The O.C. (“Pilot”)

Season 1, Episode 1
Date of airing: August 5, 2003 (FOX)
Nielsen ratings information: 7.46 million viewers, 5.0/8 in Households, 2.9/8 with Adults 18-49

There is a reason THE O.C. might have started its lifetime in a successful way and soon became a pop culture event: FOX gave not only a pilot order, but a seven-episode summer run, giving Josh Schwartz a chance to create an entire show or at least a miniseries worth of teen drama, instead of just having to focus on the pilot to immediately attract audiences and network executives. Pilot season has become hell since the networks tried to emulate LOST midway through the 2000s, and failed to entertain me with shows like THE EVENT, REVOLUTION and FLASHFORWARD, so it was only natural that I would not care at all about the May Upfronts or the series premieres in September and October. In fact, I don’t even watch the trailers any longer, because I know that pilots are produced to make network executives and maybe advertisers happy, not the viewers. Any pilot that throws you into the mix of shits and giggles, and the writer forgets to properly introduce the characters, turning the first hour of business into substance over style, into quantity over quality, makes me shiver, and I generally hate the entire show before the writers even get the chance to properly get into the show with the second episode. Pilot season is an old relic of network television that needs to be dismantled, abolished, and written into the history book as something that once existed.

Two new friends and an orgasmic computer game.

THE O.C. found its way into the FOX executive offices through the pilot season, but it’s the simple fact that Schwartz was given a seven-episode order that gave him the chance to ease the audience into the show and its world, to focus on the characters, before screwing up things for them later. This episode didn’t even have a proper ending, as Ryan was standing in his empty home, because there was this sense that the episode, albeit it being over, wasn’t really over yet. The pilot wasn’t finished. Ryan’s entry into the world of Newport, California hasn’t been concluded yet. His very first character arc wasn’t done, because the very first episode ran out of time. Characters were introduced with a few glimmers of character arcs here and there — Marissa and her love for alcohol; Jimmy and his problem of money; Luke and his issues as the Orange County quarterback who thinks he is the king of swinging fists — but this was Ryan’s episode through and through, which means the show cared about giving you an entrance into the world of riches and expensive sunshine through the eyes of an everyday teenage criminal, because even for the generic viewer, Orange County was a place they have never heard of (I certainly never did, although my German background doesn’t allow me to know of American neighborhoods outside of the famous TV primetime soap zip code). Instead of getting thrown between characters and their many stories, these 45 minutes were all about getting acquainted with Orange County and its craziness. No one cares right now about the trials and tribulations of the high school students, and no one wants to know who cheats with whom on who. Setting the world and placing the characters in the first episode is more important than messing things up immediately, because writers and network executives still think that absolutely everything has to happen in the first episode. A lesson that either needs to be learned by the suits, or they can forego pilot season completely and just order shows as they come and like.

Anyway, this is still the first episode of a teenage drama that became a sensation for some reasons. One of them being the fact that the viewers had a great start into the show, with the writers easing them into it. It also turned out that Ryan was an immediate smash as a likable character — he is the bad boy according to the first scene, but that doesn’t mean he is a dumb screw-up who likes to stir up trouble and give you the literal beat-down. He happens to be smart, and he happens to be friendly and helpful and caring, as it showed when he had Seth’s back in the fight against Luke and his muscular boyfriends, and as it showed when he carried Marissa to the pool house, because he can’t just let a young woman lie on the side of the road like that. He isn’t the criminal you would think he is, as he is doing absolutely nothing that would have made him look bad (including stealing stuff from Marissa’s purse, which was a great way to break norms in the show — you would have thought he is being caught snooping through Marissa’s purse, but that was not the case). And he happened to be a young guy who can make friends easily. He obviously charmed Sandy enough to jump him into help mode, and he made an easy and quick connection with Seth over a quick computer game, a quick sail on the water, and a quick story about how he was in love with a girl named Summer, whom he named his boat after. Ryan basically found out he fits quite well into the bubble of Orange County, and maybe he realized for the first time that having a family is a great feeling. Did the Cohens care for him more during the 36-or-so hours he was with them than his own mother did? It must have been a weird feeling for Ryan after realizing that — a stranger gives him a place to stay for a few nights, and that stranger happens to be more loving to him than his own flesh and blood. Talk about a life that’s messed up for a teenager…

On CBS, this screenshot would be part of a crime procedural.

Besides all that, the first episode managed to have some style, too. Sexy girls (because hey, a show set on a beach front in California can’t have too many bikini models walking around), sunshine and beach sand deluxe, pretty houses and housewives with expensive make-ups and crazy demands (Julie wanted a Froyo, and she couldn’t get it herself form some privileged reason), and a soundtrack that demanded to be sold as is, because the show’s executives decided to bring only hot tracks into the show and not the boring radio stuff. Of course the young audience will fall for that and make THE O.C. what it essentially became during the first season — a slowly rising television hit no one saw coming, even though FOX definitely planned it to be the new BEVERLY HILLS, 90210, after that show became a hit during the summer repeats after the first season’s ratings were rather mediocre. FOX was banking on THE O.C. to get all the word of mouth it needed during the summer weeks, so that the show will be a hit in the Fall. This was more than calculated.

But then again, the show wasn’t a hit in its own right, because of calculations. It happened to be extremely solidly written, and the simple fact that it’s just the first chapter of the beginning makes it look more like an epic, and isn’t that the reason we watch (serialized) television?

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