THE O.C. HOLIDAY EPISODES REMAIN PURE HOLIDAY BLISS
In my family, we have a glorious tradition of waking up early on Christmas Day morning, exchanging gifts around the tree while listening to festive music and drinking coffee, then retreating alone into various corners of the house for several hours to watch TV, read, or nap in blissful solitude. This tradition has evolved over the years as my siblings and I have grown up, gotten married, and created new customs, but I look back at those memories fondly, especially the Christmas of 2003 when I discovered that major network crown jewel of prime time youth-oriented soapy programming, The O.C.
If you are not familiar with the teen soap classic, The O.C. was about a teenage boy from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks named Ryan Atwood who falls on hard times when his brother gets arrested. In a twist right out of an Upworthy article that your aunt would share on Facebook, Ryan is welcomed into the Orange County home and family of his idealistic public defender, Sandy Cohen. Sandy’s super rich wife Kirsten and nerd-hipster son Seth both see Ryan’s vulnerable, wounded-puppy demeanor hidden beneath his tough exterior/muscle-Ts, and he quickly becomes part of the family. Ryan falls for the literal girl next door, Marissa Cooper, a beautiful socialite haunted by personal demons. It’s all been done before, but The O.C. lures you in with clever writing and charming young actors who make the show incredibly watchable. This is what I discovered when I came across a treasure trove of episodes my sister had saved to the TiVo one magical Christmas morning.
Now, you youngin’s may not recall that back in ye olde times of the Early Aughts, network television seasons ran 23 episodes long. This resulted in a LOT of filler. In recent years and the dawn of streaming, our attention spans have been highly attuned to a nice tight 8-episode season arc. But during The O.C.’s heydey, simple misunderstandings took 6+ episodes to be resolved. Love triangles stretched to infinity, or at least sweeps. Due to the timing of season hiatus, the triple crown of The O.C.’s first season holiday themed episodes--spanning Thanksgiving, Hanukkah/Christmas, and New Years Eve--were loaded up on the TiVo ready for me to feast upon. Each 44-minute episode contains a perfect holiday Chex mix of family drama, ruminations on friendship, and complicated teenage love peppered with fistfights, class warfare, flagrant displays of wealth, and Conor Oberst references. While the episode “The Best Chrismukkah Ever” is probably the biggest fan favorite, my heart belongs to the New Year’s Eve-themed “The Countdown.” Watching the show through my jaded 2017 eyes, it’s easy to laugh at the stripey highlights, flared low-slung jeans, and Friendster references. But I was surprised by how much the emotional climax of the episode still resonated with me.
On New Year’s Eve in Newport, things start off rocky--Marissa tells Ryan that she loves him, and caught off guard, Ryan awkwardly replies “Thank you.” Tensions raise when they disagree on their plans for the night; Ryan wants to stay in and watch movies together while Marissa wants to go to a rich kid party at the Four Seasons (whatever happened to wood-paneled basements??). Seth is still caught in a love triangle between Summer and Anna, the storyline that never wanted to end. The Cohen parents, Sandy and Kirsten, are worried they’re stuck in an old-people rut after Kirsten’s younger sister (I forget her name so we’ll call her Black Sheep Party Girl) taunts them about their lame plans. Determined to be spontaneous and fun, the Cohens drop by a party that turns out to be full of swingers. They spend the night cheekily taunting each other, then internally worrying about how far the joke will go, to sigh of relief and declarations of love when it is revealed that Sandy pulled his watch out of the punch bowl because all he wants for New Years is to be with his wife. Cue the awwww’s; Seth and Kirsten are fantastic and rank right up there with Coach and Tammy Taylor when it comes to the TV Parents Hall of Fame. Moving on to the kids--the opposing points of the Seth Cohen love triangle have decided to just be friends. Anna and Summer both end up at the fancy kids Four Season party and accidentally scam on the same dude again. Feeling defeated, Anna leaves the hotel then spots Seth standing in his driveway (how convenient). Seth and Anna end up making out in his bedroom to the soundtrack of Carson Daly’s New Year’s Countdown.
But the beating heart of the episode is the epic love story of Ryan and Marissa. After their little tiff, Ryan mopes and broods around the pool house, kicking himself for not being able to utter those three little words to his girlfriend. This is when he runs into Black Sheep Party Girl, who chastises him for leaving his girlfriend flying solo on the most romantic of holidays; “The way you spend New Year’s Eve is the way you spend the rest of the year,” she tells him. This line is repeated several times throughout the episode, as if The O.C. was trying to make it into a thing Gretchen-Weiners-style. Ryan realizes his mistake and panics, thinking of Marissa alone and lonely while hot rich dudes swarm around her at the party. He needs to get to her before the clock strikes midnight, but several obstacles lay in his path, including an impromptu kegger thrown by Black Sheep Party Girl that must be shut down. He finally makes his way towards the Four Seasons, but at the heartrending soundtrack of “Dice” by Finley Quay swells in the background, the countdown has begun and season 1 villain Oliver is circling a sadface Marissa. Just as Oliver leans to suavely clink his mojito glass against hers, Marissa’s longing eyes drift towards the door--and in bursts an appropriately-sweaty-in-a-sexy-way Ryan. He strides towards her, enveloping her in his arms. They look into each other’s eyes and my screen is ON FIRE.
Ryan sultrily whisper “I love you” into Marissa’s ear, and she smiles back and him and says “Thank you.”
IT IS SOAPY HOLIDAY PERFECTION. It is every emotion we want to feel as the clock ticks down the final seconds of the year--breathless exquisite tortured angsty love with a hip soundtrack. Mischa Barton and Benjamin McKenzie are both the epitome of early 2000’s beauty standards and way too pretty to be real; I’m pretty sure they’re CGI created by Industrial Light & Magic.
So as you snuggle up under a blanket in front of the TV this holiday season, debating whether to rewatch Love Actually, It’s a Wonderful Life, or Harry Potter for the twentieth time, may I make a suggestion. When I am craving comfort, tradition, and holiday escapism with a side of chiseled cheekbones and curated hipster indie rock, I turn to The O.C. season 1. California, here we come.