It looked like a standard teen soap on the outside, but once you scratched the surface of the glittery, sun-dappled Fox drama The O.C., you'd find underneath a number of surprisingly well-developed characters, fun plots that played around with their soap conventions, and some of the wittiest dialogue this side of an Aaron Sorkin show. The setup was pure high concept: hunky, brooding Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie) was a good kid from Chino starting to go bad, and thanks to the interference of his lawyer, Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), finds himself whisked away from the wrong side of the tracks to the mansions and manicured lawns of Orange County. Soon, Ryan finds himself living in the Cohens' pool house, involved with troubled rich girl Marissa (Mischa Barton), and bristling against the societal confines of his new home, as the people may be richer but they're just as screwed up as anyone else. Still, somehow, he manages to bring out the humanity of the superficial people around him, and they become all the better for knowing him.
Okay, enough with the Beverly Hills, 90210 scenario--what The O.C. turned out to be was the most addictive TV soap in recent memory, and one with a brain to boot. Smarter than Melrose Place, sexier than 90210, funnier than Felicity, and not as enamored of itself as Dawson's Creek, The O.C. reveled in clever and hilarious dialogue (the pilot episode earned a WGA nomination) and quirky, eccentric characters. Most noteworthy was breakout star Adam Brody, who as Ryan's geeky newfangled brother-type Seth practically stole the teen heartthrob mantle away from Russell Crowe-lookalike McKenzie. Barton was a bit of a blank as the troubled Marissa, but her best pal, the blissfully superficial Summer, was played by Rachel Bilson as the perfect supporting character in a dizzy farce. And the adults, especially Gallagher and Kelly Rowan as the supportive Cohens, grounded the other half of the show in you know, like, maturity. Not that The O.C. ever forgot the fun that was to be had in TV-land, as most every other episode ended with a fistfight or someone falling into a pool--sometimes both. Here was a soap you could purely enjoy without guilt. --Mark EnglehartThe O.C.: The Complete Second Season
The drama was poured on aplenty in the second season of The O.C., as the sun-dappled denizens of Orange County found their lives massively upended and then some. At the end of the first season, the Cohen household had been reduced to two--parents Sandy and Kirsten (Peter Gallagher and Kelly Rowan)--as the boys had flown the coop, moody Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie) back to Chino and goofy Seth (Adam Brody) for the wide expanse of the Pacific (somehow ending up in Portland, Oregon). Once the prodigal sons returned home, thanks to a lot of persuading, both tried to mend relationships with their former girlfriends, Marissa (Mischa Barton) and Summer (Rachel Bilson). While friendships were solidified, everyone was dating someone else: Seth was with sultry club manager Alex (Olivia Wilde), Summer with sensitive polo jock Zach (Michael Cassidy), Ryan with smart girl Lindsay (Shannon Lucio), and Marissa with her family's pool guy and a bottle of vodka.
That's just the first half of this year of The O.C., and we haven't even gotten to the adults yet. Both Sandy and Kirsten found themselves tempted away by more-than-willing suitors, and wicked Julie (Melinda Clarke), Marissa's mom, cheated on new husband Caleb (Alan Dale) with ex-husband Jimmy (Tate Donovan). An extremely tangled web was woven, one from which the show almost didn't recover: the Lindsay storyline started out strong but went nowhere, Sandy's ex-girlfriend (Kim Delaney) was a bit of a bore, and the same-sex relationship between Marissa and Alex never really gelled. All seemed like sure-fire character additions, but it was the later peripheral characters, including Billy Campbell as a magazine editor smitten with Kirsten and the menacing yet sexy Logan Marshall-Green as Ryan's ex-con brother, who injected The O.C. with energy, and helped steer the show back on course. Brody, who became the show's de facto poster boy, got to show off his comedic talents with the wonderful Bilson (who rode the Zach-Seth-Summer romantic triangle most smoothly), and the heretofore sullen McKenzie got to lighten up quite a bit, until the show's violent yet effective season finale.
Forsaking a good amount of its comedy for drama, The O.C. got a little too seriously soapy, but its characters were so compelling you couldn't stop watching--even waiflike Marissa grew some edges. Clarke's scheming Julie was a constant pleasure to watch, and Rowan turned Kirsten's late-season downturn into a steely yet heartfelt portrayal. Despite the bumps, The O.C. remained one of the most exciting shows to look forward to week after week, a soap with smarts thanks to its fresh dialogue, gifted cast, and careening plot arcs. --Mark EnglehartThe O.C.: The Complete Third Season
Welcome to the dark side. At the end of The O.C.'s second season, Marissa (Mischa Barton) shoots the troubled Trey to stop him from strangling his brother, Ryan (Ben McKenzie). She saves her boyfriend's life, but it leads to her expulsion from Harbor High--just as she was to begin her senior year. Meanwhile, Ryan's guardian, Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), is doing time in rehab. It won't be easy for her to stay dry with two-faced resident Charlotte (Jeri Ryan, Shark) making every attempt to take advantage of her vulnerability. Ever the hothead, Ryan recovers in time to punch out the mean new dean (Eric Mabius, Ugly Betty), who expels him next. So, Kirsten's husband, Sandy (Peter Gallagher), hires a tutor, while Marissa attends public school where she falls in with the surfing crowd, including the besotted Johnny (Ryan Donowho). Arguably, Marissa's newly widowed mother, Julie (Melinda Clarke), is hit hardest when she finds that husband Caleb (Kirsten's father) didn't leave behind as much money as expected. Then the mansion is repossessed, and wild child Kaitlin (Willa Holland) returns from boarding school. And that's just the beginning of Julie's woes.
By the finale, two of these people will be gone forever, but it wouldn't be The O.C. if there weren't some bright spots along the way. College-bound couple Seth (Adam Brody) and Summer (Rachel Bilson) are still full of quips, the Tracy Flick-like Taylor (Autumn Reeser), who plays a bigger role in the next season, is a welcome addition, and the soundtrack is jam-packed with material from the likes of MIA, Gang of Four, Sufjan Stevens, Lady Sovereign, and the Subways, who appear in "The Anger Management." Sadly, this would be the last full season of The O.C. as only 16 episodes were produced for the fourth and final year. --Kathleen C. Fennessy
The O.C.: The Complete Fourth SeasonHigh school is over. Time to move on. But events conspire to reunite Ryan, Seth and Summer in posh, seaside Newport. And there may even be a new Core Four. Because after Taylor Townsend says a quick if not passionate au revoir to her education in France, she just might pursue Ryan until he catches her. Time, too, for the series to move on with these 16 Final Episodes. Seth marries Summer? (Maybe.) Ryan goes through life like it's a steel-cage brawl? (Sometimes.) Kaitlin tries to hook up her mom Julie with a billionaire? (Well, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.) But things happen, sometimes quite unexpectedly. Time to hit the beach for all the surprising events of a cool, compelling and revealing conclusion of The O.C.