As The O.C.‘s second season begins, makeshift brothers Seth (Adam Brody) and Ryan (Ben McKenzie) are living away from Orange County. Ryan is back to his roots in Chino, valiantly standing by pregnant ex-girlfriend Theresa (Navi Rawat). Seth has run off to Portland to live with his former tormentor Luke (Chris Carmack) and Luke’s shunned gay father (Brian McNamara). In the opening episode, Seth’s parents Sandy (Peter Gallagher) and Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), beg him to come home, but he refuses to return without Ryan. Fortunately for everyone except Theresa, she frees Ryan from his Joe Regular life by claiming to have lost the baby.
Ryan’s brief visit to Portland results in a classically romantic scene: he leaves, Seth bolts after him, and when he flings open the door, he finds Ryan waiting for him. Despite The O.C.‘s many tumultuous romances, its most enduring love story is between these two boys. Loving friendships between (straight) boys are still a television rarity, though becoming more common. Ryan and Seth are reminiscent of Dawson and Pacey in their ability to state what they need from each other. At times, their closeness carries erotic overtones, especially as the boys fulfill classic “roles” (Ryan is tough, Seth emotional). When Seth walks in on Ryan changing, they react with unbrotherly discomfort. Mostly, however, their daily talks provide emotional touchstones. As Ryan and Seth counsel, support, and chastise each other, viewers become more deeply invested in their stories.
Within days of their return, Seth is conspiring to get things back “the way they were”: Ryan with bewitching, alcoholic Marissa (Mischa Barton) and Seth with sultry, sharp-tongued Summer (Rachel Bilson). Seth’s desire to return to the past is a continuous theme, perhaps appealing to devout season one fans itching to claim the show has jumped the shark. The season includes encores of favorite scenes. As Seth once proclaimed his love from a coffee cart, in “The Way We Were,” he does so from a concession table. (“You look like you’re humping the hot dog stand,” Summer accuses as he clumsily climbs on. “No, actually, Summer, I’m not even humping anything,” he retorts).
To forestall the foursome’s inevitable reconciliation, the show introduces new love interests. In an especially soapy plotline, Ryan’s new girl Lindsay (Shannon Lucio) turns out to be Seth’s grandfather’s (Alan Dale) illegitimate daughter (and thus kind of Ryan’s aunt). The show’s self-awareness makes such silliness easier to take (“I think they did a storyline like this on The Valley once,” Seth comments, referencing the program that represents The O.C. in the show). Though Lindsay is a contrivance (once she serves her purpose, she conveniently moves to Chicago), Ryan’s dilemma — choosing between her and family — leads to the season’s next plotline, concerning his transformation.
Abandoned by his mother, initiated into crime by his brother, and rescued from juvenile hall by Sandy, Ryan struggles to temper his volatile nature and “fit in.” Though Seth is the comic book geek, Ryan has the superhero complex, rescuing damsels and defeating villains. Also like most superheroes, he appears torn between two paths — the one his incarcerated brother took (evil) and the one the Cohens have laid out before him (good). Staying on the “good” path requires a happy home life, so Ryan acts as mediator, cautioning Seth not to lie to his parents and keeping watch for tensions between Sandy and Kirsten.
In a way, The O.C. is as family-oriented as 7th Heaven: like the Camdens, the Cohens open their door to anyone needing support and stability (which is almost everyone; rich equals lonely). In “The Family Ties,” Marissa comes to the Cohens after her father leaves town, not to see savior/ex-boyfriend Ryan, but to partake in the family’s morning bagel routine: “Gather round, Marissa. I’m going to teach you how to schmear,” Sandy says, while Ryan drapes a brotherly arm across her shoulders).
Though it’s famously trashy, The O.C. is most compelling in these domestic moments. The tranquil home contrasts with an increasingly sensational outside world: a porn film starring Marissa’s mother Julie (Melinda Clarke) surfaces, Marissa torments Julie by first dating “the yard guy” (Nicholas Gonzalez) and then “experimenting” with Seth’s rebound girlfriend Alex (Olivia Wilde). Though good escapist fun, these complications do not deepen the characters so much as kill time. It’s hard to become invested in wacky guest stars destined to be written off. Indeed, around the season’s halfway point, it begins to lighten the load, tossing expendable characters overboard. Summer’s useless boyfriend Zack especially appears to understand he’s there only to gum up the works. When Summer bails before their trip to Italy, he takes it with good grace (“Truth be told, I didn’t think you’d make it past security.”)
The season picks up when Ryan’s brother Trey (Logan Marshall-Green) gets out of prison and comes to stay with the Cohens in “The Brothers Grim,” forcing Ryan to negotiate loyalties. The episode makes clear that Ryan, at least on the outside, has transformed. When he and Marissa follow Trey to a bar in Chino, a guy pesters Marissa and Ryan steps in, but clean living has cost him his cred: he’s called “rich boy” and dismissed as a non-threat. With Seth, Ryan plays the big brother, warning him when enough is enough and bailing him out of dangerous situations. Trey feels otherwise, as indicated when Trey steps in to save him from the ensuing brawl. In order to guide Trey onto the “right” path, Ryan attempts to switch their roles, spending the next few episodes trying to share his new life with his brother. “I’m not going back to Newport without you,” he says in the bar. “Fine, stay here. See how well you fit in after being away two years,” Trey mocks.
Ryan and Trey have a more typical TV brotherhood. Like the siblings on One Tree Hill, Jack and Bobby, and The Mountain, they are full of jealousies, resentments, and old wounds that lead to physical competition. Though Ryan’s love for Seth heals him, his love for Trey is noxious. Even so, for about three and a half minutes, it looks as though Ryan and Trey might be able to reconcile and Ryan will become whole — not having to choose between his past and his present. Then, while Ryan and the Cohens are in Miami in “The Return of the Nana,” a drunk, stoned Trey tries to rape Marissa (you can take the boy out of Chino, and so forth). From this point, the show spirals toward the end of the season, with a series of tragedies and quick fixes that falsely promise a happy-ish ending.
This promise screeches to a halt when Ryan learns of Trey’s transgression. The camera closes on him as he absorbs the news, then mutters, “All year I’ve tried to be a different person. I can’t do that anymore.” Here again Ryan is the superhero, melodramatic, self-righteous, and martyred. He determines once and for all to use his long-restrained power, and takes off for the final brother-against-brother showdown. Trey overpowers him, pressing him to the floor with a vice grip on his throat. Marissa arrives and, fearing for Ryan’s life, shoots Trey. Now that he has been betrayed by his brother and dragged Marissa into the fray, Ryan has more reason to be broody and full of rage. All he needs now is a cape.