The Ghost Of Marissa Cooper Still Haunts The Creator Of 'The O.C.'
Twelve years ago, something magical happened: Teenage delinquent Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) left Chino (ew) for the sunny beaches of Orange County, California — and television was changed forever.
In its prime, and in our hearts, The O.C. was a cultural phenomenon. It influenced everything, from the music we listened to driving down the 101 to our daily vernacular. "Welcome to the O.C., bitch" is still the gift that keeps on giving. The O.C. was also an early champion of nerd culture -- before it was "cool" to be a nerd -- thanks to the awkward charm of early internet boyfriend Seth Cohen (Adam Brody). A little too much Peter Parker without enough Spider-Man, he was decidedly perfect.
Creator Josh Schwartz, executive producer Stephanie Savage, writer Leila Gerstein, and music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas reunited at the ATX Television Festival on Sunday (June 12) for an intimate look at the seminal teen soap's turbulent four-season run. At the time, Schwartz was just a 26-year-old television newbie who wanted to make a show about the Jewish experience in Southern California. "The impetus came from the fact that I was from Providence, Rhode Island, and I came out to California for USC, and that is the first time I met the species known as a water-polo player," Schwartz said. "That was my first exposure to the Orange County lifestyle."
However, what he created was so much more than that. The O.C. was a cultural touchstone. It was Appointment Television before the dawn of DVRs and streaming. It burned so brightly and so quickly in its Juicy Couture velour tracksuit. It imploded in a glorious spectacle. And we loved every agonizing minute of it.
Below, the creative minds that gave us one of television's seminal teen dramas share The O.C. takes, from lessons learned in Season 1 to the "complicated" decision to kill off Mischa Barton's Marissa Cooper in Season 3.
The ghost of Marissa Cooper still haunts them.
As it should. It’s hard to think about Marissa Cooper, the girl next door with sad-doe eyes and spectacular hair, without sobbing your eyes out. And it's comforting to know that Coop's death in the Season 3 finale -- arguably the show's most divisive scene -- still haunts Schwartz and Savage.
"It's complicated," Schwartz said. "There were a lot of factors involved, and it was something we really wrestled with. There were a lot of reasons, both creative and cynical. Steph and I, we still talk about it. What we found was, and this was a really good lesson for us, if somebody posts something online, it's a one-to-one ratio. They are not speaking for 1,000 people."
In the pre-Twitter era of TV, Schwartz admitted that the reaction to Marissa's death took him by surprise. "The people who were the most vocal online weren't speaking for everyone, and we realized that people were very attached to that character. There was a lot of anger and fan art that came our way."
Olivia Wilde was nearly Marissa.
Marissa, with her perfect side-bangs and prominent collarbone, was destined to be Ryan’s star-crossed lover from their first encounter in the Cohens' driveway, and their teen romance, though complicated and ultimately tragic, was beautiful. Casting for the female lead was down to Olivia Wilde and Barton, but given the vulnerability of the character, Schwartz decided that Wilde was too empowered to play the broken girl next door. "Olivia Wilde needed no saving," he said.
Savage was a real proponent of Ryan and Marissa's ill-fated romance from the jump. She was a Marissa sympathizer.
"Marissa was so beautiful that she was embarrassed by it," Savage said, recalling the moment she, like Ryan, became enamored with the heartbreaking beautiful girl in the pilot episode. "It evoked so much about this girl and being beautiful at that age. There was more to her than that."
Anna and Oliver are surprisingly linked.
There were 27 episodes in The O.C.'s first season. Twenty-seven. That simply doesn't happen anymore. The first season chewed through so much plot, the writers introduced and wrote off a fan-favorite character in less than one season. Yes, we're talking about Anna Stern, Seth Cohen's perfect nerdy counterpart. Anna's departure from the series never really made sense. Why couldn't she have stayed in Newport and gotten her own shallow significant other to love? Because that was far too conventional for Schwartz, who didn't want the characters to constantly couple up with each other like some other teen dramas. (Sorry, Seth and Marissa shippers!)
"I think we felt like we had played through that triangle, and therefore it was time for Anna to go. Seth had made his choice." In other words, Anna was too perfect for this morally bankrupt Newport Beach world.
Looking back, however, Schwartz and Savage regret not exploring more possibilities for Anna and Luke. In fact, Anna and Luke's departures lead to the show's most controversial character: Oliver Trask.
"When you're doing 27 episodes, you need new story material," Schwartz said. Savage added that when the writers knew Anna and Luke were departing the series, they realized that they "didn't have enough characters on the show," so they created Oliver. "We needed someone to wreak some havoc and test our characters' bonds."
The iconic TJ episode was a defining moment for the series -- in more ways than one.
"We all knew that it was building toward TJ, and after that, we were pretty sure we were going to get canceled," Schwartz said. But they didn't. In fact, it was the opposite. Even more episodes were ordered.
More importantly, the episode, titled "The Escape," proved that Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson) was more than just Marissa's best friend. When we first met Summer 12 years ago, with her questionable icy blue eyeshadow, we thought there was no way she was worthy of Seth’s unrequited love and worship. She left her best friend passed out on a driveway! But the Boobs quickly became a fan-favorite thanks to her abundant chemistry with Seth. And it all started in Tijuana, proving that what happens in TJ definitely doesn't stay in TJ.
"Part of it is that we didn't really know the rules, so we were making it up as we were going along," the creator said. "If you have characters on your show that people love and really connected with, you should try to keep them around." (Don't tell that to Anna.)
The Cohens were almost called the Needlemans, but "they got a little less Jewish."
According to Savage, Fox was "medium comfortable" with the "neurotic Jew of it all." It was a challenge for the network, which wasn't used to seeing a character like Seth Cohen as a male lead on a primetime soap.
"That's what I wanted to write about at the time -- brothers and fathers and sons," Schwartz said. "It was unusual for a nighttime soap then."
"Welcome to the O.C., bitch" was a nod to the show's title.
The show's most famous catchphrase was created out of necessity. "When I was at USC, there were all these guys who referred to Orange County as ‘The O.C.,’" Schwartz said. "So it was always a bit of an ironic title for us. We knew that we had to work that into the show, and who better to deliver the line than Luke?"
Schwartz was the show's de facto music supervisor for the first six episodes.
Music was always part of The O.C.'s DNA, from the show's very first episode when Schwartz wrote Joseph Arthur's "Honey and the Moon" into the pilot. As he put it, he wanted to highlight "all this music that no one could hear." However, after the first six episodes, he realized he had depleted his iPod, and by Episode 7, he brought on prolific music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas.
"Alex was able to expose us to all this stuff that was definitely in the lane of what we wanted to do but hadn't come out yet," Schwartz said. Case in point: Coldplay's X&Y. Schwartz recalled a meeting with Coldplay's record label in which "they sat us in a room and played the entire Coldplay album. When we heard ‘Fix You,’ we knew that was the one."
When asked if any bands ever passed on the opportunity to have their music featured on The O.C., Schwartz admitted that Arcade Fire turned down an offer to play at The Bait Shop, the show's fictional music venue. However, Patsavas added, "Typically, the kinds of bands we were interested were the kinds of bands that toured colleges and played smaller venues."
And just in case you were wondering, they all have their favorite music moments:
Alex Patsavas: Finley Quaye's "Dice" (featured in "The Countdown")
Leila Gerstein: Jeff Buckley's cover of "Hallelujah" (featured in "The Ties That Bind")
Stephanie Savage: Patrick Park's "Something Pretty" (featured in "The Telenovela")
Josh Schwartz: Joseph Arthur's "Honey and the Moon" (featured in "Pilot")