I have no problem admitting that The O.C. is one of my absolute favorite pilot episodes and one that I think is nearly flawless. It sets up the backstory quickly: Ryan Atwood is a smart but troubled kid who gets thrown in juvenile hall after he helps his brother (later recast, thank god) steal a car. He’s rescued by public defender Sandy Cohen: Father of the Century who takes him in to live with his super rich family in super rich Orange County. It’s a familiar fish-out-of-water scenario (I still maintain that The O.C. is nothing more than the white version of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, right down to the nerdy brother figure and earworm theme song) but Schwartz has some new tricks. The characters are mostly well-developed within the first hour, though Ryan Atwood plays up the James Dean affectations more than usual (the cold open conversation is a little odd) and the Marissa/Summer friendship isn’t strong. But Summer wasn’t even a regular when the season started which is a goddamn shame because Rachel Bilson is the cutest thing to ever be on television.
What I love about The O.C. is that it moves quickly but rarely feels rushed. Not only do we get the central plot, but we also get Seth’s crush, his plan to sail away to Tahiti, and the high school war between the popular water polo bros and the nerdy outsiders. There’s an introduction to Marissa’s budding alcoholism, her father’s financial troubles, and her mother’s general awfulness. We learn about Luke’s cheating habits, Ryan’s life in Chino, and Sandy’s similiar past but it’s never too much to take in.
But since we’re tackling the episodes twice (once by a first-time viewer and once by an admitted obsessive — I found myself mouthing along with half of the episode as I watched) let’s skip the exposition and get down to the ridiculous stuff. The O.C. drinking game is a success, although we should probably add “Cohens eat breakfast” to the official list. Within the first ten minutes of the pilot, we have one character drinking, three punches thrown (AJ punches Ryan twice, Ryan punches a payphone thrice), the world “California” is said (or rather sung) 8 times, and there are lens flares and great side-eye. Seriously, dude gives great side-eye. Extra drinking game rules specific for this episode: drink whenever a character is seen through a car window, whenever the Chino scenes are shot handheld to make it seem “gritty” or whatever, and when Ryan angrily rides away from a broken home on the world’s tiniest bike.
Like the majority of girls who were between the ages of 13-17 in 2003, I had an obsessive crush on Seth Cohen. I spent most of high school daydreaming about the day Seth would save me from a life of suburban boredom where we could be gleefully weird together, talk about how we were the only two people in the world who loved Bright Eyes (everyone loved Bright Eyes), bond over our mutual hatred for jocks (I went to an all-girls Catholic school; there were no jocks), read comic books together in bed (I’d read Archie, he’d read Spider-Man or whatever), and leave each other post-it notes on the fridge that said “I need you so much closer.” But! Every time I rewatch this show, I learn to love Ryan more and more. Of course, it’s still a childish love because look at him brood and punch people and totally pull off that black-eye! Those wifebeaters! Your inability to tie a tie! I want to save you! One small detail I love about Ran is that he only smokes in the pilot episode. Twice, to be exact, once as a way to meet Marissa and once as a way to further their relationship (mostly him as caretaker). Despite being the resident badass of the show, he’s the only main character who doesn’t do drugs or gets smashed at every party (he does order a 7&7 because he’s a 35-year-old teenager and later drinks at the beach party, but only in the pilot!) which you can chalk up to a) he probably got this all out of his system in the mean streets of Chino or b) his parents’ history of addiction — which also explains his attraction to train wreck Marissa because come on, this show is all about mommy and daddy issues.
But the best scene is obviously THE PARTY which has basically everything this show is about. Cocaine, stoners on the couch, the largest collection of plastic party cups, Marissa pounding hard liquor, a threesome, tramp stamps and tribal tattoos, water polo dudes calling Seth a geek before kicking his ass, a fist fight on the beach, Ryan having Seth’s back because, and I will yell about this until the end of time, the friendship between Ryan and Seth is the most important thing about The O.C. The scene also has the three most famous lines from the pilot:
- Seth’s bumbling “I should really learn to knock in case there’s a threesome going on in the bathroom.”
- Ryan’s super sly “I think I could get in less trouble where I’m from.”
- Luke’s often parodied “Welcome to The O.C., bitch!”
Admission: I had to pick and choose my battles with the drinking game because, within about five minutes, there are at least 33 drinks. There’s even the bonus of Newport, O.C., and Chino all said! Hey, did you guys know this show takes place in California? Did you get that from the theme song? And every line of dialogue ever?
The unsung hero of The O.C. pilot is the guy at the party with all the condoms.
One of my other favorite scenes is when Summer, who is apparently Marissa’s best friend, just leaves Marissa drunk and passed out cold on the sidewalk in front of her house. She throws Marissa’s purse at her and runs away and doesn’t even turn Marissa on her side or anything. Marissa could’ve choked on vomit and died! Which actually could’ve been a good thing because the less Marissa, the better. Never mind. Carry on, Summer.
The last act of the pilot has Ryan taking care of Marissa, of course, because that’s what this entire season is about. It’s a shame that Marissa (and, to an extent, Mischa Barton) is so awful because this whole thing is centered around us rooting for them to work out. There’s some other great stuff like Ryan making breakfast for the Cohens just as they’re (see: Kirsten) kicking him out — p.s. this family loves breakfast almost as much as Walt Jr. does, the glimpse into Seth’s room (please take note of the revolving posters on his wall throughout the season), the incredibly well done goodbye between Seth and Ryan, the stupid setup of the lens flarey Marissa, and, finally, Ryan realizing that his mother straight up abandoned him so now he gets to go back to the Cohens! Because Sandy Cohen is THE BEST. Surely, he will simply hang out in the pool house, live a quiet life until he goes to college, and never get in any trouble again!
- Best musical moment: a tie between “Swing, Swing” by The All-American Rejects which was everywhere in 2003 and “Honey and the Moon” by Joseph Arthur which apparently Josh Schwartz says helped him write the pilot because of course it did.
- A+ Seth Cohen moment: His awkward suggestion that Ryan and him play Grand Theft Auto where you “can steal cars … not that that’s cool. Or uncool. I don’t know.”
- Marissa Cooper self-destruction count: champagne, a stolen bottle of vodka, and Ryan’s cup of beer.