The O.C.

The O.C. is over.

Three and a half years ago, Fox’s hit show arrived brilliantly, a combination of beauty, wit, and charm that hadn’t been seen since Beverly Hills 90210. Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie), Seth (Adam Brody), Summer (Rachel Bilson), and Marissa (Mischa Barton) provided optimum escape. The O.C. had something for everyone: teenyboppers emulated Marissa’s look, college-aged males drooled over Summer, and adults watched as well, at first to check out the phenomenon, and then because they couldn’t turn away.

The first season wasn’t flawless (the Oliver subplot being the most egregious misstep), but it was damn good television. More flaws emerged over the next couple of seasons: the writing lost sizzle and some characters, most notably Kirstin (Kelly Rowan) and Sandy (Peter Gallagher), turned stale. Ryan continued to make the worst decisions imaginable, and, with the exception of the cleverly set up Spiderman-ish, upside-down kiss in the rain, the Seth and Summer relationship was increasingly tedious. Yet The O.C remained “important” (more on this in a minute), and so we continued to watch.

Then, Marissa died.

Fans knew: when Ryan carried her lifeless body towards the camera, “Hallelujah” playing in the background, the show was finished as well. For all her faults — wooden acting, rumors of being “difficult” — Barton provided the show’s most compelling character. While Ryan brooded, Seth quipped, and Summer was, well, Summer, Marissa overdosed, became a lesbian, and had boys fighting over her. Riding the wave, Mischa attended fashion shows, hung out with A-listers, and became tabloid fodder. It was Marissa’s world, the Cohens were just living in it. Her death was tragic.

Creator Josh Schwartz attempted to save Season Four with a series of ever more ridiculous scenarios. Ryan brooded some more, then decided to pursue ultimate fighting. Summer went to Brown, became a hippie, and was expelled for freeing rabbits. An earthquake struck Newport Beach. Kirstin and Julie Cooper (Melinda Clarke) ran a prostitution ring. This was too much, even for a show that always bordered on absurd. Fox’s cancellation of The O.C. sparked only mild protest and no surprise.

How will The O.C. be remembered? Probably somewhere between 90210, which remains beloved and in syndication, and Melrose Place, which cannot be found anywhere. The first sign of The O.C.‘s afterlife? SOAPnet announced it will show episodes at 5pm Monday-Friday, beginning 9 April. The lead-in is 90210. And let’s not forget the imitators: Laguna Beach was touted as “the real life O.C.,” and The Hills followed closely in its wake. Aside from MTV, Bravo brought The Real Housewives of Orange County, a Laguna Beach for Kirstins.

Ultimately, however, The O.C.‘s legacy will not be in defined by silly spin-offs or Kristin Cavalleri’s stardom. Instead, the series will remembered for Alex Patsavas. The O.C.‘s music director made more of an impact on pop culture than anyone else affiliated with the program. She discovered and showcased great music by indie bands. Being on Seth Cohen’s iPod became a mark of “making it.” Death Cab for Cutie owes their career (or at least their cars) to a poster hung on the wall of Newports’ gnarliest dork.

This strategy of “breaking” bands has since become commonplace, brought to the mainstream in 2004 by Zach Braff, who perfected the formula on his Garden State soundtrack. The O.C. did it first. Unfortunately, Patsavas and Schwartz fell victim to the notion, “If some is good, more is better,” destroying the soundtrack’s small band charms with overexposure. Much of the action in Season Two revolved around having the kids stand around and watch performances at the local venue, the Bait Shop. “It” bands from the Killers to the Kaiser Chiefs took the stage to play awkward, lifeless versions of their latest singles. Mix CDs were sold everywhere from Tower Records to Second Life. Braff’s music that “will change your life” caught fire (partially because Garden State had become a better product than The O.C.), and he, not Seth Cohen, became the genre’s most effective tastemaker. Even so, Patsavas’ influence cannot be denied. Without her, 15-year-old girls wouldn’t be debating the merits of Death Cab.

Looking back, it’s fitting that “Hallelujah” played as Ryan carried Marissa’s body away from the fiery wreck. Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece has been covered ad nauseam. The one more overkilled use symbolized how out of touch The O.C. had become. Instead of finding something new for that devastating moment, Schwartz and company went with the familiar and the safe. As the credits rolled, we knew that The O.C.‘s long tumble from the top was complete. This doesn’t alter the fact that the series redefined the pinnacle.

RATING 7 / 10