The Cohens are like family to me, in the way that I wish I was a Cohen. Or a Cooper, or a Roberts, or a Cooper-Nichol-Cooper-Roberts. Hell, I’d even take the last name Atwood if Peter Gallagher would adopt me. I’d accept anything for the chance to go to an OC party and gossip with the Newpsies, have some sort of drunken brawl with Julie Cooper, and end up in the pool. The O.C. defined my high school experience because comparatively my high school years were tame, and well, boring.
The Pilot episode still holds up. Fresh (and purpled) faced Ben McKenzie is dreamy and broody as ever as Ryan Atwood, who’s unfairly locked up after his brother Trey (to be seen again later in a larger arc, portrayed by a different actor) gets him in trouble. Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher) is his lawyer. Their first scene together is the show. Ryan is hopeless; he’s a smart, good kid who’s been dealt a seriously bad hand of cards. His father is in jail, and his mother is a mess. When Sandy tries to illicit some sort of want for a future, Ryan breaks our hearts: “Where I’m from, having a dream doesn’t make you smart. Knowing it won’t come true? That does.” Ryan didn’t grow up with privilege and the twist is… neither did Sandy, not really. Sandy doesn’t just say he understands, he understands.
Ryan’s mom kicks him out, and with no one else to turn to, he calls Sandy. Sandy picks him up, and takes him back to his house. “I didn’t know you’re the kind of lawyer that makes money,” Ryan says. “We don’t,” Sandy says “But my wife does.” Sandy’s wife Kirsten (Kelly Rowan) is less than thrilled, but she’s still mom enough to go get Ryan fresh towels and a toothbrush. Ryan waits outside, and lays eyes on Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton). Boy meets girl. Ryan doesn’t know what he’s in for, but we do. Lots of love and lots of heartbreak. The two share a cigarette (which is funny because Ryan literally never smokes again after this scene) and have the O.C.’s version of a meet cute, which involves a lot of quipping and a lot of pretty. There’s instant chemistry.
Once inside, Ryan meets Kirsten and settles into the pool house, his new home. He also meets Rosa, the Cohen’s maid, who disappears around halfway through the first season, along with the Cooper’s dog (I’m still pretty sure she accidentally hit the dog with her car and fled the country). Ryan wakes up the next day and goes inside to meet Seth (Adam Brody), Sandy and Kirsten’s nerdy, witty son who’s all limbs and sarcasm. Ah, our second love story. The bromance between Ryan and Seth is so sweet, so perfect, so unexpected. They go boating, and become best friends. It’s destiny.
Sandy meets them on the beach, and reminds them that Marissa’s fashion show is later. Seth has clear distain for his materialistic, shallow O.C. classmates, but we’re also given the impression that he doesn’t really know them. Maybe he’s judged them as much as he feels judged by them?
Marissa answers the door and talks off some suits, covering for her dad (Tate Donovan) who’s obviously in some kind of financial trouble. He insists it’s nothing, but Marissa knows better.
As Ryan gets ready for his OC debut, he decides he doesn’t need a tie because (sob) he doesn’t know how to tie one. I guess his father wasn’t much of a dressy guy, or a dad in general. Luckily, it’s Sandy to the rescue. Sandy is already Ryan’s new dad, and neither of them know it yet. Back at Marissa’s, we meet her mother Julie (Melinda Clarke), who’s basically a nightmare, throwing passive aggressive insults Marissa’s way. We also meet Marissa’s younger sister Kaitlyn (hilariously played by Shailene Woodley in the early seasons before being shipped off to boarding school and returning as a much older, much different Willa Holland).
At the fashion show, Ryan mingles with the Newpsies, tries to sneak a drink (before Kirsten catches him), and tries to coach Seth on asking out his crush Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson). Sandy Cohen totally salts his game. As the fashion show festivities begin, Marissa takes the stage to introduce the cause (the Battered Women’s shelter, apparently), and get things moving. Summer walks the catwalk, and Seth tries (and fails) not to drool. Summer and Marissa sneak drinks because they’re so bad, and we have to know it. Hey, this isn’t so different from Chino! Every just looks prettier.
Marissa gives Ryan a significant glance as she walks the catwalk, to the displeasure of her boyfriend Luke (Chris Carmac). Ryan seems to enjoy it though. Who’s not having fun? Marissa’s dad, Jimmy Cooper, who’s been stealing money and doing illegal things, blah blah. He’s crying in the bathroom, and we’re already tired of his plotline. Summer hits on Ryan, though he uses her invitation to a party to get Seth there so he’ll have the chance to talk to Summer. Aww, Ryan totally ships it!
At the after party, we enjoy a pan of the crazy, high school shenanigans. Drugs, drinking, sex, and bathing suits. We’re definitely not in Chino anymore. Summer continues to pursue Ryan, but Ryan isn’t having it. Luke takes another girl out onto the beach, jealous of the obvious vibe brewing between Ryan and Marissa. Can’t anyone be trusted?
Jimmy walks the Cooper family dog (in his one and only dog appearance, bow wow). Kirsten and Jimmy chat in the yard, reminiscing about their past and leading us to wonder, is the past really in the past? Surely Kirsten is happy with Sandy Cohen, eyebrow extraordinaire.
Back at the party, Summer makes a pass at Ryan, causing Seth to misinterpret and get upset. This prompts one of Summer’s greatest lines when she finds out where Ryan is from: “Chino? Ew!” Well said, Sum. It’s worth noting that the character of Summer was meant to only be around for a few episodes, but was so well received she became a series regular. I’d attribute it to that line of dialogue.
Seth picks a drunken fight with Luke that he can’t finish, so Ryan has to. After Luke lands Ryan on his back, he says another super quotable line of dialogue: “Welcome to the O.C., bitch!” Classic. Welcome, indeed. The fight serves to mend Ryan and Seth’s minor tiff, and the two are best friends again. Seth falls asleep in the pool house, while Ryan takes a walk and oversees Marissa’s friends ditching her unconscious on the Cooper family doorstep. Ryan, knight in shining wifebeater that he is, carries Marissa to the pool house and tucks her in, sleeping on the floor because he’s a gentleman. Guess who got Marissa in his bed, Luke? Answer: not you. Loser.
Kirsten is less than thrilled about the whole getting drunk at a party thing, and takes it out on Ryan. She tells Sandy he has to go back to Chino, because he has a family, as imperfect as they are. It’s worth noting that Kirsten’s character arc is actually beautiful; she is a little judgmental, and proud, and critical at the beginning. She was raised that way.
Ryan cooks breakfast for the Cohens, and tells Kirsten she “has a really nice family,” melting her heart a little (and ours). Ryan says goodbye to Seth and they share a hug (one of only two Ryan/Seth hugs in the entire four seasons; the other is in the series finale). As Sandy drives Ryan home, Marissa watches from the end of her driveway. The moment they share is significant.
Alas, Ryan’s family are nowhere to be found. Ryan walks into an abandoned home, and Sandy puts him back in the car to go back from where they came. The O.C. it is. And so ends the first hour of one of the greatest shows ever to grace my television set (back when I actually still watched TV on the TV). The O.C. burned bright and fast, and had two years of critical praise before going into a rocky third season, and rebounding with a so-so fourth and final season. I’ll watch and episode a week and recap it. I can’t wait to relive the musical montages before fade to black, the pop culture references, the romance, the scandal, and all the O.C. has to offer. In its heart, the O.C. has always been about finding a family, and let’s be honest, Ryan found the best one.
And there it is. Welcome to the O.C.