Monday, March 7, 2011

"The Pilot" of The O.C.

Although it was often described as a "guilty pleasure," the television series The O.C. was actually a charming, heartwarming series that, for every campy or overly dramatic storyline, also delivered an insightful or witty observation of American pop culture. The pilot episode of the series, aptly titled "The Pilot," introduces viewers to the suntanned world of Newport Beach, in Orange County, California. Here, viewers meet several characters, all outsiders in their own way.

The opening scenes of the series prominently feature Ryan Atwood (played by Ben McKenzie), a broody teenager living in Chino, California (which, according to the other characters, is a broken-down slum of a city; this description is further supported by the dark camera shots and seedy imagery of Ryan in Chino). After running into trouble with the law (Ryan tags along when his older, ne'er-do-well brother convinces him to help him steal a car), Ryan meets Sandy Cohen (played by Peter Gallagher), his no-nonsense public defender. Despite Ryan's actions, Sandy sees true potential in Ryan and, after Ryan's mother kicks him out of the house, invites Ryan back to his home in glossy Newport Beach. Newport is in every way different from what Ryan has ever experienced. Indeed, Ryan is an outsider there in just about every way imaginable.
In this video, Ryan experiences the stark transformation from Chino to Newport Beach. (Video from here.)

The most fascinating aspect of the debut episode of the series, though, is that there are several characters - some surprising, some not so much - who are also outsiders in the superficial community of Newport. The pilot episode mainly takes on Ryan's viewpoint, and the audience discovers this intricate new world along with him. Ryan's outsider traits are the most obvious: as a kid from the "wrong side of the tracks," Ryan feels as if he is predetermined to a life of failure. As he tells Sandy when they first meet, "Where I'm from, having a dream doesn't make you smart. Knowing it won't come true? That does."
Sandy recognizes the potential hidden under Ryan's "tough guy" facade. 
He eventually proves to be one of the few people to ever believe in Ryan. (Image from here.)

Sandy, who would eventually serve as the moral compass throughout the series, is also an outsider in Newport. Originally from the Bronx, New York, Sandy also feels out of place in the ritzy, glamorous environs of Newport Beach. He eschews much of the lifestyle there, isolating himself from his neighbors. In fact, if not for his wife, Kirsten (played by Kelly Rowan), who is originally from Newport, the Cohens would never have moved to Newport. (Kirsten also proves to be an outsider among the Newport women. As a career-driven working mother, she differs greatly from the other Newport women, who exhibit just about every stereotype seen on the Real Housewives of Orange County.) Sandy's voice also seems to reflect that of the audience. As an outsider in Newport, he takes an objective look at the society as a whole and sees just how fake and artificial the lifestyle is. His efforts to help Ryan reveal his compassion for someone whom he views as very similar to himself. Ryan's troubled background reminds Sandy of his own past, and he wants to show Ryan that there is more out there than a lifetime of hopelessness. In many ways, Sandy wants to pull Ryan from the depths of his own "outsider world" and back into the real world, where he can thrive.
Ryan is in awe of how (superifically) glamorous Newport is. 
Meanwhile, Seth (far left) feels miserable and out of place at the Newport social function. (Image from here.)

Similarly, Ryan takes on the same role of "savior" when he meets and becomes friends with Seth (played by Adam Brody), Sandy and Kirsten's son who is the same age as Ryan. Miserable in Newport and invisible to every other kid at school, Seth has resigned himself to being an outsider forever - or at least until he can leave Newport for good. Just as Sandy shows Ryan that there is more out there, Ryan shows Seth that living in Newport can actually be fun. The two attend a wild party together and for the first time Seth actually has a friend he can count on. He later admits to Ryan after the two get in a fist fight, "I don't know what to say... except that you totally had my back out there." For most of his life, Seth has felt like he is on the outside looking in, but Ryan shows him a side of Newport that he has never before experienced.

While all of these outsider narratives are interesting, engaging, and perfectly suited to enticing drama, the one outsider narrative that is perhaps the most intriguing is that of Marissa Cooper (played by Mischa Barton). Introduced as a "girl next door" type, Marissa Cooper is likely the most troubled teenager ever to be portrayed on television. In the threes seasons that she is on the show, she experiences the following: alcoholism, drug overdose, sexual assault, depression and overall unhappiness, lesbianism, a gun shooting, expulsion from school, and, eventually, death in a car crash. And that's just hitting the high points. Marissa's troublesome path in no way begins in "The Pilot," though. Indeed, it is all too clear that her feelings of depression and sense of not belonging were born long before Ryan ever shows up in Newport. Certainly his presence - and their ensuing tumultuous relationship - intensifies her outsider status. However, one of the most fascinating things about Marissa is that she is one of the last people the audience would expect to be an outsider. While on the outside her world does seem ideal - wealthy family, popular at school, handsome boyfriend, good grades - the reality is that inside she is suffering immensely. Perhaps her own insecurities are only intensified by Newport's superficiality, causing her to rebel in a multitude of ways (see above list). Perhaps Ryan's arrival pushes Marissa to see how the "other side" views Newport. For the first time she finds herself on the outside looking in, and she certainly doesn't like what she sees. The peculiar thing is that the audience never receives an exact answer to such a weighty question and is instead left to craft its own interpretation of Marissa Cooper's Three Years of Dramatic Hell. Next to Ryan, Marissa's outsider story is the most complex, as she is one of the most unlikely outsiders and at times seems like the one who is most detached from reality.
Ryan and Marissa share a cigarette when they first meet. 
Here, their behaviors reveal a desire to show the other how rebellious they are. (Image from here.) 

Nevertheless, despite the intricacies of the world that series creator Josh Schwartz (himself an outsider after moving from Rhode Island to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California) forms, it is very likely that The O.C. will be remembered for its Young Hollywood actors, its more outlandish storylines, or the introduction of "geek chic" and Chrismukkah to the pop culture universe. However, one of its main components was the outsider narrative, because, at one point or another, we all feel like we don't belong. The paradox of the increasingly interconnected modern world is that we all feel some form of disconnect, whether it's from our family, friends, or even the self that we feel we should be. While at times the show is just as superficial and frustrating as the society it portrays, more often than not it provides a sharp and intelligent social commentary on a most alarming question: Are we all becoming outsiders?

Works Cited:
Schwartz, Josh. "The Pilot." The O.C. Dir. Doug Liman. Prod. Josh Schwartz, Dave Bartis, Doug
      Liman, and McG. Fox. 5 Aug. 2003.

-Sara Rogovin


  1. First off, I absolutely loved this show and never really thought of it as a work that elucidates the outsider status present within our society, but all your points clearly show that everyone who might be considered an insider could potentially be an outsider and vice versa. To answer your question, “Aren’t we all becoming outsiders?” I think this show clearly demonstrates the point outsider status is dependent entirely on perspective. Often insiders are considered to be the wealthy, pretty characters like Marissa Cooper, and the outsiders are those like Ryan who are poor and unsuccessful. Yet, this show proves that Seth who is from a wealthy, successful family is still an outsider, and how Ryan becomes an insider because of his connection and relationship with Marissa. Overall, I think it is interesting on how you describe Ryan, the most obvious outsider, as a “savior.” As you clearly show, Ryan does save many of the characters, and this proves that in some ways outsiders can ironically bring people back to reality and recognize their disillusioned sense of outsiders vs. insiders. Everyone is an outsider and insider in some way; it just depends on the particular situation.

    Maria Ayers

  2. I am completely obsessed with The O.C. I love the way the show entails west coast culture, from the music to the fashion, as well as covering the drama of the four high schoolers. I agree with you in believing that all of the characters are outsiders in their own ways. Ryan is a an outsider in the traditional manners, being from a broken family and little money. The characters of Newport also all have their own problems. Seth is the social outcast of The Harbor School, Summer comes from a broken family, and Marissa copes with alcoholism and a father who is falling deeper and deeper into debt every day. I find it interesting that the people who are seen as the social elite, coming from the most prominent families of Newport, suffer from issues of feeling rejected and ostracized from society. I agree with the point that Ryan as seen as a 'savior' when he first enters Newport. Perhaps his fresh, outsider point of view gives him the ability to think logically about the problems that the members of Newport face. However, i believe that Ryan is not the only savior of The O.C. In my opinion, Sandy Cohen is the real savior, for it is his decision to take Ryan into his home. It all depends on the situation at hand. Depending on the course of events in the moment, each character has the potential to act as an outsider.

    Audrey Shlapak