Remembering ‘The O.C.’: Creator Josh Schwartz on the Show’s 10th Anniversary
Welcome to the O.C., bitch.
Ten years ago, those five words signaled the arrival of pop-culture phenomenon The O.C.—a drama on Fox that followed a group of teens and their parents in the bourgeois Newport Beach community in Orange County, California.
Its protagonist is Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie), an at-risk youth from the other side of the tracks who’s adopted by Sandy (Peter Gallagher) and Kirsten Cohen (Kelly Rowan), as well as their nerdy son, Seth (Adam Brody). The series tracked Ryan and Seth’s relationships with a variety of characters, including fragile girl-next-door Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton), and Seth’s longtime crush—and eventual squeeze—Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson), as well as the progressive Cohen family’s clashes with the conservative, superficial community-at-large.
Created by Josh Schwartz, the show premiered on August 5, 2003, and lasted for four seasons before ending on February 22, 2007. It was fresh and Zeitgeist-y, featuring a revolving door of then-up-and-coming indie rock acts—including Death Cab for Cutie, The Walkmen, and The Killers—and meta-narratives. It also spawned several reality show knockoffs, including MTV’s Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County and Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Orange County.
In honor of the show’s 10th anniversary, The Daily Beast spoke with creator Josh Schwartz about the making of the show, who was almost cast in the lead roles, the most controversial storylines, and more.
Where did the idea for The O.C. come from?
Initially, it was born out of a general meeting that I had with Stephanie Savage, who at the time was working at Wonderland—McG’s company. And I had gone to USC as a Jewish kid from the east coast, and felt very much like a stranger in a strange land when I got there. I had never heard of water polo and didn’t realize that was an actual sport, and I didn’t understand why all the girls at the school only wanted to date those guys. I felt very much like an outsider, and it was always interesting because you’d go to a football game in the daylight and it was always hard to tell who was the mom and who was the daughter, and everybody was very preppy, well-dressed, and it was a Republican stronghold for a long time. Then, when the sun went down, the kids were living a very different lifestyle than what they were presenting. I wanted to do a show where you felt like you were being brought inside the new money and new royalty of America.
Were there other series’ that you looked at as a model for the show?
I was a huge fan of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. I didn’t watch a lot of—ironically—teen dramas, and when we sold the show to Fox, they hadn’t done a show like this since 90210, and so very early on it was always, “If Ryan is our Luke Perry, who’s our Jason Priestley? It couldn’t possibly be the comic book-loving nerd?” Once we cast Adam [Brody], they felt like he was cute for the girls, and we could make it work. Adam wasn’t even on the original poster for the show.
And you hated Adam’s first audition.
When he first came in to audition, it was pilot season and he was going on dozens of auditions, and he didn’t really bother to learn the lines, so he just came in and I was like, “What scene is he doing? Is this even from our show?” We tried to find other actors, and our casting director, Patrick Rush, told me, “I’m telling you, this Adam Brody is very special.” And I thought, “That guy? I kind of hated that guy. He didn’t even learn any of the words!” But he came back, learned the words, and he was great.
What question do you get asked the most about The O.C.?
I think the question I get asked the most is, “Why did you kill Marissa?”
So why did you?
It’s a complicated, multifaceted question. It had as much to do with creatively feeling like this was always in the cards for this character and she was an inherently tragic heroine, and part of the Ryan/Marissa story was him trying to save her from a fate that she couldn’t be rescued from, and part of it had to do with pressure from the network in terms of ratings, and what we could do for the show’s fourth season. For a lot of critics, that character was a source of frustration. For a lot of audience members, that was their favorite character.
Was it also because Mischa Barton wanted off the show?
Mischa didn’t want off the show anymore than any of the other kids wanted off the show. [Laughs] It was a complicated chemistry with the cast … But she certainly wasn’t actively seeking to leave the show.
I love stories about the actors who almost played memorable characters.
There wasn’t anyone else who almost played Seth. And Peter Gallagher was the first person we cast, because we wanted to make it very clear that the adults were going to be just as important in this world as the kids, and needed a terrific actor with a great reputation and star power, and signaled to the adult viewers that this was a show for them as much as the kids. The two finalists for the Marissa role were Mischa Barton and Olivia Wilde. Olivia had just moved to L.A. and she was terrific, but she has such a strong persona that she didn’t need rescuing. Chad Michael Murray read for Ryan, and Garrett Hedlund was going to go in and test for Ryan, but then he got Troy. So we were like, “Shit, where are we going to find Ryan?” And Ben [McKenzie] had just read for like the fifth lead on a UPN show, but they told us to check him out.
Obviously, the big moment on the premiere is the line, “Welcome to the O.C., bitch.” Where did that come from?
I’m very inspired by ’80s movies, and there’s a Karate Kid element to that sequence. And I always thought it was funny when you’d ask kids where they were from and they’d say, “I’m from The O.C.,” as if it was the LBC or something. So, to have this Abercrombie model drop that line on him as if he was entering some really gritty neighborhood felt funny. And I also wanted to get the words “The O.C.” into the pilot somewhere.
Did you guys invent the term “Chrismukkah?”
I think the show can take credit for it. It really did take off in a way that none of us expected. We failed to capitalize commercially on it as much as we should have. We really blew it.
Aside from Marissa’s death, what was the toughest scene or plot point to tackle?
I had never done this before so there was a steep learning curve for me, personally, and it’s probably apparent in some of the more uneven stretches of the show. We did 27 episodes in the first season, and part of the fun of it was we didn’t know what we were doing, and were just blowing through so much fun story and characters were morphing and changing. All Summer said was, “I need to pee” in the pilot and was just supposed to be just a guest star, and then she became a series regular by the seventh episode. By the end of the first season, we had really closed the circle of storytelling and deconstructed the show in a very meta way, but then we realized the show was coming back for a second season, so we had to learn how to evolve the storytelling and not necessarily plow through story points so fast.
Any particular story points that you guys tortured yourself over?
In Season Four, we knew it was going to be the last season of the show, and there had been criticism in Season Three that the show had become a little bit of what it used to send up, and that we had overcooked the storylines. We wanted to get back to the offbeat humor of the first couple of seasons, so that’s why Chris Pratt’s character was brought on and created for him. And, in a season where we want to bring the offbeat humor back, how to honor Marissa’s death without it overwhelming the show.
One thing The O.C. started is all the copycat shows, from The Real Housewives of Orange County to Laguna Beach.
Laguna Beach made me very nervous, because it was like, “Oh crap, this is the real version.” It’s very hard to do the fake version when the real version is out there, and part of the joke with Stephanie Savage and me is the name of our company is Fake Empire, and we do the fake versions of these shows, and then the reality versions come out. But I ran into Marc Cherry at a WGA event recently and he was saying how there weren’t any nighttime soaps on when The O.C. came on, so it really made ABC and him feel like they could put a show like Desperate Housewives on the air. And when they did, it kicked our butt in the ratings.
Were you a fan of Laguna Beach?
You know, for what it was trying to do, I thought it did it very well. I tuned in. And anything that gave birth to Heidi Montag … how bad could it be?
We all know that Rachel and Adam were dating, but were a lot of cast members sleeping together on the set of The O.C.?
Not to my knowledge. Adam and Rachel were obviously very public and kind of dated the entire run of the show, so that was the principal relationship going on. I don’t have more salacious details, unfortunately!
The role of music was huge on the show, and lots of bands got a huge bump performing on it.
Death Cab for Cutie is the band that most immediately gets connected to the show, probably not always to that band’s liking. That really just came out of Adam and his buddies being big fans of Death Cab and turning me on to them. A lot of the music was indie rock, and at that time, there weren’t a lot of places to hear that kind of music. It was pre-iTunes and pre–satellite radio, so this was kind of the only place you could hear that kind of music. By the end of Season One, we got a call that the Beastie Boys wanted to premiere a new song on the show, and Beck wanted to premiere five new songs on the show. And I got invited to Capitol Records to listen to the new Coldplay record X&Y and then was offered to pick any song to premiere on the show. The song we picked was “Fix You.” Soon, all these bands we could never afford were coming to us.
Were there any bands that you really tried to get that turned you down?
Arcade Fire turned us down. Usually, if somebody turns you down you’re like, “I hate them,” but there was no hating Arcade Fire no matter how they treated us.
What was the biggest behind-the-scenes drama during filming?
When we started off the show all the kids were unknowns, and they very quickly became famous. We were shooting a scene during Season One on a golf course, and all these kids jumped out of a bush dressed like Seth Cohen and ambushed Adam. And there were all these kids who were like, “I’m Seth! That’s me! People call me Seth in school.” And I think Adam was like, Oh my God, we’ve inadvertently given voice to a whole strain of teenager who, by the time they get to college, will be fine, but in high school it will just be brutal for them.
Did the fame get to the young actors’ heads?
For a few of them, I think they had mixed feelings about their fame emanating from a teen drama on Fox. It wasn’t how they sort of imagined their careers going, so that was challenging for sure. There was a lot of studying of how Johnny Depp got fired off of 21 Jump Street.
What’s your take on the show’s legacy?
For me, the fact that people still want to talk about the show or tweet about the show is great. People still remember the show fondly all around the world. One of the great things about making a show for a younger audience is that the things you love in your teens or early 20s you’ll always love.