The Legacy of "The O.C."

A fan reflects on the teen drama that shifted pop culture.

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Complex Original

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Exactly ten years ago, I was just a white boy born on the wrong side of the tracks. No—wait, I’m confusing my life with The O.C. again.

For those of us who were introduced to the seminal FOX show around the time we hit puberty, it was hard not to. When I met Ryan Atwood for the first time, it was August 5, 2003, a month before I entered eighth grade. I was watching it in a hotel room outside of San Luis Obispo, CA with my family. I was only there on vacation, but I couldn't help but imagine myself as Kid Chino escaping the grime of dangerous suburban town and entering Newport Beach for the first time. I remember being purposefully brooding and angry at my parents that night, mainly because Ryan made it look so cool. Shit was real.

The O.C. was my life—well, as much as it could be for an emo kid whose life experiences amounted to whatever I watched on television.

And it was all too easy to relate the people I knew to people on the show. In the first half of my last year of middle school, I broke up with my Ryan-esque boyfriend (he was held back a grade—I felt like I could change him, though I finally realized I couldn't). Having moved on to a new romance, I fell for Ryan's adoptive brother, the nerdy Seth Cohen type. He crafted a homemade heart-shaped valentine that had pictures of my celebrity crushes and wrote a self-effacing poem about not being good enough for me, and was being awkward about our recent breakup.The O.C. was my life—well, as much as it could be for an emo kid whose life experiences amounted to whatever I watched on television.

Looking back from today, the 10th anniversary of the show's premiere episode, it's clear that The O.C.’s influence was further-reaching than shaping the development of one random kid in the Valley. It reached an average of 9.74 million people per episode, making it the number-one rated new TV drama among 18-to-34 year-olds in the 2003-2004 TV season. The O.C. introduced the world to a new kind of bankable adolescent phenomenon, post boy band and sane Britney Spears. The show put nerd culture at the forefront, with Seth Cohen as the poster child. Wit, self-deprecation, ironic T-shirts, ugly sweaters, and obscure bands became the new normal. The winner of the 2004 Teen Choice Award for Breakout TV Show, the series would seep its way into pop culture and not only affect personal fashion, but mainstream music, celebrity culture, and the entire television landscape.

Thanks to the The O.C., indie music went mainstream and the practice of premiering your song on a major TV show or film franchise became commonplace. Not only did bands like Rooney, The Walkmen, The Thrills, and Rachael Yamagata become iPod staples, but some even got major label deals out of their appearances on the show. Case in point: Seth Cohen’s number-one band, Death Cab for Cutie, signed a deal with Atlantic Records in November 2004, after tracks from their latest album Transatlanticism were featured on season one of show. It helped that it was the album that was Seth's go-to gift for girls he liked.

The most attentive viewers of the show bought a poster of The Ramones standing in front of CBGB just like Seth had in his room and downloaded music by Stiff Little Fingers, Sex Pistols, and The Clash after Marissa Cooper mentioned they were her favorite bands. Hardcore devotees picked up a copy of The Goonies, read On the Road, and made their own Yamaclaus—even if they weren't half Jewish—and celebrated Chrismukkah. The O.C. showed you an alternative to cool, one that fed your natural teenage rebellion against the popular jock and cheerleader stereotype, Top 40 radio, and movie blockbusters.

The popularity of the series gave its cast members an opportunity to diversify their careers. Known for playing Seth's dad Sandy Cohen—a cross between Bill Cosby and Uncle Jesse—Peter Gallagher dropped his album, Seven Days in Memphis, in 2005, and his cover of “Don’t Give Up on Me” was featured on an episode. His video for “Still I Long for Your Kiss” starred Kelly Rowan, the actress who played his wife Kirsten on the show.

If not for The O.C., it would be tough to imagine artists like Lykke Li and Iron and Wine agreeing to let their music be featured on the Twilight soundtrack.

The O.C. showed you an alternative to cool, one that fed your natural teenage rebellion against the popular jock and cheerleader stereotype, Top 40 radio, and movie blockbusters.

Moreover, the show came out during a moment when the tabloids were making party monster-goddesses out of Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, and Lindsay Lohan. The idea of "the socialite" was on the rise, and Marissa Cooper was its fictionalized version, though it became increasingly difficult to separate Mischa Barton’s public persona from her TV one as the series progressed. Paris Hilton even made an appearance in an episode of the first season, appropriately titled "The L.A.," where the gang goes clubbing in Hollywood.

Forever self-aware, The O.C. made metahumor its bitch. Which brings us to the arena in which The O.C. left its longest lasting mark: television.

In addition to being the catalyst for shows such as O.C. creator Josh Schwartz’s Gossip Girl, and other shameless imitators, such as the quickly canceled Hidden Palms and the resurrected of 90210—all shows that deal with the drama of overprivileged white teens in ultra expensive locales—The O.C. inspired a new breed of reality TV. 

Summer’s favorite show was The Valley, a teen soap set in the San Fernando Valley with essentially all the same characters as the The O.C. In another episode, Seth refers to a new reality show titled Sherman Oaks: The Real Valley, a nod to Laguna Beach, MTV’s unscripted answer to the teen drama set in the same county. Laguna Beach followed the lives of wealthy Laguna Beach High School students who lived the lives glamorized by The O.C. cast. Those "real" teens did everything the show staged, whether hosting black tie galas or traveling to Mexico for spring break.

Not only did Laguna Beach make celebrities out of Lauren Conrad and Kristin Cavallari, but the show introduced a new kind of aesthetic to docudramas—one that felt staged, one that wasn’t filmed with a Steadicam a la The Real World, one that traced a certain untouchable, entitled lifestyle.

"Laguna Beach made me very nervous, because it was like, 'Oh crap, this is the real version,'" show creator Josh Schwartz told The Daily Beast.

Eventually, tracking the real lives of the rich and famous of all ages became the thing to do. Note NYC Prep (which was the reality answer to Gossip Girl) and every Real Housewives series, beginning with, of course, The Real Housewives of Orange County. Much like what Sex and the City did for New York, The O.C. made Orange County a symbol of a new type of lifestyle to aspire to. It was a laid back type of wealth that held the promise of infinite beach days, perfect weather to drive a top-down convertible through, and an innumerable amount of fundraising galas to make you feel important.

And if that doesn’t hit home, then consider this: Duke University hosted a class titled “California Here We Come: The O.C. and the Self-Aware Culture of 21st-Century America” and UC Berkeley students created The Sandy Cohen Public Defender Fellowship, a $5000 scholarship that was awarded to a law student seeking to become a public defender. 

Ten years later, I still quote The O.C. on the regular and giggle in nostalgia with friends who know exactly what I'm saying. Thanks to Seth Cohen, the word pudding sounds weird to me.

Nowdays, Adam Brody is an indie film star, with Some Girl(s) making festival rounds, Rachel Bilson has her own show, Hart of Dixie, Ben McKenzie leads Southland, and Mischa Barton's career seemed to dissipate along with the season three death of her character on The O.C. Whenever I see Olivia Wilde nail a big role, I can’t help but feel some pride in knowing I’m not a bandwagon fan—I’ve loved her since she was Alex Kelly, damnit! However, with the exception of Wilde, none of them have matched the influence of their claim-to-fame characters in the realm of pop culture.

I know more people besides me can say the same: The O.C.’s longest-lasting legacy is that it’s become an integral part of our identity. We’re still bunch of overgrown kids using Seth Cohen reaction GIFs in company emails knowing nothing will ever mean as much to us.

[GIFs via Atheists in Lust, Living in My Wonderland, and Love & Squalor]

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Written by Tara Aquino (@t_akino

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