The Magazine

The Annotated O.C.

From the June 6, 2005 issue: Shooting Trey won't make it easier to understand.

Jun 6, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 36 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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THE "O.C." of The O.C. doesn't stand for "Orange County," the supposed setting of this Newport Beach-based prime-time soap that's a cross between Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210, although many of the fan websites that have sprung up to track the doings of its many characters seem to think so.

The fans' ignorance of the meaning of the very acronym that is the title of The O.C. (the initials refer to the "Orange Coast," the string of plush, mountain-backed beach towns along the Pacific Ocean) is symptomatic. Scarcely a single person connected with the making of The O.C.--whose exterior shots aren't even taped on the O.C. but in Hermosa Beach, well to the north in Los Angeles County--knows much of anything about Orange County. The O.C. is a Hollywood fantasy about what life in the O.C. surely must be like--if anyone from Hollywood ever bothered to go there and find out.

Despite the fact that I grew up in Southern California, and my parents kept a 14-foot sailboat among the millionaires' yachts at the docks of Newport Beach, I was a year-and-a-half late getting into the show. This meant that I completely missed such onetime regular, now written-out, characters as white-collar crook Jimmy Cooper (Tate Donovan), whose still-on-the-show ex-wife Julie (Melinda Clarke) was married to property-development tycoon Caleb Nichol (Alan Dale), until he had a heart attack several episodes ago, and also Dawn Atwood (Daphne Ashbrook), the alco-floozie mom of Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie), the show's token juvenile delinquent from the wrong side of the tracks.

Indeed, I started watching the show only this past January, well after Julie's daughter Marissa (Mischa Barton) had moved in with a lesbian named Alex (Olivia Wilde), even though Marissa was once heterosexual and had a boyfriend named Luke (Chris Carmack), who had been written out of the show like Jimmy and Dawn. Then I missed a couple of episodes in March, and lo--Marissa had became heterosexual again, or a least heterosexual enough to be locking lips with Ryan, Alex having gone the way of Luke.

You're confused? Every Thursday night, when The O.C. appears on Fox, I have to grab a notebook and make both a genealogical chart and a flow chart in order to keep the characters straight.

I started watching The O.C. for two reasons: I found its neo-seventies music disturbingly reminiscent of the determinedly laid-back real seventies music that flooded my part of the country during that decade. The show's opening song, "California" by Phantom Planet, is a near-clone of the Eagles' "Hotel California," and when I hear it, or the rest of the show's ever-changing roster of vaguely edgy but fundamentally easy-listening tunes by Oasis, Jet, Spoon, and other groups, I'm transported back to that ghastly sub-sixties era when white guys grew their hair into enormous fluffy Afros that made them look like walking Hostess Sno Balls, and several of my respectably married friends from Pasadena and Westwood got into marijuana and creative divorce and ran off with firemen and tree trimmers.

Second, I became mesmerized by the maze of interlocking consanguineal, collateral, and intergenerational relationships among The O.C.'s numerous characters. For example, Lindsay Gardner (Shannon Lucio), Ryan's pre-Marissa girlfriend, turns out to be Caleb's daughter by a former union--or so we think for now. Caleb is also the father, by yet another former union, of Kirsten (Kelley Rowan), wife of Ryan's juvie-court lawyer, Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher). The Cohens have invited Ryan to live in their pool house (paid for with Caleb's dough) as part of his rehab, and there he becomes best buddies with their dorky, irony-spouting son, Seth (Adam Brody). Seth, unimaginable as it may sound, was an item with Alex before she got into her lesbian phase and took up with Marissa.

It's the House of Atreus, or it would be, if you could take the characters seriously enough to think of them as tragic. It's actually more like Mount Olympus, where the gods, filthy rich and immortal, disport themselves and beget offspring endlessly with each other and with assorted nymphs, satyrs, and beautiful human creatures that cross their paths. That is, if the gods of Mount Olympus lived in stucco-and-chicken-wire mega-mansions topped with pseudo-Spanish fake tile roofs, as does everyone in The O.C.--and everyone on the real O.C. (The omnipresent fake tile is the one architectural feature of Orange County that the makers of The O.C. actually got spot-on.)