Judge Patrick Bromley is already packing for his annual O.C. pilgrimage, but this one will be somewhat bittersweet.
Our reviews of The O.C.: The Complete First Season (published January 5th, 2005), The O.C.: The Complete Second Season (published November 2nd, 2005), The O.C.: The Complete Third Season (published February 5th, 2007), and The O.C.: The Complete Series (published January 9th, 2008) are also available.
Summer: "Oh, I don't do sarcasm anymore. I'm post-ironic."
The O.C. burned bright and fast for the FOX network. It got off to a strong start, receiving good notices and becoming a surprise hit in the ratings department. It quickly entered the cultural zeitgeist with its blend of sunshine, soap opera melodrama, and a killer soundtrack of up-and-coming indie rock. But after a mixed second season and a decidedly dark and awful third season, The O.C. had sunk too far to be rescued. Despite a healthy facelift, including a change in tone and a greater presence from series creator Josh Schwartz, the fourth season of the show would be its last. Pitted on Thursday nights against monsters like Survivor, CSI, and (especially) Grey's Anatomy (which would go after much of the same audience), it couldn't really stand a chance. FOX didn't even see fit to allow the series its full season run of 22 episodes, instead pulling the plug early and cutting it short at 16.
And, so, the sun sets on The O.C.…
Facts of the Case
The fourth season of The O.C. picks up six months after the tragic finale of Season Three: the death of Marissa Cooper has rocked the show's central characters, once again scattering them apart both geographically and emotionally. Perpetually broody Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie, 88 Minutes) is among those taking it the hardest, having moved out of the Cohen household and punishing himself nightly by engaging in back-room cage fights. Seth (Adam Brody, In the Land of Women) has put off college for a semester and bides his time working at the local comic shop; his girlfriend (and Marissa's best friend), Summer (Rachel Bilson, The Last Kiss), has gone off to Brown and become a political activist as a means of distraction. Marissa's mother, Julie (Melinda Clarke, Return of the Living Dead 3) is overcome with grief and can do nothing but alienate her boyfriend and other daughter, the now-grown Kaitlin (Willa Holland, The Comeback). Sandy (Peter Gallagher, Short Cuts) and Kirsten (Kelly Rowan, 187) Cohen have to stand by and watch as their family falls apart once again.
Can things possibly remain this dark? Heck no! The writers learned their lesson with Season Three! Instead, things eventually resolve and Season Four becomes the lightest, funniest, and definitely broadest season of The O.C. yet. This season sees Summer turn environmentalist, befriend a dirty, dirty hippie named Ché (Chris Pratt, Strangers With Candy), and become mother to a rabbit named Pancakes. Seth takes a trip to the spirit world and discovers his inner otter. Ryan starts dating his total opposite—manic perfectionist Taylor Townsend (Autumn Reeser, The Girl Next Door). Taylor becomes the subject of an erotic French novel. Someone may or may not develop a homosexual crush on Seth. Julie runs a male prostitution ring and gets engaged to a Texas billionaire named Bullitt. Seth and Summer become obsessed with the game show Briefcase or No Briefcase?. Kevin Sorbo (Hercules) shows up. There are at least two pregnancies. There's an alternate universe and and an earthquake. And, of course, as the series draws to an end, we flash forward to the future to see what's in store for all of our favorite characters…
I reviewed The O.C.: The Complete First Season when it was originally released for the Verdict, and at the time commented that the show was better than it had any right to be. That season, it was a show at war with itself—there was the funny, lighthearted, romantic comedy stuff that worked, and the maudlin, draining, soap opera stuff that didn't. The stuff that worked was good enough to warrant a recommendation, and I gave the show a positive review.
Over the next two years, the producers and writers of The O.C. did their damndest to make me eat my words. Gone was the fun romantic comedy aspect of the show (it would appear very, very infrequently, like in Season Two's "Rainy Day Women"), and in its place was total melodrama. Drug addictions. Alcoholism. Abuse. Attempted rape. Countless deaths. The show had become exactly what I thought it would be before that first season proved me wrong, and defending it was no longer an option. If The O.C. was a show at war with itself, the Bad Guys had clearly won.
Then a funny thing happened. The writers—perhaps in response to sagging ratings and increasingly dour critical response—saw fit to kill off the Mischa Barton (The Oh in Ohio) character. If the black hole that the show had become had a center, it was Barton; not only was her performance wooden, but her character was the source of more melodrama and bad writing than any other. It was like a great purge—her death meant new life for The O.C., and it's just that new life that makes The Complete Fourth Season such fun to watch.
Things get off to a slow start, as the death of Marissa manages to cast a pall over the first few episodes of the season (don't even get me started on Ryan Atwood in the underground fight club…a laughable plot device that would have been right at home in past seasons but provides a low point here). I supposed some credit should go to the show for not just writing the whole thing off; there's an attempt to deal with what ought to be traumatic events in a realistic way. And, once they do, the show becomes the romantic comedy it's always been aching to be. The full-time addition of Autumn Reeser as Taylor Townsend has a lot to do with this. She's shown up in past seasons, but was just a cartoon snob; her opportunistic perfection made her little more than Tracy Flick Lite. Here, as the blossoming love interest of Ryan, she's finally allowed to be a sympathetic character—OCD quirks and all. In a show with a rich history of bringing in bad supporting characters (and even worse actors in those parts…where did they cast some of these people?), Reeser is the best addition in four years.
She also brings out the best in Ben (no longer "Benjamin") McKenzie, who's been trapped in a rut for the previous three years. Ryan Atwood was never allowed to do anything but be stoic and brood, which McKenzie excelled at; Season Four, however, gives him some new colors to play. The show manages to come up with an opposites-attract relationship for him and Taylor that doesn't just mimic the dynamic of Summer and Seth, and that freshness seems to invigorate McKenzie's performance. He's able to be funny, to smile, and to be a romantic leading man in the best possible way—as opposed to the Knight in Shining Wifebeater approach previously taken.
And, yes, much of the above plot synopsis sounds ridiculous. That's because it is. What's good about Season Four, though, is that the show itself finally seems to know how ridiculous it is and embraces the fact. The O.C. has always been over the top, but depressingly so—it was in the name of "drama," and the laughs that were earned weren't intentional. It didn't work. This season goes cheerfully over the top, inviting the audience in on the gag. It doesn't necessarily only play for laughs, but it never takes itself too seriously. That's been the problem with the show since the end of its first season—it took itself far too seriously, and it had no right to. Season Four finally corrects that mistake.
Warner Bros. has released The O.C.—The Complete Fourth Season as an overly padded five-disc set. The 16 episodes that make up the season are spread out over the first four discs, and a fifth disc of supplemental materials rounds out the collection. The trouble is that the fifth disc is entirely unnecessary—so little extra material is included on it that the same features could easily have been squeezed onto the first four discs without compromising sound or picture information. As far as those go—the audio and video quality of the set—both are excellent. The show is presented in a bright, glossy 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with good saturation and no visible flaws, and the dialogue and indie pop soundtrack are well serviced by 2.0 surround audio track. Technically, there's nothing to complain about with The O.C..
Where there is room to complain is with the aforementioned supplemental material—or lack thereof. As this is the last boxed set that will be released of the show, one might expect the studio to go all out and throw in as much as they can. They do not. Instead, there are two fairly lame featurettes (one on Bilson's character, and one on the fictional holiday of "Chrismukkah"—perhaps the show's greatest pop culture legacy) and a few minutes of deleted scenes. There are no interviews with the cast about their experiences working on the show. There is no retrospective featurette. There's not even a blooper reel, for crying out loud. These supplements aren't just unworthy of their own disc, they're downright unworthy of inclusion. The extra features should have celebrated the series' run, and the fact that they don't even come close is a real disappointment.
The only bonus feature that's not a total disappointment is creator Josh Schwartz's commentary track over the final episode, "The End's Not Near, It's Here." His talk is everything you'd want it to be—fast, reflective, informative, and even self-deprecatingly funny (it's obvious that he's modeled Seth Cohen after himself). But because he's only got 43 minutes to cover four seasons' worth of history, Schwartz isn't able to go into much detail on any one subject. Instead, a lot of what he discusses—the show's history, the events that led up to its demise, some behind-the-scenes stuff, and the intent behind the final episode—ends up as kind of the Cliff's Notes version of a longer, better commentary. It's a tease.
After that exhausting and creatively bankrupt third season, I was as ready as anyone to bail on The O.C. (as a matter of fact, I did—my first viewing of the fourth season was for the purposes of this review). But seeing the show bounce back in Season Four served as a reminder to just how enjoyable the series could be when it was firing on all cylinders. Season Four works well enough to make me wish the show was continuing, and bummed out when I realized it isn't. Imagine that? I'm actually sad to see The O.C. go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Unaired Scenes
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