’s comically French ex-husband throwing a wrench in her and Ryan’s relationship? Not so great. The arrival of Henri-Michel isn’t a true threat of any kind, but once again makes Ryan believe he doesn’t belong—a feeling we’ve seen him tackle over and over again. “The French Connection” makes the audience question several of the show’s relationships—Seth and Summer’s romance; Julie and Kirsten’s partnership—that have already been tested and shown to be strong, a misstep this late in the game.
After a handful of episodes that add depth to the characters, “The Disconnect” tries to continue that pattern and fails. It presents “new” information—Johnny likes Marissa, Summer aced her SATs, Matt (Jeff Hephner) visits strip clubs regularly—that doesn’t actually do much to reshape the dramatic landscape; even the episode’s best story—Summer and Seth both want to get into Brown—is brought down by Seth’s frustration over his girlfriend being smart. But most of “The Disconnect” centers on Johnny and Matt, neither of whom are very interesting. The result is mediocre and insubstantial.
The O.C. isn’t shy about suggesting that affluent Newport is much better than grimy, crime-filled Chino, but “The Homecoming,” in which Ryan returns to Chino for the first time, hits the audience over the head with how terrible Ryan’s former home must have been. Chino is shot with a grainy, dark filter that makes the viewer want to escape and go back to the Newport for Thanksgiving, especially considering the Chino story just isn’t that interesting. (Instead of focusing on the family and friends Ryan had in Chino, “The Homecoming” focuses on the chop shops and prisons.) Meanwhile, the Cohens’ Thanksgiving is full of fighting families, not to mention Seth’s attempts to balance Anna (Samaire Armstrong) and Summer.
“The Father Knows Best” primarily exists to bring the characters as low as possible before one of the season’s best entries, “The Rainy Day Women.” But even in that context, the episode is boring filler. The premise—Caleb (Alan Dale) is going to adopt Lindsay (Shannon Lucio)—is entirely contained to this episode, presenting an idea we’ve never heard before, then finding a way to negate it by episode’s end. The rest simply dances around ideas that have already been in play, like the return of Seth and Summer or Rebecca causing friction between Sandy and Kirsten. In short, “The Father Knows Best” is a strange episode: One that pretends to have stakes but is almost completely empty of them.
Like a lot of episodes in Season Three, “The Perfect Storm” sets up a problem that holds no real threat. Here, it’s the possibility that Ryan might start a new life as a fisherman, and a race against time to get rid of the new school dean who’s out to get Ryan. The episode’s goal is to get back to normalcy, and The O.C. plays it that way. In fact, Sandy’s whole plan to get Ryan to stay is to let him do what he wants, since Ryan would never actually leave. And, of course, Sandy is right (again). In the long run, then, “The Perfect Storm” is irrelevant.
Considering that “The Shower” centers on the upcoming wedding of the Gruesome Twosome (Julie and Caleb), it’s a shame how much of the drama relies on characters we’ve never seen or heard of before, like Julie’s wild sister. Just as egregious is the introduction of Summer’s father, who we’re to understand has been, like, her best friend this entire time. (He apparently hates Seth, suddenly creating a major conflict in Seth and Summer’s relationship.) Even Theresa’s reappearance comes out of nowhere. These surprise introductions may shine new light on the main characters—Julie’s trashy upbringing, for instance, or where Summer’s spoiled attitude comes from—but “The Shower” handles the information with little grace.
The relationship between Sandy and Kirsten has been particularly cold so far in Season Two, and “The Power of Love” injects warmth back into their marriage. Still, considering how dedicated he is to family and especially his wife, it rings false that Sandy would forget about his wedding anniversary, let alone his twentieth. “The Power of Love” has plenty of moments that just aren’t very Cohen-y, such as Sandy and Kirsten grounding Seth and Ryan for what seems like the first time. Sandy’s big anniversary move—a special concert surprise for Kirsten celebrating their marriage—also plays overwhelmingly cheesy, especially when the cast members puts their arms around each other and sway to Sandy’s singing. The sentiment is there, but the execution doesn’t work as well as the series seems to think.
Considering that the characters are now seniors in high school, it’s strange just how childish the conflicts of “The Swells” are. With mandatory lock-ins, surfing competition rivalries and the introduction of an actual character named Volchok (Cam Gigandet), everything in “The Swells” is just slightly less mature than expected. “The Swells” begins to show the true purpose of the new Season Three characters, and starts to meld them with the core ensemble for the first time, rather than keeping them in separate worlds. But as Summer points out in “The Swells,” these new characters can only cause problems in the main cast’s lives. This show has already had its share of supporting characters that exist simply to wreak havoc (Oliver, Zach), but none as thinly veiled as those in “The Swells.”
It’s odd that several characters on The O.C. have alcohol problems without any long-term effects, yet in “The Pot Stirrer,” Seth tries weed once and it threatens to ruin his college future. Seeing Seth high is as enjoyable as you’d expect, but it’s weird for the series to throw marijuana into the mix when Seth already feels anxiety and fear over his Brown interview. After all, it’s easy enough to imagine Seth skipping out on his meeting for reasons not involving his experimentation with pot. The rest of the episode is exhausting, though, as both Marissa and Kaitlin vie for Johnny’s attention and… Oh, who cares? Johnny is a bland slab of nothing. By putting him between the Coopers, and with Seth rethinking his escape from California for the first time, “The Pot Stirrer” is full of character moments that just don’t ring as true as they should.
In many ways, “The O.C. Confidential” has a lot of promise, but it undermines much of the work done by the previous episode, “The Rager.” After the series questions whether Trey (Logan Marshall-Green) is involved with drugs, “The O.C. Confidential” begins by definitively stating he isn’t, losing any sense of mystery “The Rager” built. (Another example: After saying she wants to be part of Seth’s graphic novel, Summer already seems to have lost interest.) Despite two seasons of name-dropping, Death Cab for Cutie’s appearance plays second fiddle to Marissa’s plans to get drug information. “The O.C. Confidential” does bring Ryan and Marissa back together after a commendable, season-long effort to get them on the same track. (Too bad they were terrible together the first time around.)
In Oliver’s last episode, “The Truth,” we’re shown just how easily Marissa can be manipulated. Oliver (Taylor Handley) appeared on The O.C. to play to Marissa’s flaws and alienate Ryan from the group for the first time. But he was also a way for The O.C. to test the waters, as if the writers wanted to see how far they could push the ridiculousness factor. With his troubling arc coming to an end, “The Truth” sets the season’s final stories in motion: Anna breaks up with Seth, the wounds from Ryan and Marissa’s breakup remain raw, and a newly single Julie Cooper isn’t good for anyone. Introducing Oliver to shake up the drama was The O.C.’s first major flaw—one it would subsequently repeat, with other characters, on multiple occasions.
“The Ex-Factor” deals with two characters’ frustrations over past relationships—one that’s been a long time coming, and another that’s poorly handled in a multitude of ways. First, Ryan finally yells at Marissa for the way she behaves. Seth’s freakout over Alex (Olivia Wilde) having previously dated another woman hasn’t aged well, and the way Seth treats her for mishandling the truth should be more embarrassing than it is. “The Ex-Factor” also sees the beginning of one of the dumbest relationships in the series’ run: Marissa and Alex. Marissa wants to rebel in any way possible, and Alex falls into the old mistakes she tried to get out of by dating Seth. Unfortunately, “The Ex-Factor” makes both Seth and Ryan far more closed-minded than they’ve ever been before.
Sending a character to the hospital is an easy way to bring about a transformation: In “The Second Chance,” Caleb goes from Scrooge to a sorrowful man ready to atone for his past through the magic of a mild heart attack. It’s a hollow gesture on the part of both the series and Caleb. In other news, Seth and Summer continue to grow closer by working on his comic book, slowly but surely reviving the The O.C.’s finest couple. “The Second Chance” might have a lousy catalyst in Caleb, but the way the incident permeates the other stories, especially for Ryan and Sandy, almost makes the cheap choice worthwhile.
“The Heavy Lifting” is a perfect name for an episode that tries to move past all of Season Three’s terrible Johnny material. Here, The O.C. maneuvers the story into a desperately needed reset, getting rid of superfluous characters as the season heads into the home stretch. It’s also unusual that “The Heavy Lifting” is both a Valentine’s Day episode and a funeral episode, continuing The O.C.’s theme of disappointing Valentine’s Days. Despite pushing forward, though “The Heavy Lifting” points to the similarity in Ryan and Marissa’s arcs from season to season: Marissa finds someone to distract her from Ryan, then, once that’s over, Ryan finds someone to distract him from Marissa. Sadie (Nikki Reed) is a decent match for Ryan, but the cogs behind the series’ formula are starting to show.
The O.C. has a history of superfluous supporting characters, and none is more useless than Will (Chris Brown). Indeed, though it’s disappointing that it took this long for the series to feature a non-white actor in a significant role, Brown’s acting is even worse—plus, this late in the game it’s silly for the series to introduce a new relationship for Kaitlin (Willa Holland). “The My Two Dads” does have the most substantial Sandy and Kirsten disagreement of the season, and it’s compelling to watch Sandy face off against Ryan’s biological father. “The My Two Dads” also nails Summer and Seth’s banter as they face off about their recent engagement. Like Will himself, “The My Two Dads” doesn’t have much depth to it.
“The Risky Business” doesn’t exactly break new ground, but it works because of slight variations on previous ideas. For example, the episode features another Newport auction—this time with Sandy running the show. Ryan has some shady Chino business to attend to—this time with Seth along for the ride. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but “The Risky Business” refreshes a few familiar tropes, while also weighing whether Trey is willing to change his ways (as in the previous episode, “The Brothers Grim”) or is ready to steal and lie for his own self-preservation (as in “The Risky Business”).
“The End of Innocence” promises important developments—Kirsten going back to the bottle; Jimmy (Tate Donovan) and Julie getting married and moving to Hawaii—then returns the story to where it was near the end of Season Two. (In terms of the Cooper family, no one’s reaction to their planned relocation comes close to convincing the viewer that the stakes are real.) Even stranger is how small the big moments actually are, such as Caleb being broke or Ryan and Marissa finally having sex. The O.C. doesn’t put much stock in the choices made in “The End of Innocence,” making it hard to care, regardless of the results.
Reintroducing Kaitlin Cooper allows The O.C. to recapture Season One-era Marissa sassiness, but without, you know, hating Marissa. But bringing back Kaitlin also means uniting her with one of the series’ worst characters, Johnny. Though Kaitlin’s scenes with the rest of the Coopers show promise, Johnny is a black hole of boring, crushing anything that comes near him. (Kaitlin only finds her footing once Johnny is gone.) Still, “The Sister Act” establishes another romantic interest for Julie: Dr. Neil Roberts (Michael Nouri). Emerging from dire straits, Julie falls in love rather than marrying for money, producing one of the season’s only redemptive arcs.
In “The Secrets and Lies,” it’s hard not to see The O.C. trying to go bigger with each subsequent season. Ryan finds a sweet girl he should be with, while Marissa keeps digging herself into deeper and deeper holes: The series has shaken Ryan of the impulse to save Marissa from her problems, at least for now. But the real emotion in “The Secrets and Lies” comes from finally giving Kirsten her own story: We see her ongoing battle with alcoholism, and her decision to allow Seth in on her struggle, when she takes him to an AA meeting. To this point in Season Three, Kirsten has been closed off from the rest of the family, and “The Secrets and Lies” explains some of that solitude.
With the fourth season halfway over and the series’ future unclear, the The O.C.’s writers cram “The Earth Girls Are Easy” with two big twists that come off rushed, as Seth proposes to Summer and Ryan’s father shows up in Newport. The episode seems to exist mainly to deploy these narrative devices, and to stretch their revelation as much as possible, but the events of “The Earth Girls Are Easy” will have an outsized effect on future episodes.
In its final stretch of episodes, The O.C. takes a lot of unusual chances, testing out new formats and concepts before it’s too late. “The Case of the Franks” is a cloyingly sweet episode, centered on a series of unnecessary flashbacks. It’s charming to see young Kirsten, Jimmy and Sandy (as played by Max Greenfield), but there’s no time left in the series to turn the details of the characters’ pasts into something solid. Seth and Summer’s own flashback toys with the idea that their origin story is false, while making it clear that Seth loves Summer for who she is, not what she represents—even though this was never really in doubt in the first place. “The Case of the Franks” is decent in theory, but most of the plotlines are either too little or too late to matter.
Much like Luke, Jimmy Cooper is one of the unfortunate characters who had less and less to do as the series went on. In Season Two, Jimmy for the most part drinks on his boat and sleeps with either Hailey (Amanda Righetti) or Julie, so it’s probably best for him to move on—and “The Family Ties” is an appropriately sweet sendoff. It’s the Cohens’ inclusiveness that really makes “The Family Ties” touching, though, as they welcome Lindsay into their home and begin to consider Marissa part of their increasingly confusing family. The episode’s far from perfect, but as is often the case with The O.C., the material about kinship of all kinds really works.
“The Summer Bummer” adds depth to several Season Four supporting characters who haven’t received enough attention. The episode offers more information about Che and Bullit (Gary Grubbs), both of whom are used to comic effect, while also destabilizing Kaitlin’s reputation as a troublemaker with the suggestion that she has a heart of gold. Nevertheless, the meat of “The Summer Bummer” is its treatment of more familiar characters: Despite Ryan’s weirdly directed erotic fantasies about Taylor, their relationship only improves, while Seth and Summer deciding to stay home for the year allows us to spend a little more time with them before the series comes to a close.
Marissa and Ryan have broken up over and over again in the course of the series, but “The Journey” puts a refreshing new spin on it. While Ryan questions where the dissolution of their relationship puts them in each other’s lives, Marissa waxes nostalgic for the past, playing music that reminds her of her time with Ryan and visiting the model home that once meant so much to them. It all adds up to an honest take on their breakup, depicting the problems that arise when they’re apart—namely, Marissa falling back into her old self-destructive patterns.
After a host of changes in the early stages of Season Two, “The Accomplice” witnesses the characters return to their usual ways. Marissa is whiny. Sandy is in lawyer mode. And Caleb’s acting like a jerk again. After the slightest hint of his rebellious streak, Seth is, as he puts it, “right back where we started,” which is exactly where he should be. Beginning work on his comic book not only gives him direction, it also reignites his romance with Summer: In a season of flux, not all of it warranted, Seth sustains our interest simply by being himself.
“The Undertow” spends most of its time analyzing the issues in Marissa and Ryan’s relationship, issues the audience already understood long ago. Ryan will always fight to save the bad girl in need of help, and Marissa will always do what is bad for her. The combination has been and will always be volatile, and thankfully Ryan has learned that. In hindsight, “The Undertow” is important in terms of where these characters will go for the rest of the series. Ryan can grow and learn from his mistakes, becoming better for them, while, in a few episodes, Marissa will be dead because of them. From Sandy honing his business acumen to Seth and Summer finding their sexual chemistry again, “The Undertow” is all about defying the errors of the past and moving forward wiser and more powerful. Expect for Marissa, doomed to repeat her mistakes until she meets her demise.
“The Gamble” covers much the same ground as “Pilot,” but lays it on even thicker: The prospect of Ryan becoming homeless is more urgent and the heartbreak of his mother leaving more piercing, making the Cohens’ decision to become his legal guardian even more wonderful. “The Gamble” might be playing a tune we’ve heard before, but it still hits all the right notes, concluding the mini-arc begun in the season premiere by underlining the divide between Ryan’s old and new lives.
In the scope of Season One, “The Rivals” is a transitional episode, wrapping up several stories before the last handful of episodes. Some are obvious, like Oliver’s sabotage of Ryan and Marissa’s relationship, while others are simmering, like Seth’s jealousy, which will become more prominent next season. “The Rivals” is vindication for Ryan: The series has provided us with plenty of reasons to hate Oliver before Ryan does, so giving him the proof he needs to punch the crap out of Oliver makes for a solid conclusion. As with Sandy and Jimmy starting their own restaurant, “The Rivals” is proof of new beginnings—beginnings that demand a little destruction first.
“The Showdown” features two moments that should be entirely too melodramatic, yet the episode plays them with admirable naturalism. As Marissa deals with Trey forcing himself on her in “The Return of Nana,” for instance, her emotions remain hidden, rather than leading to a huge brawl or confrontation (at least not yet). And, as Kirsten’s drinking problem worsens—a result of Carter’s departure and the growing gulf between her and Sandy—the way she describes drifting apart from her husband is a frank assessment of the stresses they’ve faced in the past year. Both situations are quite dark for The O.C., but they’re handled with care and honesty.
“The Shake Up” is the beginning of the end: Ryan questions his emotional investment in Taylor, Seth comes to grips with his indecisiveness and the Cohens decide whether or not to leave the O.C. “The Shake Up” does a lot of heavy lifting for the end of the series, getting plenty of plot out of the way before the flash and emotional payoff of the final two episodes. In essence, then, “The Shake Up” is a form of table setting, though it also goes back to the elements that made the series so enjoyable in the first place, from the dynamic between Ryan and Seth to Ryan’s reluctance to confront his emotions.
The introduction of Trey, Ryan’s formerly incarcerated brother, is a way for The O.C. to have its cake and eat it, too. In Trey, the series has an excuse for more fights and questionable decisions without laying them all at Ryan’s feet, while injecting Trey with enough redeeming traits to makes us want to welcome him in. “The Brothers Grim” allows us to see the Atwood boys’ diverging paths: one influenced by the Cohens’ loving home, the other often crossing into dangerous territory. In terms of secondary characters introduced in Season Two, Trey is not only the one that makes the most sense, he’s also one of the most compelling.
“The Road Warrior” features plenty of nonsense stories for the sake of getting our characters to the next step—primary among them is a silly road trip involving Ryan and Sadie that brings the pair together and leads Marissa right to Volchok. The adults, on the other hand, finally enjoy some much-needed time in the spotlight: Julie and Neil’s adorable new relationship finally gives Seth and Summer something to focus on other than school, and the series begins to draw attention to Sandy’s compromised morals. Playing with form and parody (including jokes at One Tree Hill’s expense), “The Road Warrior” is the starting point for more intriguing stories down the line.
The O.C. made a terrible choice by having Marissa go to another school in Season Three. The series finally rectifies this in “The Safe Harbor.” Having Marissa return to Harbor is a good start to fixing the season’s biggest problem, yet the episode continues to focus on Johnny, instead of the main characters. It’s as if The O.C. knows it has to get rid of Johnny to make the show work again, but just can’t let him go. Thankfully, “The Safe Harbor” relies on some of its surefire ideas, including the reunification of the core four, Sandy fighting for the little guy and Taylor’s return. For too long, The O.C. has stuck with the mess it made, but “The Safe Harbor” begins to turn things around and ends these characters’ final semester on a high note.
“The Perfect Couple” builds on ideas that are already clear—the direction of Marissa and Ryan’s budding relationship, for instance, or Caleb and Julie’s deceptive natures—but it also reinforces some of the patterns The O.C. fell into the in the course of its first season, such as the overdone shocking-moment-that-happens-at-a-big-event trope. As usual, it’s Seth who makes the episode better, as his story about doing little else but talk about Summer is a fun bit of meta humor, and Summer and Anna’s increasing interest in him buoys the episode’s more compelling plots. Even with Seth’s involvement, though, “The Perfect Couple” is The O.C. mostly spinning its wheels.
The Chrismukkah episodes of The O.C. are almost always pillars of greatness, filled with familial warmth and loony Seth Cohen plans. Unfortunately, “The Chrismukkah Bar Mitz-vahkkah” turns the holiday into just another Newport event, taking away a lot of the holiday’s magic. (It also borrows elements from older episodes, such as Sandy being replaced as an emcee in “The Risky Business” or the corny ending of “The Power of Love.”) Nor does it help that the episode’s Tiny Tim, Johnny, is—as Ryan puts it—another lost soul that Marissa’s compelled to save from ridiculous situations. The O.C. still has quite a bit of juice in the concept, and the added information about the Roberts family is a nice touch, but “The Chrismukkah Bar Mitz-vahkkah” is a step down from past years.
“The Brothers Grim” sets up Trey as a misunderstood former criminal. “The Risky Business” turns him into a legit criminal. So when we get to “The Rager,” it’s anyone’s guess as to who the real Trey is. Because of the work done in those previous two episodes, “The Rager” ends up becoming an unexpected mystery, as the audience must decide whether or not Trey gave ecstasy to a girl that almost died at his birthday party. “The episode plays to the dual nature of several characters, especially Julie, who threatens to kill Lance, the man who tried to extort her, and then starts to fall for him again. We almost always know the intent of all of the characters, but “The Rager” focuses on those with years of backstory we don’t know, adding a level of intrigue usually missing from the show.
“The Gringos” goes big: Taylor gets married in Paris and Seth does shots with Steve-O before getting a tattoo. If the previous sentence doesn’t give it away, “The Gringos” is also one of the few episodes of The O.C. that hasn’t aged well, with that cameo and far too many gay jokes. Still, Season Four’s strengths are already embedded in the episode’s treatment of Julie’s depression and Ryan’s desperation, both of which are understandable and effective—in addition to screwing up previously solid relationships. Season Four has a hard time settling on the right tone, and sometimes the big humor—usually from Chris Pratt’s Che—doesn’t meld with the ruminations on death. But, like the characters in “The Gringos,” The O.C. is at least trying to find its footing.
Going into Season Three, “The Shape of Things to Come” makes some fine choices right off the bat. For the first time since Season One, The O.C. presents Marissa and Ryan as a unified front: They’ll protect each other to the bitter end, regardless of how they hurt themselves. The episode also introduces us to Taylor—by far the best character of the series’ latter seasons, and one immensely important to its ultimate conclusion. Senior year on The O.C. actually focuses on school, and “The Shape of Things to Come” starts off strong on this front, introducing new allies and villains to the ensemble before the season goes downhill—fast.
Heading into the second half of Season Two, “The Lonely Hearts Club” works as a season reset, one that generates more intrigue in key relationships than we’ve seen in a while. In some ways, the episode plays up the characters’ familiar traits: The neurotic Seth comes between Summer and Zach (Michael Cassidy); Julie manipulates her way into Caleb’s will. But it’s the way that Sandy and Kirsten act out of character that’s most shocking, as Sandy kisses his old love and the couple is left further apart than ever. The beginning of Season Two struggles to figure out what journey the characters should go on, and some still need work (cough Marissa cough), but “The Lonely Hearts Club” is a pleasant push forward.
“The Cliffhanger” administers us one last dose of the obnoxious Johnny before killing him off in the most hilarious way. Drunken rock climbing at the middle of night? Sure, why not? While the episode does attend to Johnny far more than it should, the rest is sweet and funny: Seth’s admission to Summer that he didn’t attend his Brown interview ends not in a fight but a reasonable discussion, and Julie and Dr. Roberts confess their mutual attraction.
For much of “The SnO.C.,” the series reminds that it’s always been at its best when the core quartet—Ryan, Seth, Marissa and Summer—is in the spotlight. Here, as the gang hangs out alone for the first time in what seems like ages, it’s hard not to see the season’s secondary characters (Alex, Zach, D.J.) as temporary obstacles to the relationships among the main four. Lindsay does make herself the most exciting new character here, both because of her lineage (Caleb is her father) and because anyone is better for Ryan than Marissa.
“The Anger Management” is one of the few Johnny/Volchok episodes to use these new characters in a way that allows us to delve deeper into the main cast members. Here, we return to the rage of Season One Ryan Atwood, and the restraint he requires to keep himself calm; meanwhile, “The Anger Management” in turn uses the core ensemble to make Taylor a sympathetic and likable character, one who attempts to make friends but is held back by, well, her personality. The O.C. often doesn’t know how to mix its problematic new characters with old favorites, but “The Anger Management” does it with aplomb.
“The Mallpisode” comes at just the right time—after several characters have left, but with the repercussions of their departure still looming large. “The Mallpisode” is also the perfect moment for The O.C. to take on the bottle episode, as the gang gets stuck in the mall. It’s been far too long since the core four members of the cast have hung out, and with Marissa questioning her relationship with Alex, Ryan upset over Lindsay leaving, and Seth and Summer having just reunited, there are finally some stakes that revolve squarely around this group of characters. “The Mallpisode” is a chance for everyone to regroup, readjust and reunite, a throwback to Season One’s antics, and a way to relax before the drama ahead.
“The Cold Turkey” finds The O.C. striving for the right mix of wackiness and grief. But unlike the previous two episodes, it draws strength from allowing the characters to sit down and discuss their pain. The episode’s capper, in which Ryan tells Julie about the first time he saw Marissa, is a beautiful moment of growth: He’s grateful for the time they shared rather than fretting about what could have been. “The Cold Turkey” even finds a way to make Volchok sympathetic, as he and Ryan get around to discussing the night of Marissa’s death. The episode’s quirkiness throws everything slightly off, though; Summer brings home a group of homeless men for Thanksgiving and Taylor befriends Kirsten, neither of which click tonally with the rest of the episode. Thankfully, Season Four is almost out of its awkward phase, as “The Cold Turkey” allows the characters to live with their grief.
Once Ryan and Marissa start dating, Luke becomes the most irrelevant character in The O.C. The series could very well have avoided him—later on, it pretty much will—but in “The Secret”, The O.C. confronts Luke’s homophobia and turns him into a fairly sympathetic character. In discussing Luke’s gay father, “The Secret” also presents the deep-seated web of gossip that keeps Newport running, and the concern residents harbor about becoming the talk of the town. Though the episode allows us to see some fairly unusual friendships, including Summer and Anna, Kirsten and Julie, and Luke and Ryan, in hindsight it sets up a plan—Luke becoming one of “the gang”—that never comes to fruition.
From the time we first meet Ryan’s mom, she operates as a symbol of the messy life he left behind in Chino. Thankfully, “The Dawn Patrol” gives us a loving mother and son, instead making Ryan’s mother the cause of all his problems. The episode has several other strong threads—the strain on Sandy and Kirsten’s marriage; Julie’s love for Marissa—but it’s the back-and-forth between Summer and Seth that hits the hardest. These two have had their difficulties in the past, but in “The Dawn Patrol,” the weight of their decisions and their love for each other can be felt in equal measure.
When The O.C. tosses grandparents into the mix, it’s always a joy. With “The Nana,” we meet Sandy’s mother (played by Linda Lavin), who has the same sternness as Caleb, but with the care we’ve come to expect from the Cohen family line. Unfortunately, the Cohens’ first Seder together, which might have reached Chrismukkah proportions, is bogged down by Marissa: Though she has every right to be mad at her mother for sleeping with her ex-boyfriend, her decision to crash Theresa’s (Navi Rawat) engagement party is strange. But as Season One wraps up, it’s still great to see Sandy, Jimmy and Hailey in the spotlight.
As its title implies, “The Third Wheel” focuses on all sorts of characters who just don’t belong. After being a potential threat in “The Countdown,” Oliver goes full-on cartoonish bad guy. He tries to buy coke, undermines Ryan and Marissa’s relationship and hilariously watches the main quartet from the shadows; even for The O.C., it’s rare for characters to feel as fraudulent and wholly ridiculous as Oliver. “The Third Wheel” is also the first of many episodes to feature musical acts. While the series will learn to integrate these more successfully in upcoming seasons, the appearance of Rooney turns “The Third Wheel” into one large commercial for the band. “The Third Wheel” is at its best when it depicts this new group of friends coming together and hanging out in realistic ways—there’s something strangely heartwarming about watching former enemies and longtime rivals simply spend a night going to a concert and playing videogames together.
Having returned from Tijuana and Marissa’s near-OD, “The Rescue” begins one of the key conflicts of The O.C.: No matter how attracted Ryan and Marissa are to each other, their relationship only makes matters worse. Only eight episodes in, we can already see the problems their connection causes. It’s a situation that’s often shrugged off with, “But they’re in love!” yet it already comes across as a mistake. “The Rescue” does handle Marissa’s depression, and the additional challenge of her parents’ recent separation, quite well. These issues loom over the entire Cooper family, and lend credence to the sense of life-or-death stakes that often imbue teenage problems.
The O.C. almost always excels when the show leaves Newport, and “The College Try” is often effective. Strangely, though, the episode also shoehorns all sorts of unanswered questions from the past (see; Theresa) into a narrative that’s supposed to focus on the future. At least for Ryan and Marissa, that is: When Seth’s plan to get into Brown fails, it opens the door to a new opportunity. “The College Try” is an episode that succeeds only in part, but when it does, it passes with flying colors.
Even with multiple trips to the hospital and what seems like the destruction of Newport in an earthquake, “The Night Moves” remains slight, and doesn’t quite push the story towards the finale as much as one might expect. Taking place entirely at night—a first for the series—and putting all of the characters in a state of danger, the episode comes off as tonally different from the rest of the season, and its stakes are largely hollow. There are some enjoyable twists on the usual formulas—Ryan needs saving, Seth has to be the hero, Sandy gets flustered—but “The Night Moves” doesn’t hit as hard as it should, even when we see that the Cohen house has been destroyed by the earthquake.
Pretty much any time the Cohen men go on a vacation, story takes a back seat to dumb fun. The trip to Miami in “The Return of the Nana” gives us a combination of Seths, mixing senior-citizen-mentality Seth with in-over-his-head Seth; his penchant for Metamucil and shuffleboard is hilarious. Balancing the spring break hijinks are a handful of darker stories, with Summer kissing Zach, Nana Cohen getting engaged and quickly left behind, Trey forcing himself on Marissa, and Kirsten kissing Carter (Billy Campbell). It’s a testament to the deftness of “The Return of the Nana” that this episode somehow doesn’t get overwhelmed by melodrama, coming off far more lighthearted in practice than it does on paper.
In “The Way We Were,” still unwilling to forgive Seth and Ryan, Summer and Marissa find their replacements: watered down versions of the originals that don’t pose any real threat. The episode allows Summer to address Seth’s failures as a boyfriend and take charge of her own life, but the most intriguing aspect of “The Way We Were” is the growing distrust and frustration in the Cohen marriage and Sandy’s relationship with Caleb. Here, The O.C. subtly sets the stage for the characters’ forthcoming arcs, from Ryan’s interest in architecture and Kirsten’s growing depression to Seth obsessing over comics now more than ever.
In the scheme of The O.C., Oliver is more or less a contrivance, designed to play to Ryan’s mistrust and Marissa’s sympathetic nature, both of which are abundant in “The Links.” But as silly as the episode can be, it also further defines two key characters: With ironic humor, jealousy and barely hidden rage, Summer becomes one of the series’ funniest characters in “The Links,” while Seth’s observation that he’s essentially an old Jewish man on the inside couldn’t be more apt.
Season Two of The O.C. is often about learning from the mistakes of the past and trying again, and what makes “The New Kids on the Block” a standout is the way it revises ideas from Season One for the better. If the series’ first band performance, by Rooney, felt like an ad, the opening of The Bait Shop coincides with an appearance by The Walkmen that isn’t intrusive in the slightest. The introduction of Alex and Lindsay is handled less sloppily than the arrival of new characters in the first season. Even the new bond of Seth and Marissa, as the loneliest and most self-interested characters on The O.C., comes off as real, a friendship built out of their lack of other options.
To this point in Season Four, the series has focused the pain that follows Marissa’s death. With “The Metamorphosis,” The O.C. finally gets around to its post-Marissa plans, offering up a charming episode that displays the characters’ resolve and begins to pave the way for the series finale. (It’s fantastic to see Summer and Seth’s relationship turn on compassion and understanding instead of jealousy and nitpicking.) “The Metamorphosis” is also the beginning of the Taylor-Ryan relationship, which seems completely out of left field but somehow works beautifully. “The Metamorphosis” is a welcome new direction for The O.C., moving past outsized drama and into more nuanced character dynamics.
In “The Avengers,” The O.C. returns for its final season in the aftermath of Marissa’s death, and it turns out that her memory is more intriguing than her presence. The episode highlights what grief can do to people, both alone (Summer’s a hippie; Ryan’s literally in a fight club) and together (Ryan and Julie become closer; Seth and Summer are torn apart.), and even when it hits us over the head—see Seth’s comic book, made especially for Ryan—”The Avengers” navigates the new world the series has created for itself with sincere emotion.
As Season Three’s penultimate episode, “The Man of the Year” starts to make good on a lot of long-standing stories. Though Marissa’s storyline is terrible—her time with her sister is supposed to be a sort of goodbye, but functions instead as a way to set up Kaitlin’s role in the fourth season—the rest of the episode, which finally focuses on the troubles in the Cohen household, is excellent. Everyone’s improprieties come to light, but it strengthens the Cohens for the first time all season. No matter the amount of craziness that The O.C. can get into, the series is first and foremost a show about family, and excels when that is its focal point.
“Last year was better” is an oft-repeated phrase in “The Blaze of Glory”: In its opening scene, the episode even attempts to explain why the criticism of the series’ second season might be misguided. Despite The O.C.’s slight letdown in Season Two, however, “The Blaze of Glory” is a strong effort to recreate the magic of Season One: Ryan almost gets into some fights, Seth provides the comic relief and Summer is frustrated by Seth. Yes, everything is in its rightful place. Even Marissa isn’t all that terrible, and Mischa Barton’s performance is finally in sync with the rest of the cast.
Romance has always been a key component to The O.C., but with “The Sleeping Beauty,” the show goes full romantic comedy. The series hasn’t had an adorable new couple to cheer for in quite some time, so the flirtation between Ryan and Taylor is a welcome change of pace. “The Sleeping Beauty” contains subplots that don’t entirely hold their own, as Kaitlin and Julie fights over the same man and Summer worries that she might be expelled from Brown, but Ryan and Taylor discovering their attraction for each other makes up the episode’s flaws. This late in The O.C.’s run, offering up an entirely new central relationship is a wild chance to take, but “The Sleeping Beauty” does it with a warmth and sweetness that immediately makes this new couple exciting to watch.
By the end of The O.C., the romantic entanglements become so confusing that the characters themselves have a hard time them straight. “The Girlfriend” sets these threads in motion by introducing Caleb Nichol, Kirsten’s father, while hinting at Julie Cooper’s divorce and her eventual relationship with Caleb. ”The Girlfriend” does a fine job presenting Caleb as the powerful specter that looms over the Cohen family, motivating many of their decisions through his business empire. (Caleb’s birthday party also creates an opportunity for Seth and Summer’s first kiss.) The episode can be a bit clumsy, though: It brings up Marissa’s virginity out of nowhere, only to have her lose it to Luke minutes later.
When The O.C. focuses primarily on teen melodrama, as it does in “The Heights,” it’s handled beautifully. This is largely because “The Heights” presents two long-awaited moments: Ryan and Marissa’s first kiss, and the beginning of the Summer-Anna-Seth love triangle. Add to this the deft, naturalistic subplot involving Sandy and Kirsten, in which the couple tries to balance their jobs and their love lives, and “The Heights” emerges as a sterling example of the series’ ability to work its magic on fairly typical stories.
If it didn’t come near the end of the, “The Party Favor” might be mistaken for Season One’s lost prom episode, considering the hard drinking and fist fights. (Even Theresa and Anna turn up, unnecessarily.) The fact that no one is with who they should be makes “The Party Favor” slightly a bummer, and it’s a shame to see Ryan fall back into his punchy ways, especially after being applauded for becoming a more rational man. But “The Party Favor” nonetheless offers sweet moments, even an air of nostalgia, before the final episodes of the season are overloaded with pain and suffering.
After a steady stream of episodes that turn on relationship road blocks, “The L.A.” returns The O.C. to simpler times, when the gang would hang out and get into some sort of trouble. The O.C. doesn’t get the credit it deserves for its meta-fictional humor, commenting on itself with the show-within-the-show, The Valley, and in “The L.A.” we see The Valley used to parody the lives of The O.C.’s cast members, too—especially Adam Brody.
”The Chrismukk-huh?” is the only fantasy episode The O.C. ever did, set in an alternate timeline in which Ryan never existed, It’s a Wonderful Life-style. The premise doesn’t quite work—the episode is less about Ryan’s inability to fit in than it is his difficulty moving on from Marissa’s death—but it’s an hour of the most enjoyable nonsense The O.C. ever embarked on. ”The Chrismukk-huh?” is a treasure trove of what ifs and Easter eggs for fans: It’s not necessary in the slightest, but it admirably relishes its own strangeness, and allows the series to let its hair down.
As if The O.C. needed more drama, “The Countdown” introduces us to two troublemakers: Kirsten’s sister, Hailey, and Oliver, who seems ready to throw a wrench into the Marissa-Ryan relationship right away. The O.C. almost always gives Kirsten and Sandy worthwhile stories, but “The Countdown” is one of the few episodes in which the adult subplot is measurably better than the teen one, as Sandy and Kirsten question if they’re too predictable. And even though it’s incredibly cheesy, Ryan running to Marissa to kiss her on New Year’s Eve is a solid capper to The O.C.’s year.
“Telenovela” indulges The O.C.’s soap opera influences and, most importantly, the genre’s penchant for romantic gestures: The moment in which Seth stands on a coffee cart and procliams his undying love for Summer is one of the series’ best. While Seth and Summer are on steady ground (for now), “Telenovela” pays perhaps too much attention to relationships that already seem irrelevant. The arrival of Theresa and Eddie—pretty much Chino’s Ryan and Marissa—feels inconsequential, especially considering how much Ryan has emphasized his desire to start over, and while Luke and Julie’s affair almost makes sense, it’s also obvious from the beginning where this thread is headed, as the people in Marissa’s life continue to hurt her.
It’s fitting that, after introducing the families of Newport in the first three episodes, “The Debut”—which features The O.C.’s cotillion—depicts the characters defying expectations, showing the neighborhood’s façade for what it is. As we come to see Jimmy Cooper as a petulant fraud, Ryan as a kindly striver, and Seth as a surprisingly confident nerd, “The Debut” is The O.C.’s first attempt to dig beneath the characters’ surface. Indeed, along with introducing two budding love triangles—Seth-Summer-Anna and Ryan-Marissa-Luke—the episode establishes one of the series’ overarching threads: the conflict between who the characters truly are and the personas they present for the world to see.
As many characters openly admit in the course of “The Heartbreak,” the episode is an attempt to get back to normal after the Oliver saga, and frankly, it’s about time. The Valentine’s Day theme places the series’ main relationships front and center, particularly as the Cohen men deal with love: Sandy navigates his hatred of the holiday, and Seth and Summer adorably lose their virginity to each other. Even the unexpected romances in bloom (Julie and Luke, Ryan and Theresa, Hailey and Jimmy), comes off as natural, not contrived. “The Heartbreak” gets The O.C. back to basics in a lot of ways, and the series is better for it.
“The Day After Tomorrow” is one of the Season Three’s strongest episodes, presenting the core four with one conflict—getting into college—and watching how they react to it. The setup is deceptively simple, and yet it works wonders, placing Seth and Summer at odds, leaving Ryan single once more, and moving Marissa in the direction of being bearable again. “The Day After Tomorrow” is also one of the last times that we see the quartet together in one place.
“The Strip” is the perfect example of The O.C.’s success as a primetime soap: The episode features pool catfights, strippers, prostitutes and underage gambling, and yet it still evolves the series’ ongoing stories. Even without the drama that arises, “The Strip” would be great for how it segregates the sexes, watching the guys make fools of themselves while Kirsten’s house is full of male strippers. As is hinted in the final scene, in which Marissa tells Ryan that Theresa might be pregnant with his child, there are dark times ahead, but “The Strip,” offers one last moment of relaxation before everyone’s world starts to fall apart.
Early on in “The Aftermath,” Ryan, Marissa, Summer and Seth decide to enjoy a day together, before the weight of what could be a rough year comes crashing down on them. Season Three is by far the worst season of The O.C., but “The Aftermath” is a fine introduction: In an episode of high drama—Trey wakes from a coma, Ryan almost gets arrested and Kirsten’s in rehab—it’s the main characters’ relaxing day together that makes the episode stand out. There’s a beauty to the simplicity of letting us to spy on their miniature vacation. We can see how much fun they have when the series’ melodramatic trappings fall away: Ryan’s impression of Summer might be McKenzie’s most hilarious in the entire series.
In “The Goodbye Girl,” The O.C. says farewell to two of Ryan and Seth’s lesser loves, one of which is effective, the other anticlimactic. Theresa’s abrupt departure after causing havoc in Ryan’s life is obviously just temporary, making her grand gesture sort of empty. Seth saying goodbye to Anna is wonderful, though (thus ending the Seth-Summer-Anna love triangle once and for all): Anna never really got her own stories outside of her relationship with Seth, so it’s terrific that her leaving has nothing to do with him, as she shows the strength and confidence that she imbued in Seth. It’s fantastic to see The O.C.’s strong female characters acting outside of their feelings towards a man, actively making decisions for themselves instead of specifically for love.
With senior year in motion, “The Game Plan” sets the stage for the transition to college, and while it doesn’t evince much foresight, it’s beautiful for how it portrays the mindsets of the characters here and now. This is especially notcieablewith regard to Summer, who shows an independence and strength that will only grow throughout the rest of the series. As Johnny and company take more of a backseat, episodes like “The Anger Management” and “The Game Plan” flesh out the core four even further, and despite the ups and downs of Season Three, “The Game Plan” makes it hard not to be excited about their future.
As Season One comes to a close, “The Proposal” makes some excellent adjustments for the transition into Season Two. Luke stopped being interesting about a dozen episodes ago, and his goodbye from the show is overblown, but it’s still a nice sendoff. The real key, though, is the unholy alliance of Julie and Caleb, whose marriage will loom over the series going forward. Caleb is the episode’s MVP, as his character becomes crystal clear—namely, that he pays lip service to caring about family, but always puts himself first; he’ll help Sandy and Jimmy with their restaurant, or get Marissa to move back in with her mother, but only because it’ll be best for him in the long run. The O.C. needed a villain, and “The Proposal” delivers.
“The O.Sea” works its way through a lot of plot, even opening up some forgotten stories just for the hell of it. (Was it exactly necessary to bring back Theresa?) But in a series that features countless large parties, it’s a clever twist that The O.C.’s prom episode hardly takes place at the prom (similar to Saved By the Bell’s prom episode, mentioned in “The O.Sea.”) The episode succeeds in combining a pair of Season Two stories—Caleb and Julie’s marriage and Kirsten’s drinking—by having each inform the other to great effect near their respective ends.
“The Distance” catches up with our characters after a tumultuous summer: Seth has matured by making his own path, Ryan has started a new life with Theresa, and Summer is improving herself after losing Seth. This natural growth is balanced by Marissa’s continued childishness: The sight of her screaming at the top of her lungs in front of her mother while throwing lawn furniture into the pool is one of the series’ most (unintentionally) hilarious moments of the series. As is the case with much of The O.C., though, “The Distance” is at its strongest when dealing with the Cohen family—and though it doesn’t take much for them to reunite, it still feels good to be home with everyone once again.
“The Rainy Day Women” is exactly the type of episode The O.C. needed as Season Two headed into its second half. For one thing, it’s visually refreshing, as the constant sun of Southern California is broken up by the episode’s rain—wreaking havoc on everyone in the process. For another, “The Rainy Day Women” brings together the core four, with Seth and Summer adorably sharing a Spider-Man kiss. The first half of Season Two often seems to suffer from a bit of a malaise, but “The Rainy Day Women” shatters the mould just in the nick of time.
“The Model Home” does a fine job elaborating the patterns that will define The O.C. throughout its four season run. The Cohen family is a pillar of strength and intelligence; the Coopers will always have a new problem to deal with; and the interweaving of stories involving parents and children stories elevate the series above the usual teen melodrama. “The Model Home” spends plenty of time with the trio of Marissa, Seth and Ryan, giving us early on every possible dynamic among the three and showcasing their various strengths and weaknesses as characters. “The Model Home” also shows both the danger and the hope that might accompany Ryan’s cohabitation with the Cohens: He could be just what this community needs, or he could literally burn the place to the ground.
In “The Escape” The O.C. goes to Tijuana for one last hurrah before the end of the summer, and refines our understanding of the main characters in the process. Over the course of the episode, we learn everything we need to know about these two relationships: Ryan will continuously save Marissa, while Seth and Summer will be the bickering, adorable couple. “The Escape” also deepens the female characters, with Marissa beginning her struggle with substance abuse in earnest and Summer transforming from a entitled princess to a comedic foil and loyal friend.
In the series finale, The O.C. does a phenomenal job of wrapping up the story, keeping certain threads open to interpretation and, most importantly, restating what have always been the series’ key themes with perfect punctuation. Summer going off to a new job and Julie choosing self-improvement over love are excellent examples of The O.C.’s desire for its characters to make the best possible versions of themselves. But the episode’s most effective message is the one the series started out with: a story of giving a helping hand to those in need and making a family of those who come into your life. Stealing a page from the Six Feet Under finale, The O.C. ends with a montage that imagines the characters’ futures, as Ryan reaches out to a boy like him that just might need his help. The moment is a perfect bookend to “Pilot,” suffused with hope and compassion.
“Is this like an after school special?,” Seth asks in “The Dearly Beloved,” and the Season Two finale certainly could’ve gone down that path. Thanks in no small part to The Lonely Island, “The Dearly Beloved” is probably best known for its cheesiest moment, in which Marissa shoots Trey, to the tune of Imogen Heap’s “Hide & Seek.” But the rest of the episode is handled with a considerable amount of care, as the series tackles Kirsten’s alcoholism through an intervention. Despite genuine expressions of concern from those she trusts, Kirsten reacts with vitriol, in one of the series’ few moments of pure disgust and anger—a phenomenal example of tough love, and one of the most challenging scenes The O.C. ever tackled.
Killing off Marissa Cooper is one of the best decisions The O.C. ever made. For three seasons, Marissa and her bad decisions had been at the core of most of the show’s problems, and a constant source of frustration. But her death pushes the writers to find a new source of tension for the show, while also testing the rest of the cast in a way that they haven’t been before. Even though Marissa’s death is a long time coming, “The Graduates” still makes her passing an emotional affair, as she says goodbye to her family and friends. Ryan’s reaction to losing Marissa is one of the series’ most heartbreaking moments.
In one of The O.C.’s most brilliant gambits, the series creates a new, hybrid holiday in “The Best Chrismukkah Ever.” With the exception of Seth’s explanation, it’s hardly a traditional holiday episode, as Marissa spirals into underage drinking and shoplifting. Still, it’s impossible not to be charmed by Chrismukkah, the holiday with the combined power of Moses and Jesus: The excitement and passion Seth displays for his creation is palpable, joyously overwhelming the episode’s treatment of Marissa going to therapy and seedy land deals. It’s truly a Chrismukkah miracle that an episode about a made up holiday could become one of the best holiday TV episodes of all time.
“The Chrismukkah That Almost Wasn’t” doubles down on both familial love and the Cohen-branded holiday. Caleb’s revelation that Lindsay and Kirsten are sisters sets the dramatic bar so high it can only be surmounted by a Chrismukkah miracle, and the final scene, in which Kirsten and Lindsay finally meet, is among the most touching in the series’ run. (It also allows for everything else we love about the Cohens: awkward moments, inopportune humor and elaborate festivities.) Even in terms of building on the holiday itself, “The Chrismukkah That Almost Wasn’t” is brilliant, from Lindsay’s invention of the yarmul-Clause to Seth’s Chrismukkah carol—sung to the tune of Death Cab for Cutie’s “A Lack of Color.”
In the first episode of The O.C., series creator Josh Schwartz crafts a soapy melodrama with an underlying warmth that sustains the entire series. More than a mere teen drama or fish-out-of-water story, the pilot episode hinges on the rich, nuanced life of an unorthodox family, with Chino “criminal” Ryan Atwood’s arrival in the affluent household of Orange County residents Sandy, Kirsten and Seth Cohen. It’s the bonds that Ryan creates with the Cohens in such short order that swiftly becomes the series’ the real draw, and “Pilot,” with tremendous foresight, sets the table for this level of character development from the start. Welcome to the O.C., bitch.
The perfect conclusion to The O.C.’s first and finest season, “The Ties That Bind” reminds us just how far the characters have come over the course of one year. It’s staggering to see the Cohens say goodbye to Ryan, who became a second son to them, or for Seth to come to the realization that his life is about to return to the pre-Ryan era of loneliness and ennui. In many ways, “The Ties That Bind” brings us back to a time before we knew the characters at all: Season Two will begin with Ryan in Chino, Marissa drinking, Seth alone, and Julie married to a rich criminal. Though there’s no way Ryan would leave for good, The O.C. plays his absence as a weighty decision, the ramifications of which reverberate through nearly every character. “The Ties That Bind” is The O.C. at its peak, a series full of heart, humor, love, pain and fantastic, well-constructed characters.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. Seth Cohen is his spirit animal. You can follow find more of his writing at RossBonaime.com and follow him on Twitter.
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