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The OC is in trouble. The once witty and addictive show has hit the skids this season, and if the writers don’t act quickly, they’ll effectively alienate most of their audience. I’ve always been a big booster of The OC. I think the show has great potential, but somewhere along the line the writers and producers lost sight of what makes the show work in favor of what they think will make them popular. Yes, there will always be people who think The OC can do no wrong, and there will always be people who think The OC will always be crap. But for everyone else in between — and I think it’s safe to say that’s the majority of the viewers (based on no statistical evidence whatsoever) — The OC has become a frustrating experience. We approach each episode thinking “This will be the one where they bring back the magic,” but by the end of the show we’re usually disappointed, wishing we’d spent less time with The Killers and more time with the characters.
Luckily, we here at TVgasm are always happy to lend our services to an ailing show. After careful analysis, we’ve come up with a (lengthy) set of guidelines to steer The OC back on course. Our advice after the jump…Last season, The OC quickly gained that ever-elusive status of “buzz-worthy”. That’s because what looked like a simple teen soap turned out to be a cleverly written, multi-layered show that adults could not only enjoy but recommend to their peers. The series was a fun mix of classism, witty banter, and pulpy story lines. Tonally, the show worked best when it kept things light and funny with occasional touches of darkness. A multi-episode run featuring a hectic Thanksgiving, a cotillion gone wrong, a gay outing, and the famed Chrismakkuh celebration served as the golden age for this show. Those episodes featured minimum brooding and a complex interweaving of all the characters in each other’s stories.
These days, Desperate Housewives has effectively become the nighttime soap du jour. Like The OC’s first season, the ABC hit benefits from sharp writing, campy plots, a light and humorous tone, and an elaborate web of characters so interconnected that conflicts just seem to organically flow forth. Sadly, The OC has lost many of these qualities. It tries to keep things peppy and fun, but everything simply feels forced, especially since half the characters are crying or brooding or complaining most of the time anyway. Conflicts arrive on the characters’ doorstep with a thud, and the entire world of The OC seems to have disappeared completely. So what should the writers do?
1) Provide a context.
At this point, The OC could very well be named “The Cohens.” It’s no longer about class conflict and personal strife in paradise. It’s about a large extended family and the unfortunate guest characters that occasionally cross its path. In its second season, the show has quietly tossed away the entire social context of the very geographical location from which it derives its name. Gone are the crazy teen parties with the threesomes in the bedroom and the cocaine in the bathroom and the keg in the livingroom and the fights on the beach. Gone are the menacing water polo bullies and any other clique that might be roaming through the high school. Gone are the snotty Newport ladies gossiping after Yoga-lates class and throwing silly key parties.
Yes, the high school parties have been replaced with Seth and Ryan playing video games or visiting the Bait Shop (more on that later). The high school heirarchy has been replaced with a comic book club. And the Newport wags have been replaced with… Caleb. There’s no socio-economic context, and without that, there are no social pressures on any of these characters. For example, Seth was endearing as the nerdy high schooler who pined after the hot, popular Summer but feared the wrath of the ever vengeful jocks, led by Luke. Now Seth is neither popular nor unpopular. He no longer navigates through the complex social environment of Newport Beach. He just sort of exists and complains. There’s no backdrop to his character, and for once, we actually do feel like he’s sort of a loser.
Similarly, there’s a disconnect between the characters and the audience, making it increasingly difficult to relate. Before, we recognized their plights, their pressures, their motivations because in some way, they reflected ours at some point. We remember the excitement of going to high school parties, the fear of not dressing the right way, the apprehension of talking to that girl or guy who really wants nothing to do with you. Now the characters live in a vacuum. They rarely break out of their circle and seem to spend a large amount of time with their parents. Everyone is squeaky clean, except of course Marissa whose vices can all be chalked up to her being a bad girl. No one seems to, well, party anymore. That’s not to say that everyone in high school drinks and smokes and has threesomes amidst piles of cocaine, but teenagers aren’t completely innocent either. I’m sorry to report that Marissa’s “deviant” behavior isn’t so crazy in most high schools. Also, why not make high school a little less incidental. These characters can do more than sit in a lounge and drink coffee. There’s a whole world of petty yet universal drama to be had in the hallowed hallways and soccer fields of high school. How the writers could fail to exploit this is beyond me. The show needs to reintroduce both the scholastic and social contexts in order to make this teen environment believable.
Of course, even if we didn’t completely identify with the characters, we could always enjoy the campy clash of cultures. Whether it’s Julie Cooper’s nouveau riche social climbing or the Newport ladies’ catty dismissal of Kirsten Cohen’s Jewish husband or a cocky Luke boasting “This is how we do it in The OC, bitch!”, there’s something completely fun and silly about this conflict. Plus, we always enjoyed seeing what people would do in this environment for acceptance, popularity, or mere survival. But again, with the social context absent, these battles have disappeared to the sidelines, and thus this season’s twists and turns have been undercut with a growing sense of boredom. Who cares?
2) Have the teenagers act like teenagers.
This sort of echoes the last point. The teenagers just aren’t realistic anymore. Granted, they never were totally realistic, but in the first season, they existed as a heightened, exaggerated version of reality. Now they’re lame and boring. When they’re not going to dumb dinner parties, the teens are getting hopelessly involved in their parents’ sagas (Ryan, for one, is constantly embroiled in random adult storylines). Earlier this season, when Sandy punished Seth for being drunk, it worked because for once, Seth was acting his age (and so was Sandy). We need to get behind these characters, and the first step is making their motivations and worlds believable. Going along with that…
3) Make Ryan less self-righteous.
Let’s not forget that Ryan is the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks, specifically Chino. One of the major pitfalls of this series has been its inability to nail down Ryan’s character. I believe that’s because the writers never encountered someone like Ryan on a day to day basis. Last season, Ryan was short tempered but self-righteous to a fault. He had no fun and in turn sapped the fun away from anyone else. When the group snuck into a club, Ryan made Seth return his alcoholic beverage for a Mountain Dew. He then had the balls to lecture Seth’s aunt, Hailey, for dancing (not even stripping) at the club, ultimately pulling her away from her job in front of her boss. Would you ever do that to your friend’s aunt? Honestly, Ryan sucks.
It’s hard to believe someone from such a tough background would have no vices or struggles. Ryan became angelic overnight, save for the occasional fist fight. But even then, he was always instigated into fighting for a noble and virtuous cause. There is hardly ever any true internal struggle with Ryan. No sense that his roots might catch up with him. Yeah, there have been scenes with Ryan and his no-good family, but these moments are rare and isolated. It’s like the writers are saying “RYAN IS CONFLICTED.” As they say, don’t tell us about it, show us. On a day to day basis, we don’t see the constant grappling between the Chino and Newport lifestyles. It’s just all virtue, all the time. The only lapse occurred when he impregnated Theresa, and amazingly enough, not one character admonished him for underage sex without a condom. That subplot played less like a teen caught between his two worlds and more like the writers throwing in a twist for twist’s sake, especially when the entire pregnancy plot was, er, aborted in this season’s premiere.
Ryan 2005 is thankfully a little more lighthearted than last year, but his righteousness remains, and his constant nosiness and preaching makes him completely unlikable. His status as outsider has all but vanished, and now all he does is meddle in other people’s business and cause chaos. Plus he’s a downer and needlessly dramatic. Who wants to watch that?
4) Know when to kill a story.
One of the more nagging problems with The OC is its inability to gauge the tedious plots from the promising ones. Unfortunately, we usually get stuck with the lame stuff while the fun stories resolve themselves in three-episode arcs. Oliver has become the poster child for ridiculously poor OC plotting, but I think we can add the plight of Theresa, Rebecca, and occasionally Lindsay on the heap as well. Also overlong: the improbable romance between Alex and Marissa.
Surprisingly enough, the most kill-worthy rut this season has been the ongoing romance of Seth and Summer. Everyone loves these two. Everyone was happy to see them kiss again this week, even if it was in a contrived Spider-Man ripoff/ode. But not everyone was happy with the four months of whining and complaining that led up to this moment. The once charming and lovable Seth became a broken record this season as he moped around in a state of self-pity in the wake of losing Summer. There were minor variations on his malaise as he occasionally directed his pathos onto Alex and Zach, but at the end of the day, the writers managed to drive his character into the ground. Season 1 Seth was great because he simply never thought he had a shot at anyone. He pined from afar but was ultimately too shy and too awkward to do anything productive. His quirky banter was actually a self-defense mechanism, not a gimmick. Now he’s confident, which isn’t necessarily bad, but he’s annoying too.
Compounding this is the fact that it never made any sense why Seth broke up with Summer, the love of his life, to go sailing into the unknown at the end of last year’s season. Never mind that the whole sailing thing was completely contrived, but why would he ever dump Summer because of Ryan? That false note became the shaky foundation for the various Seth-Summer-Zach-Alex dramas, and unfortunately, none of those plots ever took off because at its core, we couldn’t believe that any of this would exist in the first place. As a result, this entire love rhombus felt forced and uninteresting, causing a large portion of the show to simply spin in its wheels and inevitably stall.
On the flipside to all this are the fun, campy-delights of stories that seem to end before they’ve even begun. One of my favorite developments last season was the farfetched romance between Luke and Julie Cooper. It was pure, soapy trash, and I loved it. Sadly, after a few episodes, the writers not only put the kibotch on it, but they sent Luke packing to Portland, effectively ending his time on The OC. Yeah, his character by then had turned a little lame, but Luke also represented one of the rare non-dork voices on the show. Losing him meant losing a crucial counterbalance that’s desperately needed this season. Other here-today, gone-tomorrow moments: that blond lawyer who hit on Sandy but then wound up with Jimmy; Marissa’s friend who hooked up with Luke; Marissa’s secret affair with DJ; and any impending lawsuit that Sandy works on for more than two episodes.
Sometimes it’s not so much that a story will wrap up quickly but rather that a plot development might occur before the show has really taken the time to pump all the dramatic juice out of it. Taking Marissa’s recent lesbian affair as an example, a smart soap would have had fun with it. No, I’m not talking about pillow fights in undies — although I certainly wouldn’t disparage that. I’m talking about playing with the secret nature of the relationship. Two weeks ago, Marissa and Alex shared their first kiss. Last week, Marissa told Summer about Alex. This week, Marissa told her mom AND she was caught by Seth who then told Ryan. Oh, and Julie told Kirsten too. So basically everyone knows. Three episodes in and already a major source for dramatic tension has been dispelled. Whatever happened to the old fashioned method of sneaking around, then somebody finds out, then that person is sworn to secrecy, but that causes complications and so on and so forth? Already in that theoretical situation we have a mounting conflict stemming from one dramatic seed. Not only that, as the story line evolves, it draws in more and more characters who organically become relevant to the plot and each other. Which brings me to my next point:
5) Integrate stories and characters more seemlessly.
At this point in the season, we have several plot threads that are more or less tangental at best. It seems as though almost any character could drop out of the show and have minimum impact. As of this week, our four main stories have been Sandy and Kirsten dealing with Rebecca and their marriage; Seth grappling with Summer and Zach; Ryan and Lindsay adjusting to their relationships with Caleb; and Marissa and Alex getting it on. Pretty much none of these stories have anything to do with each other, and their only links come from occasional gossiping between the characters. Any twists in one plot have had no bearing on how another plot has taken shape. Not only is this lazy soap writing, but it serves to only make the show feel disjointed and random. No one’s lives seem to intersect except at the inevitable big party, but even then, that’s pushing it. Look at Marissa and Summer. They’re supposedly best friends, but how often do we see them hanging out together anymore? The answer is rarely — because they’re in different story lines.
Comparing with Desperate Housewives again (and yes, I know it’s a different show but just humor me), we can see how the characters in that show are completely intertwined. Try to follow this description:
Last Sunday’s installment of Desperate Housewives found Gabrielle being courted by a new gardener who wanted to have sex with her. Turns out this kid was Justin, the roommate of John who had previously had sex with Gabrielle but was now dating Bree Van De Kamp’s daughter Danielle. Justin told Gabrielle that if she didn’t have sex with him, he’d tell her husband that she slept with John. Gabrielle in turn showed up at Justin and John’s apartment and told Justin that she was going to tell John that his roommate was trying to sleep with her. Justin pleaded for forgiveness, explaining that he just wanted to sleep with her because he thought he might be gay and it would be the final test. Meanwhile, the sketchy kid who’s in love with Susan Meyer’s daughter threw a party which everyone went to. Susan had prohibited her daughter from going to the party, and when she went to fetch her, she stumbled upon Justin and Bree Van De Kamp’s son, Andrew making out.
So what does this mean in terms of The OC? The above plot description is a great example of characters who have all become interconnected in organic, albeit soapy, ways. A story line pertaining to Gabrielle suddenly impacts a story line pertaining to Susan, with Bree unwittingly caught in the middle. Remove one character from this elaborate string of events, and the entire thing falls apart. Furthermore, this scenario generates conflict as a smooth outgrowth of previous plot developments. What will these two gay teens do? What unique relationship does Susan have with them now? Who will she tell? How will that person react?
Going back to the Alex/Marissa lesbian relationship, that plot exists in a complete bubble compared to the similar story on Desperate Housewives. I suppose the writers are trying to go for a more realistic tone, examining the rise and fall of a relationship, as opposed to the soap opera implications. But then, is that really the sort of show we want out of The OC? Isn’t it at heart a soap opera? Trying to be both a serious drama and a guilty pleasure may completely undermine the show.
Additionally, because these isolated plot threads seem unable to generate conflicts and evolve naturally, the writers frequently have to introduce new plot developments (often out of nowhere) to keep the show moving forward. The silly adventures of Rebecca, Sandy’s long lost love turned fugitive, serve as a perfect example of this type of plotting. One day everything’s fine, and then the next day Sandy’s old law professor arrives to say he’s dying and he wants to see his daughter. It’s like the writers basically said to us “Okay, we don’t have any ideas left so we’re going to bring in something from left field that has nothing to do with anything.” Other characters seemingly forced on us were Zach, DJ, Alex, and Lindsay, all of whom appeared in the first two or three episodes of this season. We’re expected to care about these characters to some degree, but if a plot moves forward before we’re on board with the new faces, chances are we’re not going to care.
In contrast, look at Anna and Caleb during season 1. Both characters showed up for a few episodes but stayed on the sidelines, sometimes not reappearing until several installments later. We weren’t expected to care about them intensely off the bat, but we grew to enjoy their presence because they were assimilated naturally into the flow of the season. Alex, on the other hand, arrived out of nowhere this season and within a few episodes was already dating Seth. Then they broke up, and we actually had to endure several episodes of Seth getting over her. Meanwhile, we never even cared in the first place.
6) Stop eliminating good characters.
Now, I know sometimes this isn’t really the writers’ choice. Sometimes actors get better gigs elsewhere or sometimes politics send a person from a show. But still, the rapid emigration of enjoyable characters from The OC is somewhat alarming. First fan-favorite Anna fell by the wayside, then Luke, then Hailey, then even Jimmy. And let’s not forget the minor characters we would have liked more of: bratty Kaitlin Cooper (Marissa’s little sister); slutty Holly (Marissa’s rival); and seductive Rachel (Sandy’s co-worker). There’s so much potential in all these characters that it baffles me why the writers keep dropping them in favor of new faces. Even Renée Wheeler, Caleb’s mistress and mother to Lindsay, could have promise as The Other Woman of The OC, but alas, it seems as though she and her daughter are off to the character graveyard of Chicago. Again, the writers should work with the what they have and gradually integrate new characters and scenarios in a natural, unforced way.
7) Stop taking us out of the moment.
A major problem with The OC this season is that it’s become too smug, too cute, too self-aware for its own good. Again, this is a trend that began last year and has fully grown into an enormous hinderance. When The OC first hit the airwaves back in 2003, people praised its smart dialogue and witty cultural references. Somehow though, these savvy observations about pop culture morphed into ironically self-aware comments about the show itself, and what was once the great defining voice of The OC became a wink-wink, nudge-nudge parade of in-joke allusions. It’s reached a point where it seems like the writers are trying to outsmart us or at least reassure the audience that they, in fact, know what’s up. Unfortunately, all this does is take us out of the moment. We become keenly aware that we’re watching a written form of entertainment, and whatever momentum had been building in the scene is completely lost. Yes, people are self-aware in real life, and I’d expect so much from the characters, but we don’t need cutesy comments like Summer’s latest “Are you going to advance the plot?” Particularly garish in this respect is the presence of “The Valley”, the fictional soap that every teen watches in The OC. Ha ha. We get it. Just this week though, the writers took a stab at MTV’s Laguna Beach by introducing “Sherman Oaks: The Real Valley.” It’s one thing to parody pop culture, but quite another to wink at the audience while doing it.
Perhaps the most egregious change in season two, however, is the sudden inclusion of guest bands. The OC has always been known for its keen ability to popularize various indie bands, but now the show has gone from casual hipster to blatant name dropper as acts such as The Killers, The Shins, and Modest Mouse have all graced the hallowed stage of the Bait Shop. Each time one of these bands pops up, it seems as though the show grinds to a halt in order to give ample screen time to the Very Special Guests. Sometimes entire episodes seem centered around having the teens wind up at the Bait Shop so they can ogle at the indie music unfurling in front of them. Frankly, it’s distracting, and it’s patronizing. We are immediately removed from the moment as we ponder who the musical act is or how contrived it is that they’re playing some random club in Newport Beach that’s helmed by a seventeen year old girl. That the writers wish us to suspend disbelief so they can get their musical jollies is a cocky gesture at best.
Part of me fears that the show has simply veered into wish fulfillment for the writers. Here we have a cast of mainly outsider characters, and yet they wind up triumphing over assholes like Luke and nabbing all the girls. Their favorite indie bands coincidentally hang out at the local bar, and Zach, the coolest guy in school, just happens to think the rather dorky activities of Seth and Ryan are awesome. I can’t help feeling like this is the high school experience Josh Schwartz always wanted but never had.
Nevertheless, the adult characters on The OC have always been well drawn, and I hope the writers use that as a foundation for revitalizing the series. Truth is that there’s still a lot of life left in The OC, and the writers are certainly up to the task. They simply need to refocus themselves and get back to what works so well. You see? TVgasm can be good for something.