Do me a favor and cast your mind back, if you can, to a time when frosted tips roo-elled the Earth. A time when all lip gloss had a smell. A time of P!nk arena tours and skirts worn over jeans (terrible). A different time, a simpler time, some might say. It was the early 2000s, and, little did the world know, it was about to be changed forever. Seth Cohen was about to show us indie. Ryan Atwood would send sales of white tank tops through the roof. Marissa Cooper was going to teach a generation of privileged little rich kids how to really throw a banana lounge into a pool in a fit of teenage rage. And Summer Roberts would... also be there.
Today, it's been ten years since series creator Josh Schwartz made the call to cancel The OC. And it felt like the right time—the show had been losing viewers since the end of season one (the next three seasons just never quite measured up in quality). Still, despite the fact it wasn't around for long, The OC remains one of the most influential shows in TV history. By the time the writers killed off Marissa Cooper, we'd seen some things together. Oliver! Julie Cooper and Luke! Anna from Pittsburgh! Kirsten's drinking problem! And perhaps the most important moment in television: Marissa shoots Trey in the back to "Mmmwatchasay," and he turns around and is all, "Bitch… what???"
I don't remember what made the premiere of The OC such an event. This was 2004, pre-Instagram and Facebook—even pre-MySpace!!!—so there could only have been a few ads on TV here and there. And yet, despite the lack of "brand activations" and poorly generated hashtag campaigns, teenagers were brimming with devotion before the first episode had even aired. In front of my television that night, and for many nights to come, The OC, FOX's teen drama was the world's most important thing.
The OC had it all. There was danger, angst, and muscle in the form of the misunderstood outsider Ryan Atwood, the bad boy with a heart of gold. And an alt-idol in Seth Cohen—whose love of comics and video games and Interpol was a reminder that you weren't alone in your otherness. There was the titillating opulence of Newport Beach's elite: garden parties and pool parties, and always, always someone making a scene (Jimmy Cooper). And then there were the Cohens—perhaps the most self-aware family on television (besides the Simpsons, of course). The Cohens were genuinely funny, and with their banter, The OC gave credit to its young audience in a way other teen dramas hadn't really done before.
For me, the show was maybe the first time I'd seen someone on modern television who I actually saw myself in. At 14, when the The OC made its debut, I wore Converse and skated and listened to Queens of the Stone Age. I realize now how uninteresting that sounds, but as a kid at an all-girls school—where Kelly Clarkson ruled and girls tripped one another up for wearing the wrong kind of sock—it was kind of a big deal. All I had to do was wear Docs and a band T-shirt to the first casual clothes day we had to find out I wouldn't be doing it again. Obviously, it was totally fine. But, at the time, it felt like old diamante-ed Havaianas and Von Dutch T-shirts were the only acceptable thing. So, as an impressionable teenager, seeing someone like Seth Cohen on television meant every Tuesday night I had a friend who got it.
And maybe it was the same for other kids, too: kids richer than me with all-consuming anger or sticky fingers, acting out at their parents. Kids from rougher areas than me who moved schools to find themselves a fish out of water, being welcomed to the south-eastern Suburbs, bitch. Or for kids of divorce, kids of parents who went to jail, or kids who had parents with alcohol dependencies. Or, most likely, for kids whose mothers cheated on their fathers with their friends' grandparents, before secretly sleeping with their own ex-boyfriends, before marrying their friends' grandparents, and then re-marrying their dads.
Four years after its debut, as Seth married Summer, and Ryan meets a kid to mentor the way Sandy mentored him, and for some fucking reason, Kiki and Sandy raise a six-year-old child, everything in post-Marissa Orange County was tied up into a neat and relatively unimaginative little package. But outside Newport Beach, in the real world, the show had indelibly shifted mainstream pop culture.
Not only had The OC jump-started the reputations of nerds and troubled kids everywhere, but it had jump-started the careers of so many artists on its monumental soundtrack. From Imogen Heap to the Subways. Rooney to Youth Group. The Thrills, the Killers, and that one cover of "Wonderwall" (which is probably the only time someone who wasn't Oasis said, "Anyway, here's 'Wonderwall,'" and it didn't turn out a horrible disaster). At my high school, a girl in choir insisted we all learn Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah"—only after the song had appeared in the show's heart-wrenching finale of the first season. Then, of course, there was Phantom Planet, whose "California" was the show's persistent theme. For all of that, you can thank visionary music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas—who went on to work on Gossip Girl with Schwartz, as well as The Twilight Saga and Grey's Anatomy.
Was it just the music that made The OC so seminal for so many teenagers? Probably not. Unlike Dawson's Creek, Gilmore Girls, or One Tree Hill, the show wasn't set in some idyllic, fictional American town—where for some reason it is always autumn and everyone knows and is lovely to one another. A major part of the appeal was that—despite its theatrics and villainy—The OC was the closest thing to cosmopolitan we had in a teen drama. Its teen stars (even boring Kaitlin) actually talked like teenagers, instead of how 40-something TV producers thought teenagers talked. Maybe that came down to the fact that Josh Schwartz was only 27 when the show premiered and just 25 when he started developing it.
But The OC wasn't just teenagers in jeans and T-shirts doing teenager stuff. It was a show about evolving teen culture—The Killers and reality TV and GTA. Death Cab for Cutie!!! It wasn't just about Ryan Atwood and the WASPs of Newport Beach; it was about people navigating through their cultural identities and being pretty self aware about it, really. The OC tapped into those obsessions with bands and movies and trends and brought them into a narrative you really cared about. And, to paraphrase John Cusack in High Fidelity: when you're a teenager, it's what you like, not what you are like, that matters. If I were to get real crazy, I might say something like: The OC used the grotesque mediocrity of the suburban Californian bourgeois to make counterculture cool again.
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Editor's note: RIP Johnny. We still miss you, you beautiful thing.