It was August 5th, 2003 when 7.5 million people tuned in to the first episode of The O.C.—a series which would unexpectedly go on to have a lasting and wide-reaching impact on pop culture in the West. But you wouldn’t have known that at the time. The marketing and advertisements put out by the Fox Network would have you believe you were signing up for a 90210-style teen drama about rich kids and their rich-kid problems. While that is a part of what The O.C. explored, it wasn’t really what The O.C. was all about. The O.C. took the glitz and glam of rich white life and put it through the lens of the social outcasts. A line from series’ lead Ryan Atwood sums up The O.C.‘s perspective on that world: “You know what I love about rich kids? Nothing.” It was a defiant flipping of the bird to every rich-kid teen drama on television and one that would become the series’ mantra throughout.
The series was an instant smash hit on television, raking in tens of millions of views on average each week. With such a massive audience, The O.C. proved to be truly influential on the landscape of popular culture. While the series focused primarily on our lead Ryan Atwood, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks adopted into the Cohen family, it was through Ryan’s adoptive brother Seth Cohen that the series made its arguable greatest impact—it made nerd culture cool.
Seth Cohen was presented as your typical geek who loved comic books, video games, obscure indie bands, skateboarding, and movies. Unlike typical geek characters, however, Seth was presented as having good taste—he was into the good shit. This geek got the girl. Heck, he even gets the girl into reading comics! The presentation of this character was completely unlike what had been seen before in TV and Josh Schwartz, the series creator, would go on to replicate the cool geek archetype with his show Chuck.
The show was witty, referential, and smart. It presented the world of nerd culture in a positive light and lead the revolution of legitimising and popularising geek culture in the mainstream. Seth Cohen was a nerd through and through, but he was also cool and able to interact and engage in meaningful relationships with women and other people. He wasn’t some nerd who didn’t know how to live life because he read too many comic books. Instead, the comic books helped shape him as both a good person and someone who is passionate about the things he loves and the things he pursues. He was presented as every bit as much of a desirable guy as the brooding and more typically attractive Ryan.
The popular movement of nerd culture becoming mainstream undoubtedly has its roots here in The O.C., and there would be countless other programs that would come along to try and tap into this emerging mainstream movement, to varying levels of success. There would arguably be no Big Bang Theory without Seth Cohen. Take that as you will.
One of the other major impacts The O.C. had was on the music industry. Creator Josh Schwartz has remarked in interviews in the past that he would often hear a song, and then write a scene for the show to be backed by that song. It was an integral part of his writing process. This is something that is evident in all of his shows, including Gossip Girl and Chuck. The inclusion of a band’s music on The O.C. actually had skyrocketed multiple artists to fame and even lead to some bands getting record deals, such as in the case of the band Rooney.
The influential nature of the show on the music industry did not go unnoticed. By the second season of the show, record labels were approaching the showrunners to have their music featured. One little known fact was that the global premiere of Coldplay’s iconic song “Fix You” was actually in an episode of The O.C. Yes, a song which has gone on to be touted as one of the greatest songs ever written was launched as part of an episode of this show.
Countless musical acts had guest appearances on the show, including bands that would go on to massive acclaim, such as The Killers. The sonic landscape of The O.C. was one that simply could not be understated. Every musical choice had a purpose and point. Schwartz would view stories and moments through song and would go out of his way to secure the music rights to tracks, all in order to score the scene with the perfect song. There may be no better example of this than the now-iconic second season finale which features Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek”.
I could probably write an entire article just on that second season finale and the ramifications it had on both television, music, and even the modern comedy landscape. But I’ll touch on the importance of the moment as best I can here. The second season finale begins with a funeral, where we hear the first part of the “Hide and Seek” track, but it ends before we hear the familiar strains of “Mmm Whatcha Say”. That is saved for the closing moments of the episode, where the use of the song at the funeral serves as a perfect parallel to the deadly shooting that concludes the episode and season. The gunshot rings out and suddenly, after being left hanging for an entire episode, “Hide and Seek” kicks back in like a punch to the heart. “Mmm Whatcha Say” indeed.
This moment would become one of the most well known and iconic moments of the series as a whole. This moment would even unexpectedly go on to launch The Lonely Island to comedy stardom. Many of you have probably seen the SNL digital short “Dear Sister” which parodies this scene and uses the “Hide and Seek” song as well. Before making this short, Andy Samberg would, as part of Lonely Island, make a web series parody of The O.C. called The Bu. This would get him noticed and hired to SNL, where he would go on to appear in “Dear Sister”. It has been argued that “Dear Sister” was, in fact, the origin of modern comedy and Gen-Z humour. The strange, wonderful, and bizarre TikTok comedy you see of today likely had its roots in the “Dear Sister” short, but that is a topic for another article.
To put it lightly, The O.C. was far more than just a sappy teen drama. It was that, but it was also unexpectedly ground-breaking. It lead a far-reaching movement of empowering geek culture and bringing it to the forefront. It revolutionised the marketing and presentation of music through television and popularised the indie genre. Furthermore, it may have indirectly shaped the very face of modern comedy. But more so than all of that, it’s just a great show that, even nearing twenty years since its debut episode, is every bit as relevant as it was then. The O.C. was a truly monumental television series and one that’s impact has endured the test of time.