Regular airtime: Thursday 9pm ET (Fox)
Cast: Peter Gallagher, Adam Brody, Mischa Barton, Rachel Bilson, Benjamin McKenzie, Kelly Rowan
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The third season finale of The O.C. ended with Marissa (Mischa Barton) dying in the arms of her on-again, off-again boyfriend Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie), while Imogen Heap’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (available on iTunes immediately) played in the background. Considering this season worked hard to integrate grand plotting and efficient marketing, the moment seemed climactic in more than one way.
In its first season, The O.C. struck a nerve. It combined beautiful people, music that sent fans scrambling to the Apple Music Store, and plotlines that rivaled the melodrama of 90210‘s heyday. In the midst of all this attention, young stars McKenzie, Barton, Adam Brody (who plays Seth), and Rachel Bilson (Summer) ascended to tabloid heaven. Nothing symbolized this phenomenon more than Barton’s fashion statements, breathlessly reported in Us Weekly.
In Season Two, however, plots were largely replaced by the gang’s countless trips to the Bait Shop—where bands of the moment from the Killers to the Walkmen performed. When not at the club, both Marissa and Kirstin (Kelly Rowan) battled alcoholism, Seth and Summer repeated the same insipid fight, stand-up guy Sandy (Peter Gallagher) flirted with temptation, and Ryan lost his edge. While The O.C. remained influential (evidenced by the appearance of items like a Scrubs-mix CD available on iTunes), its fan base became frustrated.
Josh Schwartz and his cadre of writers responded in Season Three with a return to the show’s original format. The weekly stops at the Bait Shop were replaced by fast, witty dialogue in the Cohens’ kitchen, multiple love triangles (Johnny-Marissa-Ryan, Seth-Summer-Anna), and Atwood’s inexplicable decisions, all Season One staples. In addition to Marissa’s death, Season Three featured enough drama for a lifetime: Kirstin watched helplessly as her marriage fell apart and she relapsed in secret; Seth didn’t get into college, lied about it, smoked pot and accidentally torched the Newport Group office;, Sandy was responsible for his protégé Matt’s unfortunate beat-down and investigated by the D.A.; Ryan fought multiple opponents, stole a car, and almost got arrested. The angst that befell the family and their immediate circle of friends bordered on the ridiculous.
In spite (or because) of this unbelievable glut of tragedy, fans will recall Season Three fondly. While Season One featured quality television with no commercial pretense and the second season disastrously mixed the two, this year will be remembered as the season when Schwartz and Co. figured it out. Take the show’s musical taste-making efforts. The Bait Shop is mercifully gone, but the “bands featured during the show” feature is more prominent. This season, indie artists (Heap, the Subways, the Futureheads, and Lady Sovereign) found welcome airtime, each increasing sales afterwards. Despite past missteps in delivery method, for three seasons The O.C. has delivered quality new music to its legions of fans better than any other show. Beck, of all people, chose to debut tracks from his new album on the show.
The program is carving a niche in other areas of pop culture as well. Its website features “The O.C.‘s Fashion Report,” updated constantly. The return of minor character such as Season One’s Anna (Samaire Armstrong), who appeared in two episodes this season, sparked a five-page Maxim spread for the actress. In clever, if obvious, bit of cross-promotion, American Idol‘s Lisa Tucker appeared as herself in the show. On the Harbor High prom episode, students congratulated her on her Idol success, and said they were glad she made it back in time. With these interactive features and creative tie-ins, the brains behind the The O.C. have positioned it to exist increasingly in a world outside of Newport Beach.
Three seasons ago, in the middle of its near perfect pilot, Ryan and Marissa met for the first time at the end of a picturesque driveway. Looking innocent and beautiful, she asked him who he was. Clad in a grey zip-up hoodie, smoking a cigarette, shrouded in shadow and mystery, the modern day rebel without a cause responded, “Whoever you want me to be.”
Back then, Ryan’s answer mirrored the potential of the show in which he starred. Yet, as its reach expanded, its seeming obsession with all things profitable threatened to spiral out of control. This season, even as the lives of Newport’s most dysfunctional family became increasingly absurd, The O.C remained funny and vital. More importantly, the producers finally figured out a way for commercial tie-ins to complement but not overwhelm the plot. Sure Ryan, you can still be anything the now dead Marissa wanted you to be. Just as long as there’s a great song playing in the background and your clothes showcase the latest trends in Paris.