Warner Bros. // 2003 // 1186 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // January 5th, 2005
It's nothing like where you live. And nothing like what you imagine.
The FOX Network scored a surprisingly big hit in the summer of 2003 with The O.C., arguably its most successful prime-time soap since the heyday of Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place. Now, the first season (actually, at 27 episodes, it's more like a season and a half) of the pop culture phenomenon comes to DVD, courtesy of Warner Bros.
The O.C. -- The Complete First Season tells the story of Ryan Atwood (newcomer Benjamin McKenzie), a brooding young man from the wrong side of the tracks, dealt a lousy hand in life by his criminal brother and alcoholic mother. When Ryan is picked up by the police for helping his brother steal a car, he comes into the custody of benevolent public defender Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher, Short Cuts). Ryan becomes a stranger in a silicone land, brought home to live with Sandy, his wife, Kirsten (Kelly Rowan, Assassins), and son, Seth (Adam Brody, Grind), in the Cohens' palatial estate in Orange County.
Next door to the Cohens live the Coopers: Jimmy (Tate Donovan, Memphis Belle), a desperate investor on a self-destructive streak; his gold-digging sexpot wife, Julie (Melinda Clarke, Return of the Living Dead III), and his outwardly-popular-but-inwardly-troubled daughter, Marissa (Mischa Barton, Lost and Delirious). There's a younger daughter, too (Kaitlin, played by Shailene Woodley), but her continued and conspicuous absence actually becomes a running joke for the series. The Coopers are the anti-Cohens, filled with angst, familial disharmony and dysfunction, and scandal -- whether it's Jimmy facing a life in prison or Julie sleeping with her teenage daughter's ex-boyfriend, life in the Cooper house is never dull.
The love triangle that develops between bad boy Ryan, good girl Marissa, and Marissa's jockish boyfriend Luke (Chris Carmack, Bring It On Again), drives much of the season's first half. Coupled with geeky Seth's undying longing for the resident Daddy's-girl and Marissa's best friend, Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), rocky romances are a staple of The O.C.'s first season -- especially when both boys are confronted with other potential girls. For Seth, it's girl-next-door Anna Stern (Samaire Armstrong, Not Another Teen Movie); for Ryan, it's girl-from-the-shady-past Theresa (Navi Rawat, House of Sand and Fog).
But The O.C. devotes equal time to its adult characters, too. As Jimmy attempts to rebuild his life, his family falls apart. His daughter, Marissa, is struggling with alcoholism, while mom Julie begins a potential romance with Caleb Nichol (Alan Dale, Hollywood Homicide), the richest man in Newport Beach and, incidentally, Kirsten Cohen's father. Kirsten, meanwhile, struggles with her role in her father's business and her troubled relationship with her screwed-up visiting sister, Hailey (Amanda Righetti, North Shore), while Sandy faces difficulties in his previously benevolent career path.
There's more to The O.C. than meets the eye; for all of its supposed soap opera trappings, it actually manages to transcend that genre and function at a higher level. That could be because we now live in an age of irony, meaning that the show is self-aware -- it mocks convention as regularly as it embraces it (a running gag involving one character's obsession with a show called The Valley drives this home). It might just be the least guilty Guilty Pleasure on television; although some moments of the show are designed with the Guilty Pleasure mentality in mind, it never allows itself to devolve into self-parody or camp -- there's enough sincerity throughout to keep everyone involved honest. The moments where the series does lapse into melodramatic devices -- accidental arson, questions of paternity, marital infidelities, and the like (please don't even let me get started on the whole "stalker" storyline, which lasts about five episodes longer than it should have) -- are the weakest of the season. When, on the other hand, the characters and their relationships are allowed to come to the forefront, The O.C. is surprisingly involving. Is it great television? Sure, in the way that a Snickers bar is great food -- it's reasonably satisfying and goes down easy, but doesn't offer a whole lot of sustenance.
A good chunk of this first season centers on the romance between Ryan and Marissa, but both the actors and their respective characters are too stiff and uninteresting to carry the series on their backs. I'm willing to cut Benjamin McKenzie some slack -- this is, after all, his first major role, and he clearly has charisma and intensity of the Russell Crowe variety (a fact the writers must have picked up on, as there are several jokes to this effect), but he'll need to show a few more colors before deserving a spot as the show's focus. Mischa Barton, on the other hand, is unable to convince me that she has what it takes to be a star; even with a few prominent roles under her belt, Barton has the clumsy demeanor of a fashion model taking a stab at acting. She isn't helped much by a character that's far more difficult to care about than we're presumably meant to; Marissa is besieged by so much drama that in real life, you'd want to get as far away from her as possible. Why every character on the show seems to revolve around her is a mystery to me.
The O.C. delivers the soapy goods to a wide spectrum of audience. There's the lovestruck teenage drama, reminiscent of Dawson's Creek or 90210, and there's the feuding-families, corporate intrigue, and occasional bed-hopping that may satisfy the older fans of primetime melodramas past (Dynasty and Dallas come to mind). As over the top as much of that sounds, however, the series is refreshingly down to earth; Peter Gallagher -- who might just be doing his best work yet on the show -- and Kelly Rowan, as the "adults" of the series, contribute largely to this (despite their chronological ages, the other adults on the show aren't particularly grown up). Theirs is an unusual marriage for series television, demonstrating that even with love and commitment come challenges -- we understand why these two characters are together, just as we understand why that might not always be easy. It's atypical for a network show to allow a married couple to fight without conceding total misery; to love one another without that love always coming off as a day at the beach (even when they're actually on the beach). On a series which could easily sideline the adult characters in favor of the younger, hipper teenagers, The O.C. affords Gallagher and Rowan a quiet maturity -- they're the heart of the show.
But The O.C.'s masterstroke (its saving grace, as far as this reviewer is concerned) is the creation of Adam Brody's character, Seth Cohen. Not only is Seth not a character we would expect to see on a glossy beautiful-people show like The O.C., he's not even someone we expect to see on a network television show; it's the last series on which I expected to find a character that I identify with. Seth is the champion of geeks and fanboys everywhere: a comic book / sci-fi / fantasy fanatic who moves unfazed within a world of wealth and beauty. That he ends up dating Summer, who is the best looking and least attainable -- and, despite her spoiled brat persona, the most appealing -- female on the show is an inspiration to geeks everywhere (though, speaking from personal experience with the wife, it is possible for the geek to get the girl); her birthday gift to Seth, in which she dresses up as Wonder Woman, might just be the high point of the season. From video games to emo music, Star Wars quotes to comic book references (like it or not, here's a hit prime time show -- with a largely female audience, no less -- that knows and swears by the name of Brian Michael Bendis), Seth Cohen is a Geek's Geek. None of this would mean much if it weren't for Adam Brody's fast, funny performance as Seth; he's an early-Tom Hanks-smartass with later-Tom Hanks vulnerability. As a fanboy champion, we could do much worse than Adam Brody.
Music plays an integral role in the proceedings of The O.C., but the show manages to be one of those rare cases where it's utilized to the right effect -- rather than simply smothering scenes in tunes from the latest "it" band, the creative forces behind the series seek out songs that actually enhance the episodes. This is especially true in the season's second half; as the show finds its footing, it better understands how to make the most of its soundtrack. I was annoyed early on when the late, great Jeff Buckley's cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" was used in one of the more overwrought episodes (hundreds of candles and a fistfight lead to a house fire), but was surprised at how moved I was when it resurfaced over the season's closing moments. That's also a testament to how much I found myself involved with the characters. While a few of the character arcs resolve (or don't resolve, as is primarily the cliffhanger case) in a manner that's less than satisfying, there is still some sort of emotional resonance to the various storylines. I'm left wanting to know what will happen next.
Warner Bros. releases The O.C. -- The Complete First Season as a seven-disc set, with all twenty-seven episodes appearing in their original full-frame television format. The image is generally strong, with colors looking warm and decent; there are occasional flaws, but nothing significant enough to affect the overall quality of the set. The only available audio option is a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround track, but it serves its purpose nicely -- the dialogue and music that drive the show never overpower one another. There's a fair amount of extras included on the set, but like many season-length television sets, most of them are easily dismissed. We get a couple of featurettes of little value, a gap-of-silence-heavy commentary on the pilot episode, a few unaired scenes that offer more of the same, and a "Season Two Sneak Peek" that offers no actual information about what lies ahead for the show -- just the speculations of what the actors would like to see happen.
Television is a scary place these days. In this era of reality-based television, programming variety has become somewhat obsolete. Even the all-too-rare scripted TV dramas are becoming stratified -- our choices seem to be dwindling down to the WB-style "family drama" (7th Heaven, Everwood) or the procedural drama (the Law & Order and CSI franchises). The O.C. doesn't yet rank with the best character-driven series out there -- it's no Gilmore Girls -- because it still relies too heavily on machinations of the plot. It does, however, provide solid escapist entertainment, and is smarter and funnier than one might initially expect. It's a better show than it should be.
As long as it promises to lay off the melodrama, the Court finds The O.C. -- The Complete First Season not guilty. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2005 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 1186 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Unaired Scenes
* Audio Commentary on Pilot Episode
* Featurette: Casting The O.C.
* Inside the Real O.C. With Executive Producer McG
* Featurette: The Music of the O.C.
* Season Two Sneak Peek
* On-Screen Music Track Guide on Select Episodes
* DVD-ROM Weblink to The O.C. Online Music Sampler
* Official Site