I keep up with the online presence of some of my favorite TV shows. The O.C. is one of them, as it seems to have a consistently growing fanbase as time goes on. People find it on DVD and they love it, too. Yet, there seems to be one large difference between my views on it, and those of some of these latecomers. I’ve stumbled upon a disturbing amount of fans and viewers rewatching The O.C. and asking the internet basically, well, “Why is Marissa Cooper so terrible?”
It’s alarming to me that people don’t seem to see the importance of a character like Marissa Cooper. While The O.C.’s protagonist is certainly Ryan, Marissa’s inclusion in the series fits in with the theme and concept of the show and she’s of equal importance. Ryan is underprivileged. His family isn’t wealthy, reliable, or stable. His father and brother are both in jail, his mother is an alcoholic who dates abusive men, and Ryan is often isolated or left with nobody else to turn to. It’s important storytelling that Marissa Cooper often feels this same isolated loneliness, and even depression. Marissa has wealth and status, but The O.C. differentiates here between material wealth and the wealth that comes from love, support, and family. While Marissa has the first, she lacks the latter. Ryan finds both of these things in the O.C. and Marissa struggles for the length of the series to find some semblance of them.
It’s worth noting that Marissa most often finds these things with Ryan. It’s ironic that Ryan, who’s lacked love and affection nearly all of his life, is the one able to see the best in Marissa, and see her as more than wealth and status and physical beauty. Ryan values Marissa for who she truly is, not who she feels pressured to be. Marissa herself is a loving and giving person, often partaking in the group “missions” to right some wrong, or save someone in less than optimistic circumstances. While most fans hate the Oliver storyline in the first season, Marissa’s seemingly unconditional love for Oliver (a troubled and depressed addict) shows that she wants to better the world and be the support system for others she’s always lacked.
It’s no surprise that Marissa has such a desire to help others, because Marissa herself is an addict. Marissa is an alcoholic, suffering from depression and low self-confidence. Marissa hasn’t been taught how to handle her feelings in a productive, healthy manner because in the O.C. you sweep feelings under the rug, and perform for neighbors and family members like they’re an audience. Marissa helps others because she can’t help herself, and she doesn’t know how to ask for help. Her father is loving but absent, and her mother is judgmental and cruel. Marissa’s best friend Summer is there for her (The O.C. has always had a lovely tradition of including well-written female relationships and friendships), but Summer is just a teenager. Sometimes that’s not enough.
Josh Schwartz, the creator of The O.C., has referred to Marissa as a lightning rod character, who’s purpose was to try out storylines, in order to gauge audience reaction. Marissa’s character arc is a tragic one, because while Marissa spends most of her run on the series finding others to help (Ryan, Oliver, Trey, and Johnny to name a few), nobody seems to be able to help her.
[9 year old spoiler below]
Marissa’s death, while heartbreaking, fits The O.C. It’s unbearably saddening that we live in an imperfect world, where not everyone can be saved, can be fixed, can be helped. Ryan is taken from a life of hopelessness and given that hope by the Cohens and by Marissa herself. It’s a beautiful parallel that Ryan seems to have nothing and gets everything, while Marissa seems to have everything, and ends with nothing. It’s a reminder that somebody always falls through the cracks, and that as human beings, we are limited in our ability to change. It’s not a pleasant thing to consider, but it’s very realistic. And in a world like The O.C., where everything seems perfect on the outside, it’s a necessary conclusion that nothing is on the inside.
Marissa dies in a fatal car accident on her way out of the O.C. It is often when we are so close to our happy ending, to our new start, that a crippling blow brings us back down to our lowest low. It’s often when we need help the most that we don’t find it. Marissa might have been shallow at times, but to dismiss her as that is to do a disservice to the character. She was troubled, flawed, and broken. She spent her life trying to put things back together, and never managed to do so. It is through her loss that her mother, friends, and boyfriend learn to value what they have, and find meaning in life. It’s because of this loss that Ryan is able to succeed. Marissa would not have wanted to die in a car crash, but she surely would have preferred Ryan lived. She knew he had a chance of getting out, while devastatingly, Marissa never could’ve really left the O.C.
In their first meeting, Marissa asks Ryan, “Who are you?” His answer: “Whoever you want me to be.” It’s cheesy and romantic, and it’s also true. Ryan did the best that he could, and he wasn’t just who Marissa wanted him to be, but needed him to be. In the end, Marissa saved Ryan… but Ryan also saved Marissa, because although she died, she died knowing that she was loved, that she was valued, and that she had mattered. It is her triumph that she was the catalyst for so much change and her tragedy that she never got to see it first hand.