It's so over for The OC: Orange County loses TV appeal

As soon as it appeared in 2003, it proved an unlikely success, touching a cultural nerve and capturing the world of suburban teenagers. This series, though, is its last
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Not so long ago, the idea of a hip, hit television show set in California's Orange County would have struck one and all as completely ridiculous. From the time it sprung its first suburban roots, south of the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, all the way through to the end of the Cold War, the county was a synonym for white suburban blandness, full of corpulent, middle-aged aerospace engineers and their quietly dysfunctional families.

Its affluent hilltop homes were the very definition of anonymity, with one house after another following the same floor plan, the same look, and sporting the same two-car garage. The orange groves that once gave the county its name were torn up as property developers delivered one great jackhammer gash after another, leaving the landscape littered with residential subdivisions, six-lane roads and shopping malls. The only compelling reason for tourists to come was Disneyland, which was by its own definition a fantasy environment designed to make visitors forget they were anywhere at all.

Orange County was not only conservative, as so many American white suburbs tend to be, but came to be regarded as downright reactionary. Its figurehead was the incendiary congressman, Bob Dornan, who made no secret of hating lesbians and Mexicans and was a Cold Warrior so hawkish that he earned the nickname B-1 Bob.

That, though, was then. The 1990s saw Orange County become denser, more varied and subject to all manner of more recognisably urban blights, from political corruption to gang warfare to endemic pockets of poverty. Bob Dornan got his electoral comeuppance from a Mexican American challenger who also - shock horror - happened to be a Democrat.

And then came The OC. From the moment the show first aired in the United States in late 2003, it struck a rare cultural nerve, capturing something essential about the strange, confusing, funny world of suburban teenagers, along with their deeply flawed parents, struggling with everything from booze, pills and sexual attraction to the banalities of filling out college applications. Most strikingly of all, it made Orange County trendy - this decade's epitome of desirability, just as the 90210 postcode in Beverly Hills was in the 1990s. "It's nothing like where you live," went the show's teaser. "And nothing like what you imagine."

The joke, for those savvy enough to get it, was that the show's precocious 26-year-old creator, Josh Schwartz, was not from Orange County at all but was rather the product of elite schools in his native Rhode Island. He based the show on his own experiences of adolescence.

The further joke, for those in the showbiz world, was that The OC was not even made in Orange County - largely at the insistence of the television industry unions who didn't want their crew members to have to commute too far from their homes in Los Angeles. LA's Manhattan Beach stood in for Newport Beach, the affluent yachting town where the show is set, keeping the entire affair well north of what Angelenos dismissively like to call the Orange Curtain.

No matter. This is Hollywood, where image is all and reality only a trivial consideration. (Frasier, which contributed to Seattle's reputation as the quintessential 1990s American city, was also shot in LA). More importantly, The OC was all about creating its own cultural reality. Its characters talked about obscure bands such as Bright Eyes and Death Cab For Cutie, and then those bands piggybacked on the show's success to find a mass audience of their own. The show, in fact, generated no fewer than six CDs of songs used on its soundtrack and became the key talking point among teens and college students seeking out their own definitions of cool.

Much as Valley Girl-speak defined the 1980s - thanks in large part to Moon Zappa's tongue-in-cheek song full of "likes" and "ohmigods" and "gag me with a spoon" - The OC tried something similar with modern teen-speak. Its white suburbanites borrowed heavily from gangsta rap in their liberal use of words like "bitch". But the show was never less than acutely self-aware, offering up self-referential ironies by the truckload. In one episode, a newcomer character called Rebecca reacts to an older man using the phrase "salt your game". "Is that how they talk in Orange County?" She asks. "Stick around," comes the answer. "You'll be saying 'rad' in no time." The OC made constant postmodern jabs at its principal characters, too. Seth, one of the protagonists played by Adam Brody, throws in cultural references to the cult horror film, The Ring, in which Brody himself appeared. Another key character, Marissa, is discussed at one point vomiting "like that girl from The Sixth Sense". The actress who played Marissa, Mischa Barton, also played that very girl from The Sixth Sense. The writers paid close attention to the show's fan websites. When bloggers started commenting on the resemblance between Benjamin McKenzie, who plays the lead character Ryan, and Russell Crowe, they popped a handful of references to it in their next few scripts.

The humour extended to guest stars, too: on one occasion Paris Hilton, America's party girl supreme, turned up on the show and surprised everyone by discussing her passion for Thomas Pynchon novels, especially the notoriously dense, borderline unreadable Gravity's Rainbow.

Anyone who has seen the show on Channel 4 knows the basic set-up. Ryan, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks in the faraway inland town of Chino, is offered a new home and a fresh start by the Cohen family of Newport Beach. Sandy, the father, is a public interest lawyer, and Kirsten, the mother, is the socialite heiress to a prosperous local business. Seth is their son who befriends Ryan and gives him his intro into Newport Beach's social scene, which is all pleasantly off-kilter while steering just clear of the usual suburban cliches about bored housewives, drugs and plastic surgery.

There's a good argument to be made that the reason the show became a hit had nothing to do with Orange County but everything to do with the fact that its early episodes were exceptionally well scripted and acted. Conflict abounded in the basic mix of characters: Ryan's arrival sets the cat among the pigeons and pits Sandy's generous nature against his wife's more cautious impulse to self-protection. Ryan and Seth's friendship, meanwhile, is forever being tested by competition over their less-than-successful romantic aspirations.

The OC had some heavy hitters behind it from the start. Among the show's producers were Doug Liman, the director of such witty and hip youth-culture films as Swingers and Go, and McG, the video specialist who also directed the recent Charlie's Angels films (and is, as it happens, an Orange County native - at least someone was).

At the same time, the Orange County connection was never completely frivolous. These are conservative times - or at least they have been for the past few years - making the notion of suburban hipness more seductive than might at first seem plausible. A decade ago, it was the spoilt liberal city-dwellers of Beverly Hills 90210 who fuelled the nation's teenage imaginations; now it's suburbanites in shopping malls and yachting harbours. The year before The OC made its debut, Hollywood put out a film called Orange County, whose plotline focused on a teenager's desire to get the hell out of his suburban surroundings by any means possible. The movie was not a commercial success. The OC, by contrast, made the suburbs desirable and trendy and became an immediate popular smash.

Or at least it did for its first couple of seasons. Nobody referred to Orange County as "the OC" until the show came along; now everybody does, even elected county officials in Orange County itself, where tourism has boomed and just about everyone is thrilled to have been put on the pop-cultural map.

One county official suggested, not so long ago, that John Wayne airport, near the Irvine university campus, should be renamed "The OC airport" - a suggestion that did not go down well with local fans of Duke Wayne, who once kept a yacht in Newport harbour.

At the show's high-water mark, some time in 2004, the entire cast and production team were given the keys to the city of Newport Beach. As is perhaps fitting, though, for a show about teenagers and their notoriously short attention spans, the writers found it hard to keep up the momentum and the quality took a dive, especially as the third season got under way in the autumn of 2005.

As the San Francisco Chronicle's television critic, Tim Goodman, memorably put it sometime thereafter: "Few series have flashed brilliance then squandered it so fast, yet lived to tell another ridiculous tale." With ratings plummeting, the producers put out the word that they were going to kill off one of the main characters at the end of the third season, which they duly did. (Their unlucky choice was Marissa, who died in a car crash on her way to the airport. That'll teach anyone to try to leave Orange County.) The ratings did not improve. Fox, which puts out the programme in the United States, tried juggling airtimes, but that did not help either.

Since the start of the fifth season a few weeks ago, it has been clear the show is on its last legs. A Fox-sponsored website called "Save The OC" was a last-ditch attempt to stave off the inevitable, but that too was unsuccessful. The last episode will air in the States next month.

The fascination with California's affluent suburbs is set to outlive the show itself after the studio ended OC's run this week. But the children of OC will keep hitting the airwaves. A reality show called Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County moves proceedings a few miles down the coast to another affluent resort town and tries to milk the same material, to considerably less effect. Meanwhile, a new show called The Real Housewives of Orange County promises a no-holds-barred look into the world of six-car garages, botox, trophy diamonds and divorce lawyers. It delivers, sort of. Welcome to the new America.