Out of Touch on ‘The OC’

Out of Touch on ‘The OC’

What makes Fox’s The OC so addictive is its California-kissed story lines and appealing characters. But what is it about women the show doesn’t understand?


After a long, hot summer of sad Thursday nights, Fox’s popular television series The OC has returned. It’s about time.

For those who still haven’t tuned in, the show revolves around a group of teenagers and their families in sparkly, sunny Orange County, California. The action centers on the Cohen family–Sandy (Peter Gallagher), Kirsten (Kelly Rowan) and their son Seth (Adam Brody), who is described on the show’s official site as “an existential hero in the spirit of Holden Caulfield.” In episode one, they took misfit Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie) into their gorgeous mansion and set him up in their gargantuan pool house. Shootings, overdoses, book deals, fisticuffs–and, of course, plenty of teen romance–provide the drama for these rebels-with-many-causes; savvy, self-conscious dialogue and a finely tuned soundtrack make it into something more than just another nighttime soap opera. But the season premiere showed, once again, that all things are not equal in TV land.

When The OC debuted in 2003, creator Josh Schwartz crowed that this would be a show that focused on the relationships of adults as much as on the relationships of teenagers. For its first year, Kirsten and Sandy’s marriage functioned as a model relationship. Last season, when they began to have problems, super-bitch Julie Cooper Nichol (brilliantly played by Melinda Clarke) told Kirsten that she wouldn’t know what to do if the two of them split. “You and Sandy are, like, the moral center of the universe,” she declared, and many viewers–this one included–nodded in assent. Who wouldn’t want to be one-half of Sandy and Kirsten?

It’s really a question of which half. Sandy is a big-hearted former public defender and a model dad. Virginia Heffernan, in a 2003 article for Slate, hailed him as “what’s best about The OC.”) Bushy-browed, bagel-buying Sandy is the glue that holds the Cohens together. He cracks the jokes. He sees through the hypocrisy. When he goes in for a hug, the music swells.

Not much happens when Kirsten goes in for a hug. Come to think of it, it doesn’t seem like Kirsten does that much hugging. When she isn’t fighting with her dad (he died at the end of season two) or working late at the office, she’s… well, it’s not really clear what she’s doing.

We know plenty about Sandy: He likes to surf, he loves Steve McQueen, he has a knack for performing corny love songs. We know about his serious college sweetheart and their radical politics. Yet all we know about Kirsten is that she’s a mom, and that she’s not so good at it: She can’t cook (they order takeout on Thanksgiving); she doesn’t clean; and when she’s not not-cooking or not-cleaning, she’s drinking. She chugged margaritas at Thanksgiving, took a wine tour with a co-worker and downed vodka at her dad’s funeral.

Sandy is the problem solver, the go-to guy, the one who pounds his fist on the table and demands that someone else “do the right thing.” On last week’s episode, when Ryan was falsely accused of a shooting, Seth looked at him and said, “You’re gonna fix this, right, Dad?” On the other side of town, Kirsten was in rehab, blaming herself for making a mess out of everything.

But it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that she can’t do anything right. On The OC, none of the women can get it together. They’re feisty and quick with the comebacks, but they don’t seem to be very good at anything. Last week’s episode provided even more confirmation of what’s been there all along.

Just look at Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton). Last season’s cliffhanger ended with the angsty teen trying to solve one of her boyfriend Ryan’s problems–this time, his brother was beating him to death. So she shot him to save Ryan’s life. Deep, dark, noncommunicative Ryan couldn’t find the words to say thank you. Instead of feeling like a hero, she was made to feel like a criminal. And Marissa’s best friend, Summer (Rachel Bilson), hasn’t fared much better over the years: When she showed an outrageous amount of maturity and dumped Seth for treating her badly, she was humiliated by her new boyfriend’s family for not being up on world affairs. (To catch up, she bought a stack of magazines, including The Nation.) If last week is any guide, season three promises lots more of Marissa desperately trying–and failing–to keep Ryan out of trouble, and Summer being the good girl who keeps everybody’s spirits up. Not the broadest of opportunities.

Now the show has dumped Kirsten in rehab, after her shockingly quick descent into alcoholism last season. It seems like a quick fix, a desperate attempt to give an underwritten character some depth (but at least she’s on the show–all we know about Summer’s never-seen-mom is that she pops pain-killers like candy). Kirsten admitted that the root cause of her drinking was her never-ending attempts to please her controlling father, the fact that she was “living his life” but not her own. Now, this is a fine excuse for a drinking problem, but it’s also a cover for bad writing. “I was never a good enough wife, or mom, because I wasn’t a good enough daughter,” she explained in group therapy. What she was was an underdeveloped daughter.

Television damages its characters to give them depth–it’s more interesting than watching them succeed. But the women of Orange County take more than their share of the dirt, and they don’t have the satisfaction–like Sandy and Ryan–of handling it. They’re sassy and well dressed and confident in that “post-feminist” way, but they’re miserably incompetent. The only genuinely strong women–annoying but quick-witted Anna and Alex, who was emancipated from her parents and living on her own–have been written off the show.

The OC‘s snappy dialogue and weepy emo bands are what make it so addictive for people in their 20s. But a show as smart and self-conscious as this one should know better. Maybe someday the writers will let the women get a thing or two right. That would be really smart.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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