I’d been writing about popular culture for some time when The O.C. premiered in 2003, but what I didn’t know about the entertainment industry back then could fill several books.
And that’s one of the many benefits of time, growth and perspective: Looking back at the making of notable shows and films, when done right, can teach us a lot not just about the past, but about the present. About what’s been gained and lost, about how things have evolved for better and for worse, about what people have (or in some cases, haven’t) learned about themselves, their relationship to the work and how great storytelling and workplaces are nurtured (or hindered).
I did a lot of this kind of storytelling in my book (and this is only Burn It Down plug in this newsletter, I promise!), and I only mention that because I know from that experience (and many others during my career) that deep dives into specific Hollywood projects are hard to do well.
Even when many folks involved want to be candid, and even when enough time has passed for some clarity to have arrived in certain quarters, contextualizing a show, play, album or film so that both newbies and superfans can get something out of that behind-the-scenes saga is challenging. Everyone has differing perspective and conveying those ambiguities and disagreements can be a tough balancing act. And why should anyone want to go back and dwell on this piece of popular culture? Why did it matter, and why does the story of its birth, growth and end still have resonance and meaning? What conflicts and problems could have been avoided and which may have been cemented in place from the start? What does productive, generative collaboration look like and how was that achieved (or not)? These are all questions you’ve got to answer well, and making that look easy is difficult.
Annnnd my pal Alan Sepinwall (as per usual) knocked it out of the park.
Welcome to The O.C., the new book from Sepinwall (with key input from executive producers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, along with many other people who worked on the show) is gripping and fun and far from just a blast from the past. The sense I got from this well-edited and energetic oral history is that folks really wanted to set the record straight and let the chips fall where they may. A laudable goal, but it takes a really good writer to weave together all the input in a way that makes for a very satisfying, thoughtful, entertaining read, and that’s what Welcome to The O.C. is.
What everyone had to say was not just illuminating, it highlighted a problem that many of us have groused about at one time or another. Yes, duh, of course, seasons lasting 20-25 episodes are punishing and to some degree – whatever good times are also had – barely survivable. I do get that. And yet, locking most scripted shows down to six or maybe 10 episodes per season — as the American TV industry has largely done in the past decade — is, I’ll just say it, a fucking mistake.
I have no particular beef with six- or eight-episode seasons per se. But I can think of at least half a dozen current shows I actually like (in some cases like a lot or even love) that would benefit from three, four, six or even more episodes per go-round. At times I can tell that an entire creative roster – actors, writers, crew, directors – are striving to get me to have a reaction or some kind of emotional response to certain developments, but I don't have that reaction, or it's blunted at best, because the team didn't have the right amount of runway to make those events play out as effectively as they could have.
And this is a huge problem, for me anyway, because one of my core beliefs as a critic and a person is this: The story of a TV show is the story of relationships. The characters’ relationships with each other. The characters’ relationships with their own emotions, goals, dreams, desires and obstacles. The actors’ and writers’ relationships with the characters and how those evolve over time. Even the audience's relationships with the overall narrative and certain people, themes and connections within it. What's great about TV – and a big reason I care about it, and Good Place creator Mike Schur cares about it – is that it allows all those things and more to evolve over time. Unless, of course, shows are kneecapped by seasons that don't allow them enough – or any – chances to stretch, play, goof around, try shit. Or do enough character development or lay enough thematic or psychological groundwork for anything to fucking matter.
A show is doing something right when both parts of the following sentence matter: You care about 1) what happens next 2) to these people. A drama like 24? Much more weighted toward what happens next. A show like The O.C.? Much more grounded in getting us to care about these specific people and their relationships. But when a project is firing on all cylinders as regards both 1) and 2)? That is the good stuff right there.
Welcome to The O.C. delves into all kinds of relationships – behind the scenes, on screen and beyond – with a sense of humor, but also with a great deal of respect for this fact: All manner of relationships on-screen and off-screen were important, and how those connections intersected and evolved and affected the story – and how they altered the relationship the audience, the studio, the network, the press and even the show's own cast had with The O.C. ... all of that was important. The framing of the book is not a dismissive, "Here is an Aughties soap some people loved," it's, "This show mattered, what it did had an impact, and how it did those specific things was relevant then and now, and here's why."
As the book amply demonstrates, long seasons didn't just make people very tired (again, I get that!), they allowed for weird diversions, interesting character pairings, and experiments that fizzled out — or ended up leading to fruitful places. Writers like to play around with ideas and sometimes those ideas are not good (i.e., BSG’s "Black Market"), and sometimes they’re tremendous (the Watergate-inspired fifth season of 24, Castiel arriving on Supernatural, one million other examples, etc.).
Anyway, relationships are the juice of TV, and I think a lot of TV creators and writers know this. Why are episode lengths constantly creeping up — why are “half hours” often 40-plus minutes and “hourlongs” often 65-70 minutes? Not always for good reasons, but I think it’s in part because TV folk want to pour more juice, as it were, into their creations.
But apparently a large segment of executives presiding over American TV right now want us to survive on half rations, at best. What we get now is a lot of plot, plot, exposition and plot shoved at us, often without enough character development and relationship juice — or that is crammed in around the edges. And then the seasons’s over, and IF the show comes back, that may happen two years later. It's not doing great things for audiences' relationships with streamers (there are a few I'm about to dump myself, because as prices creep up, they are not proving their worth).
Is the whole "overly short seasons two years apart" trend dumb and short-sighted? Well, Suits — a show that ran for nearly a decade and had mostly 16-episode seasons that arrived like clockwork — is the biggest TV success of the year, so you tell me!
(Side note: When I ranted about this topic in 2020, I was really glad Vanity Fair used a picture of Monica and Chandler freaking out about their unexpected relationship, which was one of the best ideas the Friends writers ever had. Because allowing insecure quip-meister Chandler to become vulnerable and admit that he liked and even loved Monica gave the show juice. It gave the show deeper emotional resonance. And this is your annual reminder that that key hookup didn’t happen until the show’s 97th episode. One more reason to mention all these things: I was among those heartbroken by the passing of Matthew Perry, a truly spectacular comedic actor who didn't just give Friends and many other projects unexpectedly subtle psychological resonance, he helped a lot of people with his own honesty and compassion about his struggles. RIP.)
So, The O.C.: That show’s team knew the relationships were the reason people tuned in. It was often good at supplying soapy shenanigans and wild or emotional plot turns, but the bonds among the people on the screen were The O.C's lifeblood, the source of what was funny, sad, psychologically compelling, amusing and satisfying about the Fox show. “Big” moments could be a huge party or a major fight, of course, but the most important moments were often quieter ones in which characters revealed vulnerabilities or their deepest wishes and fears.
But the show was a gargantuan hit, and as the book ably demonstrates, a lot of Not Great developments were prompted by executives who kept urging, if not demanding, the show force in artificially "big," promotable moments. The way the creative team describes being ground down not just by the enormous challenges of running a hit show but by the demands, especially in the third season, to contort the show into something it wasn’t — well, it’s quite the fascinating, if unfortunately not unique, cautionary tale.
In any event, Welcome to The O.C. made me want to go back and watch all four seasons. And I genuinely do not think this is a book just for O.C. fans (it’s been 15+ years since I watched an episode and I zipped through the book in a couple days). It’s for people who are interested in how television is made, who are intrigued by how difficult it can be to sustain TV success, and who want to hear from people who were part of something seismic in pop culture, and how that affected them in good and bad ways. And who now have a lot more perspective on what they all experienced – and on their relationships with each other and on that moment in time.
Now! In honor of Alan’s swell book, here are some extras. (By the way, the photo that accompanies this column? It's chock full o' books I read recently and fully endorse and recommend.)
The book has a great chapter on the music of The O.C., and I wrote about the show’s excellent tunes a lot, because I was the critic for the Chicago Tribune back then, and ace music supervisor Alexandra Patasavas was from the Chicago area. What follows is culled from features I did on her and the show’s music in 2004 and 2005 (and again, there’s a fantastic and much more in-depth exploration of this topic in the book!):
Growing up in Glen Ellyn in the ‘80s, Alexandra Patsavas was, she says, an “enormous” fan of the films of John Hughes, who not only captured teen angst with perception and wit, but also used well-chosen music to deepen Chicago-set tales such as Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club.
Though the Glenbard South honors student spent her free time haunting record shops like Wax Trax on Lincoln Avenue, catching bands at Metro and Avalon and drinking in the adventurous music played by WXRT-FM in the radio station's ‘80s heyday, Patsavas could never have predicted that she'd end up as the John Hughes to a whole new generation.
Patsavas is the music supervisor for the hit Fox soap The O.C., and as such, she’s helped create the soundtrack to a whole new generation's lives…. On the show, Newport Beach, Calif., high schooler Seth Cohen not only talks non-stop about his favorite indie music, the show’s soundtrack is littered with terrific songs by bands such as Interpol, Keane, Franz Ferdinand and the Walkmen, many of which are featured on three successful O.C. soundtrack compilations Patsavas helped produce.
The true joy for Patsavas is not just spotlighting great music by bands she loves; she enjoys the process of working with bands, managers and record labels large and small, and with the writing and production staff of The O.C., to find the perfect blend of music for each episode.
“It is so collaborative,” she notes. “We work with so many facets of the movie and TV and music industries, and I can indulge all of my fan instincts.” … Now that Patsavas has hit the big time — she also is music supervisor for Without a Trace, Carnivale and Rescue Me – she hasn't abandoned her indie rock roots. She still finds the time to listen to hundreds of unsolicited tapes and CDs from bands she's never heard of, and when she tries to track down some of the more obscure ones, “half the time it sounds like the manager on the other end of the line is in a dorm room,” she says.
And though the soundtracks are heavy on edgy, newer artists such as Pinback and Modest Mouse, a Beck track appears on the fourth O.C. CD, and artists such as U2 and the Beastie Boys have allowed their music to be used on the show. “Some bands and songs present themselves as being wildly appropriate for the show, and sometimes those bands and songs are not what people expect from us – we’ve used Whitesnake, Bob Seger and Journey,” Patsavas notes.
The success of the O.C. soundtracks worldwide means she's now getting music submissions from bands in Norway, Ireland and Germany, in addition to the U.S. and the U.K. “When you hear something that really moves you, you really hope a wider audience will get to hear it,” Patsavas says. "We really do try to serve the show first, but helping smaller bands reach a larger audience is a wonderful bonus.”
Patsavas also has commissioned bands to create music for the The O.C. Last season, for example, she asked Nada Surf to cover the classic O.M.D. track “If You Leave.” The original “If You Leave,” of course, was the signature song of John Hughes’ Pretty in Pink. Was the Nada Surf cover a shout-out to Hughes?
“Yes, definitely!” Patsavas says.
The following is an edited version of the Chicago Tribune column I wrote in 2007, the day before the show went off the air:
…In honor of the series finale, here’s a list of lists celebrating the Fox show’s four-season career.
Most undervalued supporting cast member:
- Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows
- Peter Gallagher as Sandy Cohen
- Princess Sparkle
- Captain Oats
- Melinda Clarke as the unstoppable Julie Cooper-Nichol
- Chris Pratt as the crunchy environmental guy Ché
- Alan Dale as sketchy billionaire Caleb Nichol [Edit from present-day Mo: There was a time on TV, especially around the aughts, when the great Alan Dale showed up as a sketchy rich/powerful guy on any number of shows, and I demand not just that the industry keep Dale working but also that it bring back that kind of delish energy to the TV scene. I know he was on the CW Dynasty reboot: DO NOT get me started on how annoyed I am by the destruction of the CW as we knew it. ::grimace emoji::]
Most irritating supporting cast members:
- Kaitlin Cooper
- Volchok (arrrgh!)
A few favorite random things:
- Jimmy Cooper’s genial irresponsibility
- Summer’s rage blackouts
- The inevitable fights at every party
Best O.C. inventions:
- The “coma lite”
- Chrismukkah (in its early days, anyway)
- “The Valley,” the fake soap that the O.C. characters were obsessed with
- Ryan Atwood’s fists of fury
- Oliver with a gun
- The arrival of Ryan’s brother
- Kirsten’s sudden-onset alcoholism
And in closing, here are just a few memorable lines:
- Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie) to Marissa: “I wouldn’t have done it any differently. Except maybe Oliver.”
- Summer (Rachel Bilson) to Marissa: “God, he loves you. He got in a fight and burnt down a house for you. That’s hot.”
- Summer on Death Cab for Cutie: “It’s like one guitar and a whole lot of complaining.”
- Seth (Adam Brody) on Ryan: “My friend Ryan, he’s really cool, OK? He’s very anti-establishment. He enjoys sunset walks on the beach, punching people and not smiling.”
- Sandy to Julie: “So you started with a porn director and ended up with Caleb. I’d consider that a lateral move.”
- Summer to Ché: “Ché, just shut up, OK, before I tie you up with hemp rope, set you on fire and get high off of the fumes from your burning flesh.”
- Seth to Ryan in the final season: “It’s too bad. If we could have turned this into a body-swap comedy, we could have squeezed another year or two out of this.”
Action shot of me, an author with a pop-culture-suffused book coming out from Mariner Books in 2023, finding out in the middle of the year that my good friend Alan Sepinwall would have a pop-culture-suffused book coming out from Mariner Books in late 2023:
A reminder before I go: Here are all the places you can find me and my work online. If I'm on social media, I'm most likely to be found on Bluesky and Instagram (not so much the Bad Place, sigh). And of course, there's lots of #content on my site and in the archives of this newsletter. Thanks for reading!